Big Ten: Michigan State Spartans

The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.

The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.

There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.

A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.

Ohio State's Urban MeyerJoe Maiorana/USA TODAY SportsOhio State head coach Urban Meyer has compiled a 61-6 record with the Buckeyes.

Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.

Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.

Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.

That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?

The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.

The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.

In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.

It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.

Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.

Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.

The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.

“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”

On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.

"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.

If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.

The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's J.T. Barrett drew some criticism last year, but he's a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his resume.

The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.

J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.

Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.

"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."

Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.

"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."

Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.

"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.

Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."

That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:

Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.

Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.

Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.

Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.

"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."

Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.

Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.

It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.

Rutgers

The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.

Purdue

Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.

Michigan State

Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.

Illinois

The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.

Maryland

You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.

Indiana

The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.

Northwestern

Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.

Minnesota

Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.

Nebraska

Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?

Iowa

There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.

Michigan

Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.

Ohio State

Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.

Wisconsin

The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.

Penn State

The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.

Earlier this week, we took a look at reasons why some of the main contenders could win the 2017 Big Ten title. We included Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That's all well and good, but who would have guessed at this time a year ago that Penn State would win the league championship in 2016? Maybe there will be another sleeper team that rises up and surprises everyone this fall.

With that in mind, here are reasons why some teams outside of our list of four contenders could win the Big Ten title this year.

Iowa

It was just two seasons ago that the Hawkeyes were 12-0 in the regular season and finished a yard short of winning the Big Ten championship game. They return a solid nucleus and solid leaders on both sides of the ball in linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz should reshape the offense into one that plays to its strengths. Iowa will have a first-year starting quarterback, Nathan Stanley, but as head coach Kirk Ferentz pointed out, first-year starters like C.J. Beathard and Ricky Stanzi fared pretty well in the past.

Nebraska

Hey, the Cornhuskers have to win another conference title sooner or later, right? Their three most likely challengers in the West Division -- Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern -- all have to come to Lincoln this season. Mike Riley has had some time to bring in his kind of players, including at quarterback. Nebraska should be as talented as any team in the West, and if it can just find a way to get over the hump in its biggest games, a trip to Indianapolis is certainly within reach.

Michigan State

OK, so things seem to be kind of a mess in East Lansing right now. But let's not forget this is a program that has won two of the past four Big Ten championships. It's going to be some seriously tough sledding in the East Division, but the Spartans have surprised us before. Of course, it would be nice if we even knew who was on the team right now or whether Mark Dantonio will speak publicly before the season starts.

Northwestern

Plenty of experience is back on offense, led by last year's Big Ten rushing champ, Justin Jackson, and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Northwestern won 10 games two years ago and had some nice wins last season at Iowa and over Pitt in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats' 2017 Big Ten opener is at Wisconsin. If they can find a way to pull off that upset, they could find themselves in the thick of the division race.

Minnesota

Row the dang boat. The Golden Gophers have come close the past couple years, and maybe first-year head coach P.J. Fleck's enthusiasm and new offense will help push them past the finish line. The roster has some holes, but the schedule is manageable early. It's not unthinkable that Minnesota could be 7-0 heading into the Floyd game in Iowa City. Crazier things have happened ... just look at last year.

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.

With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.

Go time:

Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.

Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.

As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.

Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.

A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.

The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.

Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.

John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?

Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.

I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.

Brian Bennett: Well, all right.

Top three QBs: 1. Penn State's Trace McSorley. 2. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. 3. Michigan's Wilton Speight (with Northwestern's Clayton Thorson right behind).

Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.

Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.

Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.

There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.

Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.

Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.

Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.

Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.

Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.

Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.

Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.

Here's a look at the East:

Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.

Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.

Michigan's Wilton SpeightAP Photo/Tony DingWilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter for Michigan, which shouldn't count quarterback depth among its concerns.

Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.

Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.

Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.

Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.

Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.

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: the Michigan State Spartans.

AP Photo/Tony DingA win in their Big Ten opener against Iowa would be a big boost for Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio.

Must-win game: Sept. 30 vs. Iowa. The Spartans are in need of a bounce-back season and don’t have much time to waste. They open their Big Ten schedule in late September against the Hawkeyes -- another team that dipped (albeit not as dramatically as Michigan State) after playing for a Big Ten title in 2015. Iowa’s visit is one of several swing games that could determine whether last season is viewed as a blip on the radar for a consistent program under Mark Dantonio or a blow that will set it back for several years. Results against the likes of Notre Dame, Indiana and Northwestern could prove to be the difference between a 6-6 record or a return to the upper crust of the conference. Iowa falls in that category, too, and a notable September victory could be important for building confidence for a relatively young team.

Trap game: Nov. 18 vs. Maryland. Coming on the heels of clashes with Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan’s State game against the Terps could be a sneaky test of its depth and consistency. Maryland took a step forward last season under new coach D.J. Durkin and his staff, including a 28-17 win against the out-of-sorts Spartans in late October. Michigan State isn’t in a position to overlook any opponent at this stage, which makes this "trap" feel a little unfair to Maryland. Nonetheless, if Michigan State does make progress in resurrecting its reputation in 2017, a loss to Durkin’s crew could knock them back toward the bottom of the East Division's pecking order.

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.

It's ridiculously early, so things can change between now and the start of the season. Let's take a look at where things stand for our next position group, the defensive line.

Best of the best: Ohio State

The Buckeyes were hit hard again by early NFL decisions on defense, but not up front.

Tyquan LewisAaron Doster/USA Today SportsTyquan Lewis had 7.5 sacks for Ohio State last season.

The returning nucleus is stellar. It includes 2016 Big Ten defensive lineman of the year Tyquan Lewis, who had 7.5 sacks last season; junior defensive end Sam Hubbard, a physical freak; Nick Bosa, who had five sacks as a true freshman; Dre'Mont Jones, who made our All-Big Ten freshman team at defensive tackle; veterans Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill; and promising sophomore Robert Landers. That doesn't include any incoming recruits like Chase Young.

The biggest question for defensive line coach Larry Johnson will be how to get all those guys playing time, especially a young rising star like Bosa. The Buckeyes might lack a truly dominant inside tackle right now, but the depth and skill on hand is otherwise the envy of the league.

Runners-up: Wisconsin and Michigan

Despite fielding some of the best defenses in the country the past few seasons, Badgers defensive linemen rarely get accolades. That's due in large part to the 3-4 system that allows linebackers to make a ton of plays, while the guys up front do most of the dirty work without big numbers. But it would be silly to ignore their contributions, and here's the great news for first-year Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard: all three starting defensive linemen -- Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih -- are back. Top reserves Olive Sagapolu and Billy Hirschfeld also return, making this a very experienced group.

The Wolverines lose a lot of talent off their front four, including Taco Charlton, Ryan Glasgow and Chris Wormley. But we're still pretty bullish about their chances in 2017. Returning veterans include Maurice Hurst, Chase Winovich and Bryan Mone. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the full unleashing of Rashan Gary, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2016 class who got his feet wet as a true freshman. Add in the arrival of heralded recruit Aubrey Solomon, and this line can rival just about anybody in the Big Ten in terms of pure talent.

Team that could surprise: Northwestern

The Wildcats lost defensive ends C.J. Robbins and Ifeadi Odenigbo, the latter of whom had 10 sacks in 2016. But three other players who started are back, including tackles Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster. There's some good young talent ready to step in, and Pat Fitzgerald scored a recruiting coup with four-star Texas pass-rusher Earnest Brown. It might be asking too much for Brown to have a huge impact as a true freshman, but this group has the pieces to be better than expected.

Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska

Defensive line had long been a strength of the Spartans -- until last season. Even when Malik McDowell was healthy, the '16 group put far too little pressure on opposing passers, finishing with just 11 total sacks. By the end of the season, Mark Dantonio was relying heavily on first- and second-year players up front. This recruiting class didn't bring as much help as expected, especially after one prospect was arrested right before signing day. So Dantonio and his staff will have to hope last season's experience sped up the development of guys like Raequan Williams and Josh King -- and that they stay healthy.

Nebraska has been decidedly average on the defensive line for a couple of years now and was pushed around down the stretch last season. Now, the Huskers will move to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Sophomore twins Carlos and Alex Davis form a good building block in the middle. Can Freedom Akinmoladun live up to his potential as a junior and become the outside pass-rushing force the scheme needs? Nebraska will need to step up in the defensive trenches to compete with Wisconsin and Iowa in the Big Ten West.

National signing day has come and gone, which means we can begin to fully evaluate the recruiting 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 team in 2017.

Up next: Michigan State

Player: TE Matt Dotson

Tom Hauck for Student SportsTight end Matt Dotson was ranked as one of the top 20 players in Ohio this past fall.

Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati has been sending talented, college-ready players to schools throughout the Midwest for several decades. Tight end Matt Dotson is next in that long line.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said he expects the 6-foot-5 pass-catcher to hit 250 pounds on the scale before he gets to East Lansing this summer. Dotson, who was ranked as one of the top 20 players in Ohio this past fall, might need time to be a physical force in college but he has the skills to be a threat in the passing game next year.

“I think Matt is a guy that’s going to play very early in his career,” Dantonio told reporters Wednesday. “He’s got toughness, can run and catch. A big target and has a great deal of enthusiasm that goes along with it.”

The Spartans’ depth chart at tight end provides Dotson with a better chance to get on the field as a true freshman -- a rarity at Michigan State until this past year. Josiah Price, the program’s all-time leader in tight end touchdowns, and Jamal Lyles are both out of eligibility. That leaves sophomore Matt Sokol as the only returning tight end who made a catch last season. Early enrollee Jack Camper will have a head start on Dotson to take some of those snaps, but the Moeller graduate’s ability to use his big frame to his advantage may end up helping him have an early impact.

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.

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.

Trace McSorleyCharles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsPenn State's Trace McSorley returns to lead all Big Ten quarterbacks into 2017.

Let's start with the most important position on the field: quarterback.

Best of the best: Penn State and Ohio State

No real surprises here.

McSorley, as we mentioned, was phenomenal in 2016. He led the league in pass efficiency while throwing for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions. He also ran for seven scores, and his ability to keep plays alive was crucial to the Nittany Lions' offensive resurgence. He'll begin the season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate. Tommy Stevens is still around as his backup, and four-star signee Sean Clifford is on the way.

Sure, J.T. Barrett struggled in the passing game down the stretch for Ohio State. But he's still one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in school history, and working with new assistants Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day should help Barrett rediscover his mojo as a senior. Dwayne Haskins, who redshirted in 2016, has a world of talent, and incoming freshman Tate Martell was the Gatorade national high school player of the year.

Runners-up: Michigan and Northwestern

The Wolverines don't return much experience on offense except for under center. Wilton Speight had a very solid first year as a starter, completing 61.7 percent of his passes with an 18-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He particularly excelled on the deep ball. Speight has a big edge going into the spring, but he'll face some talented competitors in redshirt freshmen Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey. John O'Korn is still around, too, adding serious depth at this spot.

Northwestern's Clayton Thorson quietly put together a 3,000-yard campaign last season, with a 22-to-9 TD-to-INT rate. He needs to improve on his \completion percentage (58.6), but he has good wheels and continues to grow after starting every game as a redshirt freshman and sophomore. He could really blossom in 2017 if he has enough weapons around him at receiver.

Team that could surprise: Purdue

Perhaps surprise isn't the right word, since David Blough did lead the league in passing yards per game last year. Still, he accomplished that mostly on volume and was terribly inefficient, with a Big Ten-worst 21 interceptions.

The good news: He's now playing for a quarterback guru in new head coach Jeff Brohm, who coaxed great things out of his passing attacks at Western Kentucky. Blough has all the talent in the world, and if he can learn to improve his decision-making under Brohm, he could really have a special season. If not, backup Elijah Sindelar is waiting in the wings with his own blue-chip arm.

Teams that need to step it up: Michigan State and Nebraska

The Spartans were decidedly below average in the first year of the post-Connor Cook era and dealt with injuries to boot. Brian Lewerke is the favorite to win the job this spring, and he did show flashes of potential in his brief stint running the show last year. Redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver will try to push him, and Damion Terry is back even if it seems like he has been competing for this job since the Biggie Munn era.

Nebraska barely completed 50 percent of its pass attempts in 2016, and the two quarterbacks who started games -- Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ryker Fyfe -- are both gone. It will be an open competition this spring, though Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has the inside track over Patrick O'Brien. Someone needs to claim the job as his own and improve the Cornhuskers' consistency in the passing attack.

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

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