Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions

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.

It's been a while since the ol' Big Ten mailbag showed its face around these parts. But with college basketball leaving the stage and spring practice waning, it's time to once again take your questions. You can send them any time via Twitter or by emailing ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.

And we're back ...

Brian Bennett: I loved Mike Riley's hiring of Bob Diaco to be the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator. I covered Diaco when he was at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, where he put together some outstanding defenses. He's extremely quirky, but players respond to Diaco's fiery attitude. And the dude can coach.

The question is, does he have the right personnel for his 3-4 scheme? I'd expect the secondary to be one of the best in the Big Ten with returning players such as Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. The front seven is another story. Nebraska wasn't a great pass-rushing team last season, and I wonder if it has the run-stuffing defensive linemen and playmaking linebackers to make this unit truly special. I'm not expecting a dominant, top-20-type defense this season but would look for some strides made and a leap forward perhaps in 2018.

Brian Bennett: It could be challenging. Minnesota has had between four and six healthy offensive linemen this spring, which is a giant red flag. There's almost no experience at quarterback. The roster is very young, and this is a major culture change with an entirely new staff.

The situation is far different than when P.J. Fleck took over Western Michigan, but his first season in Kalamazoo resulted in a 1-11 record for the Broncos. So it took some time for him to work his magic. The Golden Gophers won nine games last season and have some dynamic playmakers at running back in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, so this is not a major rebuild. Still, I think it very likely could be a transition year.

Brian Bennett: I've thought for a while now that Akrum Wadley was Iowa's most explosive running back. After he ran for 1,081 yards on just 168 carries last season, it will be really intriguing to see what he can do consistently with more carries. Keeping weight on has been a problem for Wadley in the past, but he should be beyond that now as a senior.

He might never be a bell cow a la Shonn Greene, but Wadley should be one of the Big Ten's best running backs this season and could top 1,500 yards. Stay tuned: I hope to write more about him soon.

Brian Bennett: Unlike other coordinators, Joe Moorhead actually has head-coaching experience. And he was highly successful at it, albeit at a lower level (Fordham).

That might make him an even more attractive candidate for a school looking for a head coach next winter. Yet landing at a place like Notre Dame seems like a bit of a stretch. It's still fairly rare for coordinators with no strong ties to a school to suddenly become head coaches at traditional powers. Instead, I'd look to the paths of a couple of other Big Ten coordinators who were hot commodities: Tom Herman, who took over at Houston before eventually getting the Texas gig, and Pat Narduzzi, who was hired by Pitt. Think mid- to low-tier Power 5 jobs or a strong Group of 5 program.

Of course, it also depends heavily on what jobs come open and how the carousel spins. But I'd love to be Moorhead's agent after another season with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley.

Brian Bennett: Perry Hills wasn't bad last season for the Terrapins, finishing second in the Big Ten behind McSorley in pass efficiency while completing 61.9 percent of his passes. But he also threw for less than 1,500 yards in 11 games, so he wasn't exactly Boomer Esiason.

Caleb Henderson, the North Carolina transfer, is a thickly built, strong dude who was once an ESPN 300 recruit. He simply got buried on the depth chart in Chapel Hill behind a potential first-rounder, Mitch Trubisky. He should be able to sling it down the field and stretch defenses vertically more than Hills did, and he can bowl people over running it as well. After sitting out last season as a transfer and learning the system, he should have a leg up in the team's quarterback competition.

Henderson still hasn't proved anything in college football. But with him and incoming freshman Kasim Hill, it sure looks as though Maryland's quarterback play, which has been uninspiring for a while now, could soon go up a few notches.

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.

Saeed Blacknall AP Photo/Michael ConroySaeed Blacknall had 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns last season as a junior.

Every team has question marks when it enters spring practice, but Penn State might have fewer than just about any team in the Big Ten.

As head coach James Franklin mentioned at his spring preview news conference on Tuesday, the defending Big Ten champions return 99 percent of their rushing yards, 73 percent of their receiving yards, 72 percent of their tackles and 64 percent of their tackles for loss from last year's Rose Bowl squad. And they've got two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.

The biggest challenge for Franklin may be making sure his team stays humble, hungry and hard working.

"Now you take all those things, and you combine them with the experience that we gained, I think you've got a chance to do something special," he said.

Here's a look at what to expect from the Nittany Lions this spring:

Spring schedule: Practice begins on Wednesday morning. The annual Blue-White game will be held on April 22 at 3 p.m. ET inside Beaver Stadium.

What's new: Not all that much. Franklin was able to keep his coaching staff intact despite last year's success. Sixteen starters are back, making Penn State suddenly one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten. There will be plenty of new faces this spring, however, as veterans like Barkley, linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki and others will have limited reps as young players get a chance to step forward.

Three things we want to see:

1. A new go-to wide receiver emerging: Chris Godwin's decision to enter the NFL draft leaves the offense in search of a true No. 1 wideout. Luckily, there are plenty of candidates.

Saeed Blacknall is a veteran who's had big moments but has lacked consistency. Could he be ready to truly break out?

"We expect him to have a huge spring and a huge offseason and go and have a monster year this year and stay healthy," Franklin said.

The coaching staff is also high on Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson, and senior DaeSean Hamilton has tons of experience.

2. What does the center position look like?: At long last, Penn State now has depth and talent on the offensive line, especially as young players who redshirted continue to develop. The big question there this spring is who replaces Brian Gaia at the all-important center spot.

Franklin said he would start spring by moving guard Connor McGovern over. Ryan Bates is another candidate, as well as Zach Simpson. If one player excels in the role quickly, it will simplify the other roles and allow the unit to build solid chemistry.

3. New pass-rushers: Last year's starting defensive ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, are both gone. So, too, is linebacker Brandon Bell. They took with them 16 of the team's 40 sacks a year ago. Everyone's eager to see redshirt Shane Simmons this spring, as well as classmates Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller played a lot as backups last year. Defensive line has been a strength in State College the last few years, and if the young guys are ready, the Nittany Lions might not miss a beat here again in 2017.

Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.

Speaking of champions, we're taking a look at the defending champs today: the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Mark Alberti/ Icon SportswirePenn State's Saquon Barkley, one of the nation's best running backs, could be an early Heisman contender.

1. They have the best player in the league: Saquon Barkley is a beast. There's no better word for it. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, he shredded USC's defense in the Rose Bowl and he ran a hand-timed, sub 4.4 40-yard dash in winter workouts. He accumulated nearly 1,900 total yards last season with 22 total touchdowns, and with two years of experience under his belt, he should be even better in 2017. Barkley is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and he's the type of player who can drag his team to a title.

2. They might also have the best quarterback in the league: Going into last season, and even deep into it, there wasn't much debate that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten's top quarterback. But Trace McSorley had a better season than Barrett. So much so that the league awarding Barrett its quarterback of the year trophy now looks pretty silly. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He got better as the season went along and was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, when he destroyed Wisconsin's elite defense for 384 passing yards and four scores. With Barkley and McSorley in the same backfield, running Joe Moorhead's high-paced offense, this will continue to be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses.

3. The talent is getting better: It's still pretty amazing what James Franklin and his staff were able to do last season with such a young roster, as Penn State finally began to emerge out of the sanctions era. The kicker is that not only are several key players back, but the young ones who are coming in might be even more talented. Franklin has recruited very well, and former problem areas like the offensive line are rounding into legitimate upper-tier Big Ten units. This is illustrated by the team's testing during winter conditioning. Strength coach Dwight Galt told reporters recently that the Lions had two players run in the 4.4 second range in the 40 back in 2014. Now they have five players, including Barkley, in the 4.3s. Other benchmarks like, well, the bench press are the highest they've been in years as well. The weight room isn't the same as the football field, but this program is assembling more and more high-level athletes.

4. Experienced secondary: Penn State's defense has some question marks up front. But the back end boasts plenty of experience. Three starters return, including the underrated Marcus Allen at safety and cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley. One of the safety spots is up for grabs this spring, but Troy Apke played in every game as a backup last season. Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan will be basically starting from scratch with their defensive backs in 2017, though they have a lot of talent to work with.

5. Hunger: The Nittany Lions accomplished an awful lot in 2016, but they also fell just short enough of their ultimate goals to still be hungry for more this fall. They didn't make the College Football Playoff despite winning a stacked Big Ten and beating the league's playoff representative, Ohio State. They squandered a lead in Pasadena and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. They will be eager for revenge against rival Pitt and to avenge last year's blowout at Michigan when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. Combine the talent, experience and hunger, and you've got a recipe for a possible repeat.

And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.

The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.

For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.

The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.

The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.

At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".

Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.

And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.

We knew Saquon Barkley was really good and really fast. Now we have an idea of just how fast the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year is.

On Wednesday morning, Penn State tweeted out a video of Barkley running the 40-yard dash during recent testing drills. Have a look for yourself:

That's a blazing 4.33 seconds, according to the Nittany Lions coaches who were hand-timing the run. To put that in perspective, only one running back ran a faster 40 time than that at last year's NFL combine: Georgia's Keith Marshall, who posted a 4.31.

It's important to note that the 40-yard dashes at the combine are timed electronically, which usually adds to any hand-timed result. So Barkley might not actually run a 4.3 if he were in Indianapolis this week.

But the point here is just how gifted the Penn State junior is. Last year during testing, he tied a school record with a 390-pound power clean in another video that went viral.

Then he went out and ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns, proving he's much more than just a weight room warrior.

In fact, he's the top player in the Big Ten. And this is another reason why.

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.

Penn State football coach James Franklin may not have the mullet to match Mike Gundy, but Franklin did have strength in numbers when he returned the Oklahoma State coach's singlet-clad social media volley from last week. Franklin and his entire staff slipped into spandex to start their week with a Monday morning meeting.

The wardrobe choice was in response to Gundy, who wore an orange Cowboys singlet in a video last week urging Oklahoma State fans to show up to a wrestling match between the top-ranked Cowboys and No. 2 Penn State. Gundy asked fans to put "a butt in every seat" for the meet.

Penn State won the meet in Stillwater, and in the process claimed its second straight Dual Championship Series title. Franklin and his assistants celebrated by borrowing uniforms from the new champs. In the process, they provided an important reminder that baseball remains the only sport where it is marginally acceptable for coaches to wear the same attire as players.

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.

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

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 Penn State Nittany Lions.

Must-win game: Sept. 9 vs. Pittsburgh. Last year’s renewal of a great college football rivalry served as one of the few low points during a great season in Happy Valley. The Panthers beat Penn State 42-39 after quarterback Trace McSorley threw an interception at the edge of field goal range of the Nittany Lions’ final drive of the game. The Week 2 rematch in 2017 provides McSorley and company their first real chance to keep momentum rolling (They open the season against Akron) after a strong finish this past fall. With a conference title under his belt, James Franklin’s next box to check on the way to returning Penn State to the success its huge fan base expects will be beating its top in-state rival.

Trap game: Oct. 7 at Northwestern. Franklin got into the habit of repeating his next opponent’s name like a Hare Krishna to keep his team focused during the second half of the conference championship run in 2016. Don’t be surprised if he has a one-word vocabulary during the first week of October. Penn State’s hopes of a Big Ten repeat rest in late October with back-to-back games against Michigan and at Ohio State. They’ll have a bye week after facing the Wildcats to prepare, but keeping focused will still be a challenge. Northwestern in recent years has been a team that can beat anyone at its best and lose to FCS programs at its worst. If Penn State catches the Wildcats on a good day, it will be in a battle that can’t be overlooked.

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 new player has the potential to make an instant impact for each conference team in 2017.

Up next: Penn State

Player: DB Lamont Wade

Wade was one of the headliners in the Nittany Lions' strong 2017 recruiting crop, a four-star defensive back whose outstanding athleticism and instincts will likely help him see the field right away.

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 190 pounds, he's not physically intimidating. But Wade is explosive and excellent in coverage, which is why he was coveted by many of the top programs in the country. Wade also enrolled early, giving him a head start on learning the system.

He's versatile enough to play anywhere in the secondary and make an impact on special teams. He also looked comfortable with the ball in his hands in high school.

"We think he's got a chance to make an impact and compete for the cornerback job, or the nickel job or even safety," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "And then possibly as a return man. He's already come in physically developed, and his time on campus is only going to help him get even farther ahead."

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