Big Ten: Iowa Hawkeyes

It's March, and it's championship week, so basketball and brackets have taken over the sports world.

That also has us thinking about which Big Ten basketball players might be able to make the transition to football. It's not unheard of. All-Pro tight ends Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez each played college basketball. Late last month, LSU power forward Brian Bridgewater said he'd like to join the Tigers football team in the fall.

With that in mind, here's a starting five and a sixth man from the world of Big Ten basketball hoops who would be fun to see on the gridiron:

Caleb SwaniganRich Graessle/Icon SportswireCaleb Swanigan has been a beast on the basketball court. Would his skills translate to the football field?

Purdue's Caleb Swanigan: The Big Ten's no-doubt player of the year and Wooden Award candidate is a beast in the paint and likely would be in the trenches, too. He's listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds after dropping more than 100 pounds since eighth grade. Think Jeff Brohm would like to see the man they call "Biggie" at left tackle or perhaps stuffing runs as a nose guard?

Iowa's Ahmad Wagner: The 6-foot-7 sophomore had interest from Big Ten schools as a football player out of Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio. He even received a football scholarship offer from Kentucky after hauling in 58 catches for 1,082 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. He played with Wisconsin reserve guard D'Mitrik Trice, who was a star quarterback at Wayne.

Michigan State's Miles Bridges: If anybody could make a Gates/Gonzalez-type transition to tight end, it might well be Bridges. With great footwork and balance for a 6-foot-7, 230-pounder, Bridges would be a nightmare for opposing defenders to cover. And since Tom Izzo is known to use football pads in practice, maybe the new sport wouldn't seem so unfamiliar for the Spartans freshman.

Maryland's Melo Trimble: At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Trimble could make an interesting wide receiver for D.J. Durkin's squad. Or maybe a safety. Doesn't really matter what position he plays. Trimble is a gamer who's unafraid of big moments, which is why he'd likely succeed in football as well.

Indiana's OG Anunoby: He's currently out with a torn ACL, but the Hoosiers' 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most explosive players in college basketball when healthy. Can't you just see him rushing the passer as a terrifying defensive end? It's not that outlandish, given the bloodlines. Anunoby's older brother, Chigbo, is a defensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns.

Northwestern's Nathan Taphorn: Hey, if he can make that perfect 90-foot pass for the game-winning layup against Michigan, then maybe the 6-foot-7 Taphorn could be a backup to Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson. Even Thorson had difficulty recreating Taphorn's throw.

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 the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Must-win game: at Wisconsin, Nov. 11

Can the Hawkeyes still win the Big Ten West Division without beating the Badgers? Sure, and since the game is in Madison, Wisconsin, it would be an understandable loss. Yet it's also undeniably true that the road to the division title goes through Wisconsin these days. Iowa knows that very well, as its victory at Camp Randall in 2015 was a driving force in its Big Ten championship game berth. This will be a tough turnaround for Kirk Ferentz's team as well, as Ohio State visits Kinnick Stadium a week before the trip to Wisconsin. Maybe the Hawkeyes can spring a home upset against the Buckeyes, as they did last year against Michigan. But if not, the game against the Badgers becomes even more vital to their division hopes.

Trap game: Wyoming, Sept. 2

There aren't many games on this schedule that scream "trap," unless you figure Illinois or Purdue will be good enough to win in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes will have to watch out for that game against the Boilermakers, which is sandwiched between the Ohio State and Wisconsin showdowns and the season finale at Nebraska. But there's still a major talent disparity between the two programs at this point. Wyoming will similarly have its hands full going to Kinnick for the season opener, but this is a team that won eight games a year ago and returns most of its two-deep under Craig Bohl. The same Craig Bohl who used to coach at North Dakota State, and ... well, we'll leave it at that. Iowa should be heavily favored in Week 1, but it had better not overlook this Mountain West opponent.

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

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 on the defensive side of the ball, next up will be the linebackers.

Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsLed by Tegray Scales, the Big Ten's top tackler in 2016, Indiana's linebackers could rank among the league's elite next season.

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

A top spot on defense is obviously unfamiliar ground for the Hoosiers recently, but with the league’s most productive tackler returning for a unit that new coach Tom Allen has helped find a higher level, it’s deserved heading into this season. Tegray Scales isn’t exactly a secret within the Big Ten, though he remains undervalued nationally for all the ways he can contribute at linebacker and his decision to return for another campaign was a huge boost for Indiana after losing Marcus Oliver to the NFL draft. But counting hybrid defensive back Marcelino Ball as a member of this group, the Hoosiers should still be in position to roll out one of the league's best groups with junior-college signee Mike McGinnis and returning veterans Dameon Willis and Chris Covington all vying for playing time.

Iowa is in a similarly strong position, with Josey Jewell electing to come back for another year after finishing just behind Scales in total tackles last season. With Ben Niemann and Bo Bower on hand, the Hawkeyes have three seniors to lean on and anchor the defense -- guys who combined for 284 tackles a year ago.

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

Given the rich tradition of both programs at this position, it’s no surprise that the Badgers and Buckeyes are in the mix and more than capable of rising up to potentially become the best unit in the Big Ten. Both have key losses to address this spring that are currently keeping them just outside of the top spots, though, and just how painless the transition without Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Wisconsin’s T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel turns out will be key.

Wisconsin addressed one of those outside spots with a rare junior college pickup, and the pressure will be on Andrew Van Ginkel right away to contribute. But the Badgers are loaded on the inside with four proven commodities, and throwing a healthy Jack Cichy back in the mix could be huge for new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are loaded on the outside with Jerome Baker and Chris Worley coming back after breakout campaigns. And while the picture isn’t clear yet in the middle, Dante Booker's return from an injury that kept him on the shelf virtually all of last season could provide a solution. And if not, maybe four-star freshman Baron Browning, who is already on campus, could find his way into that role.

Team that could surprise: Maryland

The Terrapins appear to be growing nicely under DJ Durkin and appear to have plenty of potential to move up the ranks in the Big Ten based on the recent signing class that unexpectedly finished in the top 20 in the nation. And with more teams lighting up the scoreboard in the East Division recently, putting together a solid corps of linebackers, like the one led by Jermaine Carter, could be crucial in taking a step forward. Jalen Brooks is also on hand with some experience, and if leading tackler Shane Cockerille is cleared again after being ruled ineligible for the bowl game last year, the Terrapins have the makings of a defense that could turn a few heads.

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

The Scarlet Knights finished last in the Big Ten in both rush and total defense in Chris Ash’s first season with the program, which won’t sit well with a coach who has made his name on that side of the football. The linebackers weren’t solely to blame and Trevor Morris did some impressive work at times while piling up 102 tackles, but Rutgers clearly needs to take a step forward at the second level.

If not for the Scarlet Knights, Purdue would have finished in the basement in both of those key categories, putting another item on the list of improvements Jeff Brohm needs to work on in his debut season. The Boilermakers have a solid building block in Markus Bailey, and he still has room to improve after posting 97 tackles and snagging four interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

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 on offense, next up in the series will be the offensive lines.

Boone MyersRandy Litzinger/Icon SportswireIowa's offensive line has earned acclaim as one of the nation's best units.

Best of the best: Iowa and Ohio State

The Hawkeyes and all their returners up front have already earned national acclaim as one of the nation’s best units, but the reigning Joe Moore Award winners should be even better this season with another year to develop. And assuming Iowa can stay healthy and avoid needing to play seven different combinations of starters on the line, it could improve on the 30 sacks allowed a year ago and help the rushing attack shoot up the charts in the Big Ten after finishing just eighth in the league in yardage. Kirk Ferentz will only have to replace Cole Croston in the rotation after the veteran started seven games in his final season, but due to injuries, the Hawkeyes already have a jumpstart on that heading into spring practice.

Ohio State clearly had issues in pass protection at the end of the year, but once again, the big guys paved the way for the best ground game in the Big Ten and will have no shortage of talent and experience on hand this year. Losing Pat Elflein at center leaves a big hole to fill, but just like the Buckeyes did a year ago by sliding over the captain from guard to take over snapping duties, Billy Price is set to do the same this spring. With three other returning starters alongside Price, Ohio State won’t need to spend much time worrying about the future up front.

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Nebraska

The tradition of success in the trenches isn’t going away any time soon for the Badgers, who could easily find themselves on top of the rankings by the end of the season depending on how seamless the process of replacing star left tackle Ryan Ramczyk winds up being this offseason. Wisconsin has some similarities with Ohio State as it returns four starters from a unit that was better in pass protection by allowing just 24 sacks while finishing a distant third behind the Buckeyes in rushing offense. And the Badgers, too, should be expected to be even stronger on the line with so many experienced veterans back in the fold.

Along those same lines, Mike Riley’s Huskers took a significant step forward last season and could duplicate that again with a skilled group returning this fall. The loss of Dylan Utter is significant, but the rest of the line is stocked with players who have already shown they can handle the blocking responsibilities for a team that allowed the fewest sacks in the Big Ten last year.

Team that could surprise: Minnesota

After posting one of the most productive, under-the-radar campaigns in the league a year ago, a Minnesota unit that finished in the top five in the Big Ten in both rushing offense and sacks allowed will have three starters returning for P.J. Fleck as he takes over the program. As far as building blocks go for a first-year coach, Fleck should be in relatively decent shape -- and he hired a proven offensive line coach in Ed Warinner who can get the most out of the Gophers. There are questions elsewhere on the roster, but Minnesota could again be a sleeper pick to thrive up front.

Teams that need to step it up: Maryland and Purdue

The Terrapins have some intriguing pieces and potential, but there will have to be significant improvement by the blockers if they’re going to climb a rung or two in the brutally challenging East Division. Maryland gave up 49 sacks last season, though it did show some encouraging flashes as a run-blocking unit.

The Boilermakers finished last in rushing and gave up 29 sacks, putting another item on Jeff Brohm’s lengthy to-do list as he takes over and tries to upgrade the offensive attack.

When all the craziness of last week's national signing day had ended, coaches could finally catch their breath for a moment. And perhaps reflect on the fact that things will never be the same going forward.

The hype and run-up to the first Wednesday in February will be altered forever if a mid-December early signing period is approved by conference commissioners in June, as expected. But it's the other piece of new recruiting legislation that should have the biggest impact in the Big Ten: earlier official visits.

The NCAA Division I Council likely will make that a reality this spring. If so, prospects could take paid official visits to schools beginning in April of their junior year of high school and lasting into late June. Right now, recruits can only take official visits beginning in September of their senior year.

"I think it changes everything," Penn State head coach James Franklin told ESPN.com last week. "It changes your camp model, your recruiting model and your spring practice model. You have to factor all those things in."

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsPenn State coach James Franklin said that being able to visit with kids when the weather is nice to show off the campus is a big help in recruiting.

Earlier official visits have long been viewed as a change that would benefit the Big Ten, perhaps more than any other league. To understand why, one only has to consider geography and timing.

Several Big Ten programs, especially West Division schools Nebraska, Wisconsin and Minnesota, are located far away from the top recruiting hotbeds. Getting a kid on campus obviously is crucial to eventually signing him, but it's not easy for a prospect from, say, Florida or Texas to get to the upper Midwest for an unofficial visit in the spring or summer, considering he and his family would have to foot the cost.

Plus, more and more recruits are committing early, before the current official visit schedule even begins. That puts many Big Ten schools behind the curve and gives even more of an advantage to programs whose campuses are closer to where recruits live.

Then, of course, there's the weather. A recruit visiting a northern Big Ten school in the fall could well encounter the snow, cold and wind that make late-season conference games a challenge for all involved. Earlier official visits allow teams to show off their surroundings in a potentially better light.

"I think that's critical," first-year Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. "There are not many better places in the spring and summer than the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. It's some of the most beautiful weather you'll find in the entire country. That's what we look forward to showing off."

As the westernmost Big Ten school, Nebraska could reap major rewards from the earlier visit model.

The Cornhuskers are second to none in terms of facilities and fan support, and often can seal the deal when players and their families see the campus in person. But with a far-flung recruiting base that this year included players from California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana, it's not always easy to get those prospects to Lincoln on their own dime.

"It’d be great to be able to pay for that visit," Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. "I think that’s right for these families. I think that’s good."

Riley was in favor of another early signing period in the summer, a proposal that was tossed around last year but ultimately rejected. While he likes the idea of earlier visits, he still has some questions. Is it ideal to bring in a player in April or May when he can't actually sign until December? And is it better to have recruits come to the spring game or an actual home game in the fall?

"Do we shoot the bullet in June, and then we don’t get to bring him from Texas to one of our games?" Riley asked. "What we have found is that the game is a great experience for these guys. Half of our early [2017] commitments had been to the spring game, and then about half of our signees, I believe, had been on our campus before July 1."

"Did we hit the exact right mark [on the signing date]? I think we kind of chickened out at the end. Now we’ve got some decisions to make on how to use the visits."

Coaches will have some time to figure this out. Though the December signing date would go into effect this year once approved, the earlier official visits wouldn't be enacted until 2018, for the class of 2019.

Franklin said his staff already has plans in place on how to best use the potential new calendar, though the Nittany Lions won't finalize anything until the measures are officially approved. Penn State sits closer to the players it recruits than other Big Ten schools, but State College lacks a readily accessible airport.

"You can make an argument that being able to visit with kids when the weather’s really nice and the campus is going to show best and those types of things, it really helps," Franklin said. "I also think that when you do something new, there's always a concern about unforeseen consequences, and there are going to be some to those."

As always, new rules bring new complications. But the earlier official visits figure to eventually be a good thing for the Big Ten.

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.

It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. They surely will for our next position group, receivers and tight ends.

Eight of the top 10 receivers in the league from 2016 have moved on, so the field is wide open for new stars to emerge. Let's take a stab at where things stand:

Best of the best: Penn State

The Nittany Lions' No. 1 wide receiver in 2016 was Chris Godwin (59 catches, 982 yards, 11 touchdowns). He decided to skip his senior year and enter the NFL draft. The depth here is still good, though, especially since we are including tight ends.

Penn State's DaeSean HamiltonAP Photo/Darron CummingsPenn State's DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down 2016 but should be a bigger factor as a senior.

DaeSean Hamilton had an up-and-down year and didn't record a catch in the Rose Bowl. He did perform well in the Big Ten championship game and should be a bigger factor as a senior. Saeed Blacknall was suspended for the Rose Bowl but is a good deep threat when available. Irvin Charles has earned a lot of hype around the program for his pure talent and could break through in 2017. Juwan Johnson is in a similar boat as Charles.

What really puts this group over the top, however, is tight end Mike Gesicki. A rare big-time playmaker at his position, Gesicki is a go-to guy for Trace McSorley who is capable of making spectacular catches.

Runner-up: Indiana

The Hoosiers had three of the top 10 receivers in the league, and only one of them returns. Nick Westbrook had a breakout season with 54 catches for 995 yards, the second-highest total in the Big Ten behind Biletnikoff finalist Austin Carr. He should be joined by Simmie Cobbs Jr., who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2016 opener. Cobbs had 60 catches for 1,035 yards in 2015, averaging 18.1 yards per catch.

There are questions marks beyond those two -- such as, will J-Shun Harris be able to contribute after two straight ACL injuries? But with two tall deep threats in Westbrook and Cobbs, Indiana is ahead of most Big Ten teams in terms of proven performers at wideout. The Hoosiers could use more production out of the tight end spot, however.

Teams that could surprise: Michigan and Michigan State

These two are less potential surprises than teams who could flourish at the position if their youth comes of age.

The Wolverines lost a ton of production with the graduations of receivers Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt. And Grant Perry is currently suspended. But there's also plenty of promise in sophomores Eddie McDoom and Kekoa Crawford, plus the untapped potential of oft-injured Drake Harris. Michigan also had a fantastic recruiting haul led by Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins and Tarik Black. Meanwhile, Ian Bunting has the talent to replace Butt at tight end. A lot of development must take place, but this coaching staff understands how to teach the passing game.

Michigan State had a big freshman class of receivers last year, and Donnie Corley (33 catches, 453 yards) made an impact right out of the gate. Trishton Jackson also got his feet wet, and rising junior Felton Davis III continued to gain experience. Cam Chambers should contribute this year after redshirting, and incoming freshman Hunter Rison -- son of legendary Spartans receiver Andre Rison -- could force his way onto the field. The tight ends are unproven, and there's lots of projection involved here, but Mark Dantonio has good young depth.

Teams that need to step it up: Ohio State and Iowa

It's not often that a Buckeyes position group finds itself in this tier, but Ohio State struggled in the downfield passing game last year. Its top three receivers -- Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown -- are off to the NFL. Ohio State notably went with bigger bodies at receiver in this year's signing class, and young players like K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor showed flashes last year. Senior Marcus Baugh is a solid tight end who, like most of his predecessors in Columbus, doesn't get targeted enough. Talent isn't the question here, but the production simply must improve.

It's a different story at Iowa, where recruiting at the receiver position has been full of misses in recent years. Matt VandeBerg returns after being granted a medical redshirt, which should be a big boost. But the rest of the group is full of question marks that must be answered. Kind of like most of the Big Ten.

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

Dan Sanger/Icon SportswireWhile some schools have made big headlines on signing day, Paul Chryst's Badgers have been under the radar. And that has worked out just fine for Wisconsin.

On signing day three years ago, Penn State announced a class that included a quarterback who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. He was a three-star prospect who was rated as the 60th-best player at his position that year, according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Most other schools saw him as a safety. The Nittany Lions signed a higher-rated quarterback, four-star Michael O'Connor, in that same class.

No one was doing cartwheels over that letter of intent from Trace McSorley. Yet, arguably no player had a bigger impact on the Big Ten race in 2016 than McSorley did as a redshirt sophomore. He was the league's top-rated passer, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, and was named MVP of the Big Ten championship game.

McSorley led the Nittany Lions to victory in Indianapolis over Wisconsin, which was a second-half collapse away from staking a claim to the College Football Playoff. Those are the same Badgers whose previous four recruiting classes were ranked by ESPN, on average, as no better than the 36th-best in the country.

So consider this the annual reminder that signing day, while no doubt extremely important, doesn't always tell the full story in the Big Ten.

Only a fool would dismiss the comings and goings of each team's fax machines on Wednesday. Championships can be won on the decisions of high schoolers. Look no further than Ohio State's ridiculous 2013 class, which formed the backbone of the Buckeyes' national title team less than 24 months later. That crop included Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, who were named the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, by the Pro Football Writers Association earlier this month.

This year's Ohio State class could be compared to that 2013 group in the near future. As of Monday afternoon, the Buckeyes counted 19 commitments, 18 of whom are ranked as either four- or five-star players by ESPN; sixteen of them are in the ESPN 300. Michigan also had 16 ESPN 300 commits as of Monday, with coach Jim Harbaugh still working the trail for some last-minute additions. The rest of the Big Ten, combined, accounted for 18 ESPN 300 commits.

Ohio State and Michigan should both land top-five classes, with Penn State and its seven ESPN 300 commits likely to finish with the third-best class in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also off to a flying start in the 2018 class after last season's Rose Bowl run. The three best and most aggressive recruiters in the league -- Harbaugh, Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- are at the height of their powers right now.

That trend line seems to reinforce the notion that the Big Ten East will continue to be one of the toughest, if not the most rugged, divisions in college football. An also-ran in that division, Maryland, looks to make a signing day splash with eight current four-star commits and five ESPN 300 prospects. That has to feel good for Terrapins fans and head coach D.J. Durkin, who saw their talent raided last January during the coaching transition from Randy Edsall.

Durkin and the Terps are angling toward a top-20 finish, which would be quite an accomplishment. Yet, it guarantees little.

If it did, then how would we explain Michigan State's recent success? The Spartans recruit a lot better than the national narrative would often have you believe, but they still generally place outside of the top 20 to 25 teams on signing day. Still, they've won one more Big Ten title in the past four years than Ohio State, while Michigan hasn't won a league championship since 2004.

Or how about the 2015 Iowa team that came within a couple of inches of beating Michigan State for that season's Big Ten crown? Or the poster child for downplaying signing day freakouts: Wisconsin. The Badgers just keep racking up double-digit wins, despite classes that don't excite the recruitniks.

There's no substitute for talent, and it's nearly impossible to win a national title without recruiting at the level Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin are reaching. But there's also still room in the Big Ten for developmental programs and for coaches who know how to find the right needs for their own styles, regardless of the star ratings.

And there is plenty of room for guys like McSorley, who did nothing but win in high school and whose best measurable was his heart. Don't overlook the importance of Wednesday's developments and class rankings. But don't assume those will tell the whole story in the Big Ten.

By the end of the regular season, it looked like the Big Ten coaching carousel might not spin all that much.

Sure, Purdue had fired Darrell Hazell in midseason. But there weren't any other obvious head-coaching changes on the horizon, or so we thought. Just goes to show, you never say never in the coaching biz. Indiana surprised everybody by dumping Kevin Wilson a few days after the season and promoting defensive coordinator Tom Allen to head coach, while an off-field scandal and brief bowl boycott led Minnesota to fire Tracy Claeys despite a 9-4 campaign.

Three head coaching changes is pretty much par for the course these days. Purdue's hiring of Jeff Brohm and the Golden Gophers snagging P.J. Fleck have gotten both fan bases excited. But there have been a lot more changes than just at the head coaching level. Today, we're going to look at the five most significant assistant coaching hires of the Big Ten offseason. Or at least so far, as Wisconsin still needs to name a defensive coordinator and other moves still could happen -- because the carousel never really stops.

The list of five, in alphabetical order:

Bob Diaco, defensive coordinator, Nebraska: Diaco's three-year stint as head coach at UConn was remembered more for his bizarre invention of a rivalry with Central Florida than any actual on-field success. Whether he's cut out to be a head coach remains to be seen because the UConn job is not an easy one. Still, there's very little question that he's one of the top defensive minds in the game, as he proved at both Cincinnati and Notre Dame. Diaco is more than a little off-center personality-wise, but his players usually respond to him. He could be the key for Nebraska to get back to its Blackshirt tradition of tough, physical defenses.

Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY SportsBrian Ferentz, left, will be by the side of his father Kirk as Iowa's offensive coordinator in hopes of bringing a spark to the Hawkeyes.

Brian Ferentz, offensive coordinator, Iowa: There's no doubt that the Hawkeyes needed a jolt after finishing 121st in the FBS in total offense last season. With the notable exception of the 2015 run to the Big Ten title game, Greg Davis' philosophies didn't always seem to mesh well with Iowa's bread-and-butter staples. Ferentz certainly will be on the same page as his father, and the staff will be reworked to get everybody moving in the right direction. The younger Ferentz gained valuable experience during his time with the New England Patriots, and the former offensive line coach will push an aggressive, physical run game to the forefront.

Pep Hamilton, assistant head coach/passing game coordinator, Michigan: The only non-coordinator on our list, Hamilton reunites with Jim Harbaugh after serving as his wide receivers coach at Stanford in 2010. Hamilton later went on to be the offensive coordinator for the Cardinal and with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns. You could say he's overqualified for his new role in Ann Arbor, but Michigan certainly is thrilled to have him working with Wilton Speight and a host of young receivers and quarterbacks.

Jerry Kill, offensive coordinator, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights averaged just 13.4 offensive points per game, last in the FBS, and were shut out four times in Big Ten play. A major overhaul was needed, and head coach Chris Ash scored a coup by luring former Minnesota head coach Kill out of retirement. Kill insists that his epilepsy is under control, and hopefully he'll be better able to manage his condition without all the pressures and requirements that a head coaching job brings. He's still going to have a ton of work to do to right this ship, beginning first and foremost with finding and developing a quarterback.

Kevin Wilson, offensive coordinator, Ohio State: Urban Meyer vowed to fix the Buckeyes' passing game after his team shockingly was shut out in the Fiesta Bowl by Clemson, and Wilson is one of the best offensive schemers around. His Hoosiers were consistently ranked among the top passing teams in the Big Ten, and they combined a fast pace with a creative running attack. Both Wilson and Meyer will have to answer some tough questions about the circumstances in which Wilson left Indiana, which included allegations of player mistreatment. But if there are appropriate firewalls in place, this could be as productive a marriage as that of Meyer and Greg Schiano, his defensive coordinator and another former head coach.

The Big Ten mailbag is back, this time on a Tuesday thanks to some technical difficulties last week. As always, if you've got questions, tweet them to me or shoot an email to ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com. It's the offseason, but keep them coming.

Let's ride ...

Brian Bennett: Arguing over preseason rankings by a few pundits in January? Never change, guys.

OK, let's start with Michigan. Few if any teams in the country were hit harder by graduation than the Wolverines, who had 18 senior starters and Jabrill Peppers. That's why the enthusiasm for next season, I think, has been a bit muted. Colleague Mark Schlabach ranked Michigan No. 12 in his first Top 25 of 2017, and even that might be a bit generous given the massive personnel losses.

Yet there are two main reasons to remain excited about the Maize and Blue prospects for next fall: Jim Harbaugh and talent. This program is never going to dip too low as long as Harbaugh is still calling the shots, and there are a ton of skilled players percolating and coming into Ann Arbor. I'll take a very talented but inexperienced team over the opposite situation any day. Look at what Ohio State accomplished using that same mix last season.

Speaking of the Buckeyes, I've seen some people rank them ahead of Penn State for next year and some doing the opposite. Schlabach, for example, has the Nittany Lions fourth and Ohio State sixth. Seems fair. James Franklin's team will start in a great position with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, but Urban Meyer still has J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber. Plus a roster full of blue-chippers, even after another draft exodus.

Remember, too, that Meyer has still only lost two regular-season Big Ten games. Franklin got him last year, but that was a night game in Beaver Stadium, a week after Ohio State had a physical night at Wisconsin, and it took a fluke special teams play to pull off. The challenge for Penn State to repeat that result in the Horseshoe this season will be much tougher.

Then again, the Nittany Lions played better in the final few weeks and in bowl season than Meyer's team did. It's pretty much a coin flip right now, in my view. And assuming Michigan is good and Michigan State can bounce back, well, the East Division could be flat out ridiculous in 2017.

Brian Bennett: I could cop out here and say Michigan State, since the Spartans certainly were a bottom-half team in 2016. But that kind of pansy answer isn't what you've come to expect from this mailbag, is it?

So instead, I'll take Purdue. I don't expect the Boilermakers to make a bowl, not with a neutral-site game against Lamar Jackson and Louisville, a trip to Missouri and a visit from Michigan all by Week 4. Yikes.

But Jeff Brohm is an offensive whiz who oversaw some of the most explosive teams in the country at Western Kentucky. He's got a quarterback, David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2016. Though the defense requires a major overhaul, I think Purdue could win a shootout or two over a team most people wouldn't expect them to beat this season.

Brian Bennett: Can I hold?

The big question here is, what is Nathan Stanley? I'm not even sure the coaching staff knows exactly what to expect of its young and untested quarterback. Getting Akrum Wadley back was big, but he may need a backfield mate to help carry the load, given his size. He averaged less than 13 rushing attempts per game last year, after all.

The offensive line should remain sound, led by the underrated Sean Welsh. I'm bullish on Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator, and getting the entire coaching staff on that side of the ball on the same page is crucial.

Developing receivers remains an issue, though the return of Matt VandeBerg will settle some of that. Iowa simply has to stretch the field better. But if you're asking me if I buy that the Hawkeyes will improve over 2016, when they ranked No. 121 nationally in total offense, then yes, I'm rushing to the counter to make that purchase.

On Monday, Jesse Temple looked at the toughest and easiest nonconference schedules in the Big Ten for 2017.

Out-of-league games comprise only 25 percent of a team's regular-season schedule, however. What's even more important for many teams is how their Big Ten schedules stack up.

So today we're taking a look at which teams have the most and least favorable Big Ten schedules in 2017. We're not using "tough" and "easy" because it's never easy to get through a conference slate. And things are all kind of relative here. Playing in the East Division is going to present a major challenge with all the heavyweights located on that side. But we're more looking toward who has the more advantageous crossover games and how the home/road splits sort out. (As a reminder, West Division clubs gets five conference home games each this year, while East teams have only four apiece.)

After going through all these, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with how the league has managed to balance things out in Year 2 of the nine-game schedule. There are few glaringly obvious discrepancies in who plays whom.

Still, schedules will never be truly equal when there's no round-robin. So here are the three most favorable conference schedules -- at least on paper -- in late January:

AP Photo/Aaron GashPaul Chryst's Badgers will face a much more manageable conference schedule in 2017.

1. Wisconsin: One year after facing one of the most brutal schedules imaginable, the Badgers get a bit of a letup in 2017. Their East crossovers are Maryland, Michigan and Indiana, with only the game against the Hoosiers coming on the road. Wisconsin does have to go to Nebraska on Oct. 7, but that's the only road game against a league team that had a winning record last year until the finale at Minnesota. And Wisconsin has absolutely dominated the series with the Gophers in the last decade-plus.

2. Illinois: The Fighting Illini do have to go to Ohio State. But their other crossovers are at home against Indiana and Rutgers, and they get Wisconsin, Nebraska and rival Northwestern all in Champaign. It's just a question of whether Lovie Smith's team will be good enough to take advantage of those matchups.

3. Rutgers: After going winless in the Big Ten last year, the Scarlet Knights can't count any game as easy. But their crossover schedule includes winnable games against Purdue and Illinois, along with a trip to Nebraska. That won't make the division games any more manageable, especially with road trips to Penn State and Michigan, but it sure beats the early days of facing both Wisconsin and Nebraska as West crossovers. A close fourth is the Golden Gophers, who get Nebraska and Wisconsin at home and whose crossover schedule (Maryland, Michigan State and at Michigan) depends heavily on how good Michigan State will be in 2017.

And here are the teams that appear to have the three least favorable conference schedules, same caveats applying:

1. Iowa: Rival fans have complained that the Hawkeyes' league schedules were too generous the past few years. Not so in 2017. Kirk Ferentz's team drew Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State as crossovers. While the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes do have to come to Kinnick Stadium, they are both likely preseason top-10 teams. And the Spartans could be poised to bounce back. Iowa also has to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, so they'll have to earn everything next season.

2. Nebraska: The good: Wisconsin and Iowa both come to Lincoln, and one of the three crossovers is Rutgers. The bad: Like Iowa, the Cornhuskers must play both Ohio State (at home) and Penn State (on the road). That's about as tough as it gets. And both Wisconsin and Iowa have had recent success winning in Memorial Stadium.

3. Penn State: The Nittany Lions' three crossovers could all be against West contenders: at Iowa, at Northwestern and versus Nebraska. The defending Big Ten champs also have to go to Ohio State. That game in Columbus convinced me to put Penn State here over the Buckeyes, who have road games against Iowa and Nebraska, plus the end-of-season trip to Michigan.

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

The Way-Too-Early team rankings are already out as the attention shifts to the 2017 season. But what about the individuals who are returning in the Big Ten to lead those programs this year? The conference reporters got together and worked up another batch of power rankings, this time focusing on the stars who are coming back around the league next season.

Also be sure the check out Adam Rittenberg's list of the top 50 players returning nationallyInsider.

1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley: The push for Heisman Trophy consideration nationally came a little too late in the season a year ago, but the rest of the country appears to be realizing what the Big Ten has known for a while now: Barkley is a rare talent with the football in his hands. Expectations will be sky high for his junior campaign.

2. Penn State QB Trace McSorley: The spotlight may shine a bit brighter on his counterpart in the backfield, but McSorley has developed into a game-changer in his own right at quarterback. After accounting for 36 touchdowns on the way to the Big Ten title, another step forward for the Nittany Lions could be frightening for opponents.

Saquon BarkleyRich Graessle/Icon SportswireSaquon Barkley is at the head of the class of returning players in the Big Ten.

3. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett: The ups and downs were undeniable during Barrett’s junior season, and while there was plenty of blame to go around for the struggles in the passing game, the mandate from Urban Meyer to improve it will put him under the microscope. Based on his prolific track record, Barrett should be able to handle that pressure without much problem.

4. Iowa LB Josey Jewell: Already well established as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten, Jewell will look to build on the 124 tackles he piled up last season as the centerpiece for the Hawkeyes. If he can top the 6 tackles for loss he added last season, even more acclaim could be headed Jewell’s way.

5. Northwestern RB Justin Jackson: Considering the rising senior already has more than 900 touches on his collegiate resume, it would have been understandable if Jackson had declared for the draft. But with a degree in sight, the Wildcats will once again have the seemingly tireless workhorse once again in the backfield.

6. Indiana LB Tegray Scales: The league’s leader in both total tackles and tackles for loss is sticking around for another season with the Hoosiers, giving coach Tom Allen a huge building block as he puts his stamp on the program. Scales hasn’t typically received much attention for his work, but few defenders can match his production.

7. Ohio State LB Jerome Baker: After an injury ahead of him allowed Baker to step into the starting lineup early in the season, the gifted defender hasn’t looked back. With Raekwon McMillan now gone, Baker will be counted on even more this season to keep the Silver Bullets operating at a high level.

8. Ohio State RB Mike Weber: Just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards, Weber’s role figures to increase without Curtis Samuel around to split some of the carries. And he might be better equipped to handle the workload now that a pesky shoulder injury has had time to heal.

9. Ohio State DE Tyquan Lewis: In a bit of a shocker, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year elected to stick around for one more crack at a championship with the Buckeyes. Lewis proved his success wasn’t just a product of playing on the other side of Joey Bosa, tallying eight sacks and forcing three fumbles without his old sidekick around last season.

10. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard: The deep, loaded unit up front limits the opportunities at times for Ohio State’s pass-rushers, but Hubbard typically finds a way to leave a mark in every game thanks to his versatile athleticism. He’ll be trying to build on his 46 tackles -- eight of them for a loss -- after electing to return for another season.

11. Minnesota RB Rodney Smith: Smith rushed for 1,158 yards as a sophomore with 16 touchdowns -- the third-most in school history in a single season. He has quickly become one of the top tailbacks in the Big Ten.

12. Michigan QB Wilton Speight: After winning the starting QB job in 2016, Speight never looked back and earned third-team All-Big Ten honors. He threw for 2,538 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions and should be even better as a senior.

13. Iowa RB Akrum Wadley: Wadley strongly considered leaving school early for the NFL but opted to return for his senior season. He'll be the focal point of Iowa's running game without LeShun Daniels Jr. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.

14. Ohio State OL Billy Price: Not many three-year starters with a national championship and All-American honors already under their belt would bypass the NFL draft and come back to school. But then, not many players are like Price, who will anchor the Buckeyes' offensive line as an important leader.

15. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki: Gesicki became a sure-handed, catch-making machine in 2016 and set school records for tight end receptions (48) and receiving yards (679). He'll add another dynamic piece to the Nittany Lions' versatile offense in 2017.

16. Wisconsin TE Troy Fumagalli: As safety valves go in the passing game, you can't do much better than the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Fumagalli. He led the Badgers with 47 receptions last season and added 580 yards with two touchdowns. He'll be the go-to tight end again next season.

Clayton Thorson and Justin JacksonPhoto by Keith Gillett/Icon SportswireClayton Thorson and Justin Jackson return to lead a dynamic backfield at Northwestern.

17. Minnesota DL Steven Richardson: Richardson led Minnesota with 11 tackles for loss and added seven sacks. First-year Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has a solid piece up front defensively on which to build around.

18. Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards: For the second consecutive season, Edwards led the Badgers in total tackles (89) and added 8.5 tackles for loss with three sacks and three interceptions. Wisconsin will be loaded again at linebacker next season, and Edwards will be among the best in the league.

19. Michigan State RB L.J. Scott: There wasn't much to cheer about for Michigan State in 2016, but Scott was a bright spot. He led the Spartans in rushing yet again as a sophomore, tallying 994 yards and six touchdowns. Expect him to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark as a junior on his way to a big season.

20. Michigan State OL Brian Allen: Allen will enter his senior season having played in 38 games, including 24 starts the last two seasons. He played both center and guard last season and led the Spartans in knockdowns.

21. Penn State S Marcus Allen: He led the Nittany Lions in tackles last season with 110, adding a pair of fumble recoveries. Penn State was happy to see him come back for his senior year.

22. Nebraska S Kieron Williams: He tied for second in the league with five interceptions in ’16 and will be a building block for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco

23. Wisconsin LB Jack Cichy: He was a force when healthy, with 60 tackles and seven TFLs in just seven games. He should help the Badgers’ LB corps remain strong.

24. Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson: As a sophomore, Thorson threw for more than 3,000 yards, with 22 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. The arrow is pointing up.

25. Rutgers WR/KR Janarion Grant: His eight combined kick and punt return touchdowns is tied for the most in FBS history. His return after missing most of last season with a broken ankle is vital for the Scarlet Knights.

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2017 NFL draft was Monday. Several Big Ten players have decided to forego their eligibility, including big names like Michigan's Jabrill Peppers and Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan and Malik Hooker.

Some teams were hit hard by the draft exodus, while others escaped relatively unscathed. Here's our list of winners and losers from the draft decisions in the Big Ten:

Winner: Iowa

The Hawkeyes return arguably their best offensive and defensive players, both of whom mulled NFL leaps. Linebacker Josey Jewell was a Butkus Award finalist this season after recording 124 tackles. Running back Akrum Wadley led the team with 1,081 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns. Getting both of them back for their senior years in Iowa City is a huge bonus.

Akrum WadleyJeffrey Becker/USA TODAY SportsGetting Akrum Wadley back for his senior year is a huge bonus for the Hawkeyes.

Loser: Ohio State's defense

McMillan and Hooker were widely expected to turn pro. So was cornerback Gareon Conley. Fellow cornerback Marshon Lattimore didn't seem like an early-entry candidate before the season, but he jumped after a strong campaign. Keeping defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard on campus helps and the Buckeyes are loaded with young talent. Still, they'll have to replace four all-conference performers in the back seven next year, all of whom left eligibility on the table.

Winner: Ohio State's offense

Sure, Curtis Samuel went pro, and the Buckeyes' offense was far too dependent on his uniquely versatile skill set down the stretch. But few expected J.T. Barrett to be back at quarterback for his senior year. While Barrett had some problems in the passing game, a reworked offensive coaching staff should help him get back on track. All-Big Ten offensive guard Billy Price also chose to return.

Loser: Wisconsin

The Badgers lost a pair of All-Americans in linebacker T.J. Watt and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Both made the right decision, though there was some thought that Ramczyk's hip injury might cause him to come back to school. Neither were projected to be NFL draft picks before the season -- Watt had recently made the transition from tight end, while Ramczyk transferred from a Division III school.

Winner: Penn State

The loss of receiver Chris Godwin will hurt, but that's one of the Nittany Lions' deepest positions. Several other draft-eligible players, like linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, receiver DaeSean Hamilton and quarterback Trace McSorley, will all be back in State College next year to help the team defend its Big Ten title.

Neutral: Northwestern

The Wildcats came into 2016 with two major stars: linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and running back Justin Jackson. Walker decided to bolt after his junior season, but Jackson will be back after leading the Big Ten in rushing yards. Jackson will be seeking his fourth straight 1,000-yard season in 2017.

Winner: Nebraska's secondary

Cornerback Chris Jones was considered a possible early entry after a strong first half of the season. His performance -- like the Cornhuskers in general -- tailed off in the second half of the year, but Nebraska is happy to have him back. The team's other starting corner, Joshua Kalu, and safety Kieron Williams likewise made the right calls in returning for their senior years. The defensive secondary will be a key building block for new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

Loser: Michigan State's defense

Malik McDowell's intention to enter the NFL draft this year was one of the worst-kept secrets in the Big Ten. Both sides were ready to move on. But safety Montae Nicholson's decision to go pro stung a little more. Nicholson had a solid junior year with 86 tackles, but his performance never quite matched up to his physical gifts. He could have been a star as a senior. The Spartans' defense will be awfully young in 2017.

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