Big Ten: Illinois Fighting Illini

Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:

Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley

Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.

Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.

Photo by Merle Laswell/Icon SportswireNebraska WR Stanley Morgan had 33 receptions for 453 yards and two TDs, including this score against Indiana.

Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.

The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.

Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.

Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor

The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.

He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern WR Flynn Nagel and Illinois DE James Crawford

I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?

Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.

Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports"I feel like I embrace it," said Jeff George Jr. of playing at Illinois, same as his father. "I understand I'm following in his footsteps, but at the same time I'm trying to make a name for myself and do my own thing."

If everything goes according to plan, Jeff George Jr. will be Illinois' third-string quarterback in the 2017 season.

But this spring, at least, George is getting as much work and focus under center as his famous father once did. Such is the current state of the Illini, who have only eight scholarship seniors and are razor thin on the depth chart because of some key injuries. As head coach Lovie Smith said last month, the team has only had enough personnel to field "two good units" this spring.

As drills start to wind down -- Illinois will hold an open workout on Saturday in lieu of a spring game and then hold three more practices next week -- the coaching staff is trying to make the most out of what's on hand.

"I see it as an opportunity instead of a setback," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "It's a very good opportunity to develop some depth and get a lot of young guys a lot of reps. Get them fundamentally sound."

The depth issues are readily apparent at quarterback, where George is the only scholarship player who is a full go. Smith has said that junior Chayce Crouch is his starter at the position, but Crouch is doing only limited work while recovering from shoulder surgery. In addition, Dwayne Lawson is expected to arrive this summer and compete for playing time. Lawson, who played for the junior college national champions, didn't sign in February because he needed to fulfill some academic requirements, but the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder is brimming with star potential.

"We're definitely going to have a lot of competition in fall camp," McGee said. "No doubt about that."

For now, though, it's pretty much George's show. And he has an opportunity to have a larger say in that competition.

"As a competitor, every time you're out on the field you want to show that you deserve to be out there and you deserve to play," George said. "I have that mindset every single rep I take."

The redshirt sophomore was pressed into four starts last year after the injuries to Wes Lunt and Crouch. His most memorable showing was a two-touchdown performance in a win against Michigan State. That came on Dads Day in Champaign as his father beamed in the stands.

Jeff George Sr. was a standout quarterback for the Illini in the late 1980s before being drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1990 draft and going on to a long NFL career. His son has followed his path, leading the same Indiana high school (Warren Central) to a state title and then choosing his dad's college alma mater.

The younger George says he had a football in his hand " before I can even remember. It's just something that's in our blood." He loves having his father around to talk about the game and doesn't mind the unavoidable comparisons.

"I feel like I embrace it," he said. "I understand I'm following in his footsteps, but at the same time I'm trying to make a name for myself and do my own thing. My dad had his time, and he did amazing things with his career. But for now I'm just focusing on me and bettering myself."

The genes are evident in George's rifle arm. Yet he completed just 40 percent of his passes last season and threw five interceptions with just four touchdowns. Some of that can certainly be blamed on inexperience and a beat-up team around him.

"At this point, he understands a lot more about our offense than he did a year ago, which is fair because we got here really late last year," McGee said. "You can tell he's been around the quarterback position a lot because there's not much that gets under his skin. He's able to dust things off really fast, and that's what you've got to have as a quarterback."

George may return to being a backup in a few weeks. Crouch doesn't have as strong an arm but is more dynamic in making plays outside of the pocket. Lawson's physical gifts may eclipse his need to learn the playbook.

But as the Illini found out last year, and can see again this spring, you can never have too much depth at quarterback.

The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.

It may be ridiculously early, but we’re examining what will be the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: Illinois Fighting Illini.

Must-win game: Oct. 14 versus Rutgers. Lovie Smith and company beat two Big Ten teams during their first season at Illinois -- Rutgers and Michigan State. The Spartans aren’t on the 2017 schedule, but a repeat performance against the Scarlet Knights would be a good way to keep the program from the bottom rung of the league. New quarterback Chayce Crouch should have time to settle in by the midway point of the season. If the Illini have any shot of breaking their two-year bowl drought, it will have to come with a win over Rutgers. If nothing else, a victory over the only team ranked below the Illini on our end-of-year power rankings would be a sign that Smith’s team isn’t moving in the wrong direction during his second season in charge.

Trap game: Sept. 9 versus Western Kentucky. Plenty will be made of a trip to South Florida in Week 3 to face Charlie Strong and the USF Bulls. But don’t overlook fellow first-year coach Mike Sanford and his Western Kentucky team the previous week. Sanford, a young and sought-after offensive mind, takes over a program that led the nation in points per game last fall. Illinois finished 94th overall in points allowed. The Illini’s nonconference schedule may not carry a huge punch as far as brand names go, but having to deal with those two teams before jumping into league play could create a rough year in Champaign.

We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.

The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.

Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.

Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:

Illinois

DT Chunky Clements

LB Hardy Nickerson

DE Carroll Phillips

DE Dawuane Smoot

Indiana

OG Dan Feeney

RB Devine Redding

Iowa

QB C.J. Beathard

DT Jaleel Johnson

DB Desmond King

TE George Kittle

Maryland

DB William Likely

Michigan

OG Ben Braden

TE Jake Butt

DE Taco Charlton

WR Jehu Chesson

DB Jeremy Clark

WR Amara Darboh

LB Ben Gedeon

DT Ryan Glasgow

S Delano Hill

CB Jourdan Lewis

S Jabrill Peppers

RB De'Veon Smith

CB Channing Stribling

DE Chris Wormley

Michigan State

LB Riley Bullough

DT Malik McDowell

S Montae Nicholson

Minnesota

QB Mitch Leidner

CB Jalen Myrick

S Damarius Travis

Nebraska

TE Cethan Carter

S Nate Gerry

Northwestern

DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Ohio State

WR Noah Brown

CB Gareon Conley

C Pat Elflein

S Malik Hooker

P Cameron Johnston

CB Marshon Lattimore

LB Raekwon McMillan

WR Curtis Samuel

Penn State

WR Chris Godwin

DE Garrett Sickels

Wisconsin

LB Vince Biegel

RB Corey Clement

RB Dare Ogunbowale

OT Ryan Ramczyk

CB Sojourn Shelton

LB T.J. Watt

Somebody had to be first. And it appears Lovie Smith just can’t wait to get his second season underway at Illinois.

In many ways, his first year was a scramble after being hired in March without getting the benefit of signing a recruiting class. And his late arrival also made the Illini the last to get on the practice field a year ago, with the first workout not kicking off until April.

But that obviously won’t be the case with Smith marking Valentine’s Day as the starting point for improving on the 3-9 record he posted in his return to college football. The Illini clearly have room to grow, and apparently Smith doesn’t want to waste any time getting to work.

Lovie SmithAndrew Weber/US PressiwireIllinois coach Lovie Smith is looking to improve a passing attack that averaged fewer than 175 yards per game last season.

Spring schedule: Starting on Tuesday afternoon, the Illini will be utilizing a compressed practice schedule that features four workouts in five days. Smith will use that Tuesday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday routine three times before wrapping up with a three-session week culminating on March 10. There will be an open practice, but the Illini won’t have a formal spring game.

What’s new: There has been some roster attrition after Smith’s first season, which isn’t uncommon in any coaching transition. Most notably, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt, though the Illini are in solid shape in the backfield and should be fine moving forward into spring practice. Smith did lose linebackers coach Tim McGarigle to a job with the Green Bay Packers, though there’s even an opportunity for Smith in that move as it allows him to potentially make a hire to help revamp a defense that ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten in points allowed last season.

Three things we want to see:

1. A healthy Mike Dudek: There probably won’t be many glimpses at the talented receiver during spring ball after two seasons sidelined by knee injuries, so seeing him carve up defensive backs again like he did during his breakout freshman campaign will have to wait. But there seems to be growing optimism about Dudek and his recovery, even though he’ll be limited for most of the month -- if not all of it.

“With Mike, it’s about slowing down instead of speeding up,” Smith told reporters last week. “So we’re going to take our time with him and take every precaution with him that we possibly can. You won’t see Mike out there an awful lot in spring ball, he won’t be practicing right away or anything like that.

“But we have a plan in place for him."

2. A step forward in the passing game: Again, the absence of Dudek complicates improving an aerial attack that threw for fewer than 175 yards per game last season. Though that’s much less of a concern than not having Chayce Crouch healthy enough to fully take part in practice this month and lead the offense at quarterback, particularly since Smith gave him an endorsement as the team’s starter heading into the year. Losing Wes Lunt and having Crouch limited by the shoulder surgery that ended his sophomore season isn’t ideal for the Illini, though at least Smith will have a chance to evaluate what else he has in reserve.

“Knowing Chayce, he will take a lot of mental reps,” Smith said. “But he’s not at the point where we can risk [full-team reps]. Hopefully before the end of spring he might be able to do a few things, but he won’t be around in any position where he could even get a bump early on.

“But Chayce missing a few reps isn’t all bad. Chayce is our quarterback, but we need to see what we have behind him as much as anything else.”

3. An emphasis on forcing turnovers: Smith has built his reputation on defense, and no team with Hardy Nickerson on the staff should ever have a problem getting toughness out of its roster. But the Illini finished the season with a negative turnover margin after forcing just 18, and they were pushed around at times with a rush defense that finished No. 12 in the league by allowing nearly 220 yards per game. Those numbers simply won’t cut it in a Big Ten that is getting more competitive every season and will once again have a handful of contenders to make the College Football Playoff. Smith has a chance to set the tone heading into his second season, and by starting spring ball so early, it’s clear he wants that message delivered early in hopes it will resonate throughout the offseason.

With the 2017 recruiting classes in the books and spring practice just around the corner, we're taking a look at how the Big Ten teams stack up at each position group.

Hey, it's still early February, so things can change a lot between now and Labor Day weekend. Who saw Trace McSorley as arguably the best Big Ten quarterback this time a year ago, after all? Or Austin Carr as the league's top receiver in 2016?

Young players and new faces will no doubt step in and surprise us. So we're basing a lot of this off returning experience. And since it's by position group, depth matters as well as star power.

Staying in the offensive backfield, next up in the series will be the running backs.

Saquon BarkleySean M. Haffey/Getty ImagesSaquon Barkley's playmaking ability and skills as a receiver make him one of the Big Ten's best running backs.

Best of the best: Penn State and Northwestern

The two most productive rushers in the league both will be back to torment would-be tacklers this season, giving both the Nittany Lions and Wildcats a strong chance of racking up yardage once again on the ground. And with both Saquon Barkley helping expand Penn State’s attack as a receiver and Northwestern not afraid to throw to Justin Jackson out of the backfield, neither team has to be all that deep at tailback since the stars are capable of handling just about anything that can be required at the position.

That’s not a knock on the talent on hand for either program because Northwestern has seen some potential in John Moten IV, and a youngster such as Miles Sanders or Andre Robinson at Penn State could emerge to spread around some of the workload. But Jackson’s ability to take a pounding and seemingly get stronger even deep into the season and Barkley’s incredible playmaking ability will keep them on the field as long as they’re healthy. And that’s enough to put Northwestern and Penn State on top of the preseason list for rushers.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Minnesota

After becoming just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 yards rushing, Mike Weber should be in line for even more carries and productivity with Curtis Samuel now off to the NFL. Even more encouraging for the Buckeyes? Weber has had time to heal from the shoulder injury that plagued him throughout his first season in the lineup, plus he stands to benefit from Kevin Wilson’s arrival to call plays and retool the Ohio State playbook. Demario McCall flashed some dynamic athleticism when given a chance to touch the football backing up Samuel at the H-back position, and the speedster could again give the Buckeyes a useful, versatile weapon to complement Weber.

Often overlooked last season, Rodney Smith still finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing and found the end zone 16 times on the ground. The Gophers also have no shortage of depth and will likely again get multiple tailbacks involved to take some of the burden off Smith’s talented shoulders as P.J. Fleck arrives to take over the program.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

Thanks to an explosive finish in the last two games, Ty Johnson just cleared the 1,000-yard bar -- remarkably doing it despite getting just 110 carries. Those final two outings showcased his ability to make the most of his opportunities, racking up 327 yards on just 26 rushing attempts to build some momentum heading into his junior year. And with Lorenzo Harrison having shown a few encouraging signs on the field, the Terrapins could have the makings of a breakout backfield.

Teams that need to step it up: Purdue and Illinois

Even with Big Ten programs embracing more wide-open offenses, the ability to rush the ball still is critically important in the league. And averaging less than 100 yards per game on the ground, as Purdue did last season, obviously wasn’t the program’s only issue, but it certainly didn’t help matters much in Darrell Hazell’s final year in charge. Markell Jones delivered a promising freshman campaign two years ago with 875 yards, and he could be a useful building block for new coach Jeff Brohm.

The Illini finished just one spot ahead of Purdue in rushing offense, though they were a full 40 yards clear of the league basement. Kendrick Foster will be back for one more season with Illinois and has offered a couple of glimpses of his ability to handle the job with three 100-yard games last season, and Reggie Corbin appears to have a bright upside as well.

National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate the haul each team collected. This week on the Big Ten blog, we're looking at which player or position group has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.

Up next: Illinois

Leading candidate: Wide receiver Ricky Smalling

Lovie Smith built his first signing class in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and that figures to pay off over the long haul. But in terms of a quick fix, the Illini addressed a glaring need to improve the passing attack by adding a weapon at wideout as their highest-rated new addition.

The need for help right away in the receiving corps could put pressure on Ricky Smalling to perform. But the four-star target from Chicago looks capable of stepping in to provide a boost right away for an offense that averaged just 175 yards per game through the air last season and needs somebody to emerge opposite Malik Turner. Obviously, plugging in a healthy Mikey Dudek would help the Illini as well as he tries to return from consecutive season-ending knee injuries. But when he's healthy, Dudek works best out of the slot, while the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Smalling has the frame to be a factor on the perimeter and potentially stretch the field.

Illinois also has questions at quarterback as it moves on without Wes Lunt, and that's obviously a major part of the equation for jolting the passing game back to life. But improving the depth and quality of the receivers will provide a boost no matter who is throwing the football for the Illini, and Smalling is going to have an opportunity right away to prove that it should be coming his way.

Signing day is over. So it's time for us to update our way-too-early Big Ten Power Rankings for 2017, which debuted Jan. 10.

How did recruiting affect the pecking order? Glad you asked:

1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes led our first way-too-early power rankings and stay on top after signing a star-studded class ranked No. 2 in the country by ESPN RecruitingNation. The new crop of blue-chippers, especially in the defensive backfield, should offset another wave of early NFL defections. The offense should improve under the direction of former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson.

2. Penn State: Best quarterback-running back duo in the country? It's quite possibly in State College, where Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley return. James Franklin will have a veteran team that could dig down for reinforcements from a recruiting class that finished No. 17.

T-3. Michigan: The Wolverines move up slightly in the power rankings after signing the No. 6 class in the country, which was badly needed given how many valuable seniors are gone. New recruit Aubrey Solomon and last year's recruiting prize Rashan Gary could form a terrifying defensive line duo in the near future.

T-3. Wisconsin: The Badgers' class didn't wow the analysts, but they simply know how to evaluate and develop in Madison. Wisconsin remains the team to beat in the West Division until proven otherwise.

T-5. Nebraska: Mike Riley's staff pulled in the No. 21 class in the country, a much-needed infusion of talent. There will be several position battles to watch this spring in Lincoln, particularly at quarterback.

T-5. Northwestern: How's this for academic appeal: Defensive tackle Joe Spivak chose to walk on for the Wildcats instead of taking scholarship offers at Michigan State and elsewhere. Pat Fitzgerald's team is in great shape in the offensive backfield, with running back Justin Jackson gunning for a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season and quarterback Clayton Thorson coming off a 3,000-yard sophomore campaign.

7. Iowa: Defensive end A.J. Epenesa was the big catch on signing day, but the return of linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley was even bigger news for the Hawkeyes. New quarterback Nathan Stanley takes over an offense that will be run by Brian Ferentz.

8. Michigan State: The Spartans managed to land a solid class despite last year's 3-9 record. Another bad season could have lasting ramifications, so Mark Dantonio will have to trust that their previous recruiting efforts pay off this year.

9. Indiana: New head coach Tom Allen emphasized size on both lines of scrimmage in this year's recruiting class. Even with Wilson gone, the Hoosiers could have an explosive offense with quarterback Richard Lagow (3,362 passing yards in '16) back behind center.

10. Maryland: The Terrapins exceeded expectations with the No. 20 class in the nation and could look to play a lot of those talented freshman in 2017. There are plenty of athletes here, though the trenches still need work.

11. Minnesota: The Golden Gophers were hit hard by graduation and a scandal that resulted in numerous indefinite suspensions. New head coach P.J. Fleck brings energy, but with little to no experience at quarterback and a whole new system, the transition could be bumpy.

12. Purdue: First-year head coach Jeff Brohm signed five junior college prospects to try to shore up the roster immediately. There are still many holes in the two-deep, especially on defense, but Brohm's offense might be able to outscore a few teams.

13. Illinois: This could be a bridge year in Champaign for Lovie Smith because of depth issues created by all the coaching transition. The Illini will have to wait until this summer for quarterback Dwayne Lawson, who didn't sign last week because of academic issues.

14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights brought in three four-star prospects in this year's class after landing none last February. That's a start for Chris Ash & Co., but there's still a ton of work to do.video

Let the hype begin for Super Bowl LI. The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play for football's biggest prize in Houston on Feb. 5. And as always, several Big Ten alums will be part of the extravaganza.

It might surprise you to learn that Rutgers -- that is not a typo -- has more players on the Super Bowl rosters than any other Big Ten team. In fact, as NJ.com's Steve Politi points out, the Scarlet Knights' five representatives on both rosters (counting injured linebacker Jonathan Freeny) is the most of any college team.

Penn State has one player on the rosters -- sort of. Wide receiver Chris Hogan, who starred in Sunday's AFC championship game for New England, was a star lacrosse player for the Nittany Lions from 2007-09. After graduating from Penn State, he transferred to FCS Monmouth and played football for one season. He eventually became another Bill Belichick diamond-in-the-rough story.

Belichick has had a close relationship with Rutgers, dating back to his friendship with former Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano. His son, Steve Belichick, played long-snapper and graduated from the school. He is now the Patriots' safeties coach.

Falcons running backs coach Bobby Turner was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at Purdue from 1991-94 and the running backs coach at Ohio State from 1989-90. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and tight ends coach Brian Daboll were graduate assistants at Michigan State under Nick Saban.

Mohamed SanuEPA/ERIK S. LESSERFalcons receiver Mohamed Sanu is one of Rutgers' five representatives on the Super Bowl rosters.

Here's a look at the players from Big Ten schools who will be in the Super Bowl:

New England

QB Tom Brady, Michigan

DL Alan Branch, Michigan

DB Nate Ebner, Ohio State

OL Chase Farris, Ohio State#

LB Jonathan Freeny, Rutgers*

DB Duron Harmon, Rutgers

OL Ted Karras, Illinois

DB Devin McCourty, Rutgers

LB Rob Ninkovich, Purdue

CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers

DT Vincent Valentine, Nebraska

RB James White, Wisconsin

Atlanta

S Ricardo Allen, Purdue

DT Jonathan Babineaux, Iowa

LB De'Vondre Campbell, Minnesota

DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa*

RB Tevin Coleman, Indiana

DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota

WR Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers

DT Joe Vellano, Maryland

# -- Practice squad

* -- Reserve/injured list

Urban Meyer (vs. Rutgers)Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer and Ohio State should be in contention for a national title next season.

An unforgettable season in the Big Ten is officially over, and now it’s time to turn the page for the resurgent conference.

What’s next? Plenty can change during offseason conditioning, spring practice and training camps in August, but the ESPN.com reporting crew is already taking its first stab at the power rankings for the 2017 campaign.

1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes were clearly humbled by the shutout loss in the College Football Playoff, but there was no shame in reaching that stage with 16 new starters. Urban Meyer shouldn’t have to worry about inexperience this year. With a chance to retool the offense, a talented roster will again be in position to contend for the national title.

2. Penn State: The reigning Big Ten champions aren’t going away after their magical run to the title this season, and James Franklin has more than enough pieces to take a stab at defending the crown this fall. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back to lead an explosive offense, the Nittany Lions are again going to be a handful.

3. Wisconsin: The schedule was supposed to keep the Badgers out of contention last season, which makes what they accomplished even more impressive (11 wins, a New Year’s Six victory). With a fundamentally sound defense and a lighter load on the schedule, Wisconsin will enter the season as the favorite in the West.

4. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh’s presence on the sideline earns the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt in the offseason conversation, but there are major questions for a roster that will lose so many key contributors -- particularly on defense. Is Michigan already at a point where it can reload without taking a step back? That answer is going to have to wait for a while.

5. Nebraska: Year 2 with Mike Riley brought clear signs of progress, but the Huskers still came up short in their biggest games. The flop at Ohio State made it clear there was still plenty of work to be done, and after years of relying on Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska will finally have to break in a new quarterback.

6. Northwestern: Once the Wildcats got over their September slump, they looked like a team capable of hanging with the powerhouses in the Big Ten. Pat Fitzgerald has no shortage of returning starters to work with this offseason, and Northwestern might just be a sneaky dark horse in the West this season.

7. Michigan State: No program’s early projection looks as different from the year-end rankings as Michigan State’s, a direct reflection of faith that Mark Dantonio can right his ship in a hurry. The Spartans were one of the biggest disappointments in the league last season, but if that just turns out to be a development year for so many young players, Dantonio could have his team back in the mix quickly.

8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes took a step back as a contender last season, but other than failing to meet oversized expectations, there couldn’t be too many complaints about an eight-win campaign. Replacing C.J. Beathard at quarterback will be at the top of the offseason to-do list, and that could help determine the ceiling for Iowa this season.

9. Indiana: Change unexpectedly arrived at the top of the coaching staff at the end of the season, and with Kevin Wilson now gone, all eyes will be on Tom Allen and how his defensive-minded approach affects the Hoosiers. There were encouraging signs of improvement for Indiana, though, which could bode well for Allen as he puts his stamp on the program.

10. Minnesota: With a jolt of energy having just arrived in P.J. Fleck, the Gophers have a chance to outperform this early ranking. There is still some uncertainty with the roster in the fallout of the off-the-field incident that helped end the tenure of Tracy Claeys, and quarterback Mitch Leidner is now out of eligibility, but Fleck has shown he can maximize his resources.

11. Maryland: DJ Durkin’s early work with the Terrapins qualifies as something of an under-the-radar success. The gap between Maryland and the top programs in the league still appeared to be pretty sizable, and this season will be crucial in closing it, but Durkin looks to be up to the task.

12. Purdue: There is an enormous rebuilding job awaiting Jeff Brohm with the Boilermakers, but the program took one step forward just by making a major commitment with a big-time hire backed up by a significant financial investment. Success probably isn’t going to arrive overnight, but expect improvement, at least on the offensive side of the football.

13. Illinois: Expecting an instant turnaround last season with the Illini wouldn’t have been fair, but Lovie Smith’s 3-9 debut campaign with the program still felt underwhelming given his track record. As he works to finalize a recruiting class and sets the tone for his second year in the offseason program, it’s not unreasonable to expect Smith’s club to be more competitive in 2017.

14. Rutgers: Chris Ash inherited an absolute mess with the Scarlet Knights, and the job might even be more challenging than he could have anticipated when he left his post as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator last year. As he worked tirelessly to try to close the gulf that has emerged between the best teams in the Big Ten and his program, that margin actually seemed to expand during an 0-9 campaign in the conference. How soon can Ash start to close it?

Michael Hickey/Getty ImagesIllinois went 3-9 in its first season under Lovie Smith.

Illinois took a step backward during its first season under new coach Lovie Smith.

The Illini finished 3-9 with their only two FBS wins coming against Michigan State and Rutgers, the bottom rung of the Big Ten in 2016. Smith’s team wasn’t competitive in five of the final six games, and while injuries played a role in that, an anemic offense was the root of the problem in Champaign. Reaching a bowl game should be the goal in 2017, but with nonconference games against quality Group of 5 opponents (South Florida and Western Kentucky) that won’t be easy.

To get there, here are a few questions that Smith and the rest of the Illini have to answer.

1. Can Illinois take advantage of talented receivers?

Mike Dudek and Malik Turner give Illinois a pair of receivers capable of changing a game with a single play. Dudek had a sensational freshman season before back-to-back knee injuries caused him to watch the last two years from the sideline. In his absence, Turner led the team with 712 receiving yards last season.

Making the most of those guys means keeping them healthy and giving them a reasonable amount of time to get downfield and get open. Only Rutgers scored fewer points and compiled fewer yards than the Illini this fall. Dudek and Turner can help change that by forcing defenses to dedicate extra resources to the edge of the field, but that doesn’t work if the rest of the offense can’t get the ball into their hands.

2. How do the Illini fill holes in the defensive front?

One of the few bright spots last fall – true to Smith’s reputation as a defensive-minded coach – was Illinois' ability to attack behind the line of scrimmage. The Illini finished 19th nationally with 95 tackles for loss. The rub is that the five guys responsible for most of those negative plays (60 of the 95) are leaving.

Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot topped that list with their ability to shed blockers and wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage. Both are NFL prospects who will be difficult to replace. Two others – Chunky Clements and Gimel President – will deal a blow to the depth of the Illini front. And Hardy Nickerson, the team’s leading tackler, provided a great deal of experience at middle linebacker. Replacing any one of them would be tricky. Trying to find new contributors for all of those roles will be a major challenge for Smith and his defensive coaching staff if they hope to improve in 2017.

3. Who will play quarterback?

Injuries at quarterback derailed whatever chance Illinois’ offense had to make some gains. Wes Lunt missed four games with an injury. He was replaced by Chayce Crouch, who went on to injure his shoulder. That left Jeff George Jr. tossed into the deep end as a first-time starter midway through the season.

George returns with a feel for what it takes to compete in the Big Ten in 2017. He’ll be competing for the job with Crouch and junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson this spring. Lawson played one season at Virginia Tech before transferring to a junior college. At 6-foot-6 and 222 pounds, the transfer gives the Illini a big, athletic option under center.

It won't be long before Big Ten players are making spectacular plays in bowl games. Until then, it's time to appreciate the outstanding achievements in the 2016 regular season and honor the top 25 players in the 2016 regular season, as ranked by our five-man blog panel.

Saquon BarkleyRich Graessle/Icon SportswireSaquon Barkley led Penn State back to national prominence, recording 19 touchdowns this season.

The list:

1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley: The Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, Barkley scored 19 touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards per carry. He was a threat to do something spectacular every time he touched the ball.

2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The Buckeyes' downfield passing game struggled at times this year, and some of that is on Barrett. But he also carried the offense on his (legs and) shoulders as much as any player on any team, accounting for more than 3,200 yards and 33 touchdowns.

3. Ohio State S Malik Hooker: Our choice for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year if not the official selection, Hooker had six interceptions this season and returned three of them for scores.

4. Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt: He took his game to a new level this season and became a chaos agent from his outside linebacker position. He finished with 10.5 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss and 12 quarterback hurries.

5. Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers: He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and he's only fifth here. Why? We feel his production, which dipped dramatically in Big Ten play, and versatility was overrated nationally. That's not to suggest he's anything but a great player with elite athleticism who affected games in infinite ways.

6. Northwestern WR Austin Carr: There was virtually no advance warning that the senior would be capable of providing so much production for an offense that was a legitimate question mark in the offseason, let alone that Carr would become the most prolific target in the Big Ten. But he left no doubt by the end of the regular season with his 84 catches, 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns that he had earned his spot as the league’s best wideout.

7. Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis: Opposing quarterbacks have learned by now that it’s safer not to test the star of the Michigan secondary, so Lewis doesn’t have the most impressive traditional statistics to measure his success. But that’s also the strongest endorsement for his coverage skills, and Lewis clearly has a bright future at the next level once he officially wraps up his career with the Wolverines in the Capital One Orange Bowl.

8. Ohio State H-back Curtis Samuel: The versatile junior did just about everything the Buckeyes could have asked for offensively, finally giving them a hybrid weapon that could match the production Percy Harvin had in that role under Urban Meyer at Florida. Nobody in the Big Ten averaged more all-purpose yardage per game than Samuel, who capped his regular season with the unforgettable game-winning touchdown against Michigan.

9. Ohio State C Pat Elflein: There are obviously bigger stars elsewhere on the roster, and certainly Barrett and Samuel get more recognition on offense. But the Buckeyes probably wouldn’t be back in the College Football Playoff without the veteran anchoring the offensive line, and after winning the Rimington Trophy for the nation’s best center, he’s now chasing some team hardware to add to the collection.

10. Penn State QB Trace McSorley: The resurgence of the Nittany Lions coincided with the development of the triggerman on offense, and McSorley had a strong case by the end of the season as the league’s best quarterback. He finished on top of the league in terms of passing efficiency, and his 25 touchdowns against just five interceptions were obviously a huge factor in Penn State’s run to the Big Ten title.

11. Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk: From a Division III welding school to becoming an All-American at Wisconsin. Ramczyk's story continues to amaze.

12. Ohio State DE Tyquan Lewis: The Big Ten's Defensive Lineman of the Year had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles while serving as a leader for the young Buckeyes.

13. Wisconsin RB Corey Clement: Bouncing back from a disappointing 2015, Clement ran for 1,304 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.

14. Iowa CB Desmond King: Last year's Thorpe Award winner had only two interceptions, but most teams avoided throwing against him. He was also one of the league's best kick returners.

15. Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan: He's not a guy who racks up huge numbers -- though his 87 tackles were nothing to scoff at. He's just always in the right place and hardly ever misses a tackle.

16. Michigan DL Taco Charlton: Charlton earned first-team all-conference honors from the league's coaches and media members for his dominance on Michigan's defensive line. In 10 games, he has tallied 11 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. No Big Ten player is averaging more sacks per game (0.85) than Charlton.

17. Michigan TE Jake Butt: Butt became the first two-time Big Ten Tight End of the Year this season, earning the honor for the second straight year. He ranks second on the Wolverines in receptions (43), receiving yards (518) and touchdown catches (four). He also became Michigan's all-time leader in tight end catches and yards this season.

18. Ohio State CB Marshon Lattimore: Lattimore opened his season with a bang, securing three interceptions in Ohio State's first three games, including a 40-yard pick-six against Oklahoma. He closed the regular season with four total interceptions and ranked seventh in the Big Ten with 13 passes defended.

19. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson: There was little doubt Jackson would be Northwestern's workhorse for a third consecutive season, and he has lived up to expectations. Jackson ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (108.3) and has set career highs for yards per carry (4.9) and rushing touchdowns (12).

20. Indiana LB Tegray Scales: Indiana's defense was much improved this season, and Scales was a big part of that success. He leads the Big Ten in tackles (116) and tackles for loss (20.5), while adding five sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.

21. Ohio State OG Billy Price: The veteran guard was the other half of Ohio State's All-American duo in the middle of its offensive line. He and Elflein helped three inexperienced players around them and managed to keep the offense on track for a playoff berth.

22. Michigan QB Wilton Speight: At times, the first-year starter looked like the most efficient quarterback in the conference. Speight improved steadily under the tutelage of coach Jim Harbaugh and without a few key mistakes and a shoulder injury in November might have been higher on this list.

23. Illinois DE Carroll Phillips: More than two-thirds of his 56 tackles this season came behind the line of scrimmage. Phillips managed to be a consistent force up front with nine sacks and 20 TFLs (second in the Big Ten) for an Illini defense that didn't have many other strengths.

24. Iowa LB Josey Jewell: Only Scales had more stops in the Big Ten this season. Jewell ended his redshirt junior year with 114 tackles as one of the essential cogs in Iowa's defense.

25. Nebraska S Nathan Gerry: The Cornhuskers' leader in the secondary was a threat to opponents in the run game and passing game. He intercepted four passes this year, broke up eight others and attacked the line of scrimmage regularly for a total of 74 tackles in his final college season.

Earlier this week, we released our All-Big Ten team. So, as is tradition, we’re following that up with our conference All-Freshman team.

Because of a smaller player pool, the main difference with this team is that we’re sticking with the generic positions of offensive line, defensive line and defensive back rather than the specific positions. We’ve also decided to eschew tight end in favor of an additional receiver.

Offense

QB Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin: He won the starting job after Week 3 and put together a respectable freshman campaign by throwing eight touchdowns to seven interceptions. He’ll be the man in Madison moving forward.

RB Mike Weber, Ohio State: As Big Ten freshman of the year, Weber was maybe the easiest choice on this team. He became just the third Ohio State freshman to ever rush for more than 1,000 yards.

RB Chris Evans, Michigan: He was initially expected to redshirt this season, but Evans showed early on he was a speedy playmaker who could do work in space. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry.

Mike WeberGreg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsMike Weber is just one of three freshmen to have rushed for 1,000 yards for Ohio State.

WR K.J. Hill, Ohio State: Hill led all Big Ten receivers (minimum 15 catches) by catching 77.3 percent of the passes thrown his way.

WR Donnie Corley, Michigan State: We’ll just leave this highlight right here so you can see for yourself why we picked the 6-foot-2 Michigan native.

WR Jawuan Harris, Rutgers: In a tough season, Harris was definitely a bright spot for the Scarlet Knights. He paced the team with 39 catches and 481 yards, both highs for Big Ten freshmen.

OL Coy Cronk, Indiana: He started in 12 straight games -- at left tackle.

OL Michael Jordan, Ohio State: What makes him so good? Well, besides his strength and size, it’s got to be the ‘Shoe.

OL Ryan Bates, Penn State: Not only has Bates started every game for Penn State, but his versatility has proved invaluable. He started 10 games at left guard and the final three at left tackle.

OL Jon Dietzen, Wisconsin: The 6-foot-6, 333-pound guard helped spring Corey Clement to a conference-leading 1,304 rushing yards.

OL Ben Bredeson, Michigan: He became the first true freshman to start along the line since 2014, when Mason Cole earned a spot on this team.

Defense

DL Nick Bosa, Ohio State: You know you’re doing a good job when, as a true freshman, you live up to the expectations of being Joey Bosa's brother. The younger Bosa currently ranks second among Buckeyes with five sacks.

DL Anthony Nelson, Iowa: The Hawkeyes needed a pass-rusher, and they got that and more in Nelson. He left an immediate impression by registering 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in the opener.

DL Kevin Givens, Penn State: Back in the spring, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin dubbed him the “buzz of camp.” Givens didn’t let up; he currently has seven tackles for loss.

DL Dre'Mont Jones, Ohio State: He leads all Buckeyes defensive linemen with 47 tackles.

LB Markus Bailey, Purdue: He almost became the first Boilermakers linebacker since 2008 to record 100 tackles. He finished with a team-high 97 stops and four interceptions.

LB Tyreek Maddox-Williams, Rutgers: The New Jersey native filled in admirably for senior Greg Jones, who suffered a career-ending neck injury. Said head coach Chris Ash: “I really like Tyreek’s future.”

LB Cam Brown, Penn State: He was supposed to redshirt, but after all the injuries at linebacker, he stepped up in a big way. He even blocked the punt against Ohio State.

DB Marcelino Ball, Indiana: The hybrid safety won’t turn 18 years old until March, but he’s already part of the defensive renaissance in Bloomington. He boasts 73 tackles and seven pass breakups.

DB Trae Williams, Northwestern: He missed some time because of injury, but he still started in seven games. He was the Wildcats’ defensive player of the week against Duke.

DB Patrick Nelson, Illinois: He played only special teams the first two games, but he still ended up third on Illinois with 75 tackles. In his first career start, against Nebraska, he had 16 stops.

DB Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota: The son of the former Buckeye made several key plays for the Gophers, recovering a game-sealing fumble against Purdue and returning a Maryland interception 82 yards for a touchdown.

Special teams

K Keith Duncan, Iowa: His stats were pretty darn good -- 8-of-9 on field goals and 38-of-39 on PATs -- but Duncan was also clutch for the Hawkeyes. He hit the winning, 33-yard field goal as time expired against Michigan.

P Blake Gillikin, Penn State: He received a standing ovation after his first career punt, and he has only gotten better. That should tell you all you need to know.

KR Tre Bryant, Nebraska: Bryant averaged 22.1 yards per return and also registered a 59-yard return against Purdue, the longest by a Husker since Ameer Abdullah in 2014.

The Big Ten will give out its individual honors over the next two days. On Monday night, the big award is defensive player of the year. During the season we've been giving our picks for that and offensive player of the year (to be revealed Tuesday night), so we thought we'd present our final choices for the trophy and the rationale behind it.

Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year

1. Ohio State S Malik Hooker (six first-place votes)

2. Wisconsin LB T.J. Watt

3. Michigan LB Jabrill Peppers

4. Michigan CB Jourdan Lewis

5. Illinois DE Carroll Phillips

Also receiving votes: Iowa CB Desmond King, Ohio State LB Raekwon McMillan

It's unanimous from our panel on Hooker. Here are our reasons why:

Austin Ward: The standout redshirt sophomore came into the season without any previous starting experience, and therefore no hype or name recognition. That seems to have hurt him in the national awards race, but anybody paying attention would know that no defender in the Big Ten has had a greater impact from start to finish.

Josh Moyer: He’s been a consistent force all season, and he set a program record with three interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. Said defensive coordinator Greg Schiano: “He’s got the potential to be as good as anyone I’ve ever coached -- and I’ve coached Ed Reed.”

Jesse Temple: This one is simple. Hooker tallied more interceptions than any other Big Ten player (six) and more interception returns for touchdowns than anybody else in the league (three). He registered a huge pick-six in Ohio State's win against Michigan, which has positioned the Buckeyes for a potential playoff spot.

Dan Murphy: Forget the 67 tackles (third on his team) and the six interceptions (fourth in the nation), Hooker has more receiving touchdowns this year than all but three players on the Buckeyes roster. He made big plays in big spots all season, and none was bigger than the pick-six he used to jump start his team against Michigan this past Saturday

Brian Bennett: I wonder if Jabrill Peppers might actually win this prize, based in part on name recognition. That Hooker hasn't been named a finalist for the Thorpe Award or other honors is just plain silly. He's led our poll all season long and should be the guy who takes home the trophy Monday night.video

Let The Ga_e begin.

This is the matchup the Big Ten has awaited for weeks. The result will send a ripple through the College Football Playoff rankings and, besides the No. 2 Buckeyes and No. 3 Wolverines, no one is more invested than No. 7 Penn State.

If Ohio State wins, and the Nittany Lions take care of business, then Penn State is headed to the Big Ten championship – and a potential playoff berth. That wasn’t lost on the Lions’ former players:

For both Ohio State and Michigan, in the playoff era, it’s hard to envision a meeting with more on the line. This has shades of 2006 and, according to ESPN Stats & Information, this is poised to be one of the best matchups of the last 10 seasons.

Based on pregame matchup quality, a metric that ranks teams based on how good each team is and how close the game is expected to be, this is the fifth-highest rated game since 2007. (LSU-Alabama in 2011 is No. 1.) And this is the highest-rated Big Ten game.

The journey to the playoff and the Big Ten championship must first make a pit stop at noon in Columbus, Ohio. The entire seasons of at least three teams – and potentially several more – are riding on this regular-season finale.

We can’t wait.

Quarterback ... back?: Michigan starter Wilton Speight was initially expected to miss the Ohio State game because of a collarbone injury. But, Jim Harbaugh said, Speight practiced Tuesday. So, does that mean Speight could start instead of John O’Korn?

Well ... we don’t know for certain. Harbaugh said Tuesday on the “Jamie and Stoney” show that it’s accurate to say it’s 50-50 who will start. That still might not be the reality of the situation, but don’t expect Harbaugh to tip his hand before Saturday.

Best 6-foot trophy in college football: Minnesota and Wisconsin will battle Saturday for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, and it’s been quite some time since the Gophers have been able to mimic chopping wood. Minnesota hasn’t won the annual meeting for 13 years.

“Twelve straight times,” Wisconsin running back Dare Ogunbowale mused to ESPN’s Jesse Temple. “That would be pretty tough on your morale.”

Minnesota last won on Nov. 8, 2003, when senior quarterback Mitch Leidner was 9 years old. Since 2010, Wisconsin has won by double-digits each time.

“I know it’s important to the state,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “It’s important to our kids, but the only way to get it back is to win the football game. And that sounds kind of crazy, but everybody wants it back.”

Bowl-bound?: Three teams remain on the cusp of bowl eligibility in the Big Ten: Indiana, Maryland and Northwestern.

All three teams have five wins, and all three need a victory Saturday if they want to clinch a spot in the postseason. The good news? All three are heavily favored and at home. The Hoosiers host hapless Purdue and remain a 20-point favorite, Maryland is playing at home against Rutgers and is expected to win by two touchdowns, and 15-point favorite Northwestern will play Illinois in Evanston.

If the Hoosiers pull out a win, they’ll clinch their first back-to-back bowls since the 1990-91 seasons.

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