Big Ten: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

The cut looked like so many others that had left defenders with figurative broken ankles and had Rutgers making grand plans for their most dynamic athlete for the rest of the season.

Janarion Grant had already even unleashed a couple jukes on the same play, slicing through Iowa’s would-be tacklers for 76 yards before making one last move to turn the corner and give the Scarlet Knights a go-ahead touchdown. But the final turn instead ended with Grant on the ground, writhing in pain from a literal broken ankle while all those dreams for his final season were scrapped in an instant.

The Rutgers sideline was instantly deflated and the offense never found a replacement weapon even close to Grant’s caliber. His NFL dreams after his senior campaign were put on hold, and now there was an appeal for a medical redshirt on his plate. And among all those thoughts running through Grant’s mind last September was one wondering if one of the nation’s most overlooked, undervalued playmakers would ever even be the same.

“I was thinking about a lot,” Grant told ESPN.com. “I’ve never had a lower-body type injury like this before, so it kind of scared me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

“Of course, my teammates and coaches tried to keep my head up and they knew it was hard for me, but I appreciated them all doing that, and I think it will help me out in the long run. I just couldn’t believe it, they couldn’t believe it, nobody could believe it. But it was a freak accident. It happens, and you just have to move on and keep moving.”

Jenarion GrantRich Graessle/Icon SportswireWide receiver Jenarion Grant chose to play another season at Rutgers after injuring his ankle last year.

Grant isn’t quite flying around yet with his high-end speed or the moves that have helped him tie an NCAA record with eight career touchdown returns on special teams. But despite sitting out last week’s spring game, his rehabilitation is on track, he’s running and gaining strength in his legs and “itching” to pick up where he left off during the impressive start to his first senior season.

Aside from his work in the return game that already included a pair of scores before the injury on Sept. 24 against the Hawkeyes, Grant was settling into his role as a wideout by averagingfive catches per game, was thriving as a rushing threat with three more touchdowns on the ground and also had thrown one with Rutgers looking to expand his package even more as a Wildcat quarterback. Chris Ash's first year with the program was effectively built around Grant’s versatile skills, and the Scarlet Knights never recovered without him.

Rutgers didn’t score on the drive after Grant was injured on the 3-yard line and wound up losing a one-possession game to the Hawkeyes, never won another game for the rest of the season -- and Grant’s five touchdowns in just four outings still wound up tying for the team lead at the end of the year.

“It took away confidence,” Ash said. “Janarion was our best player. He was our best playmaker, and we didn’t have a lot of playmakers who could change a game on this team last year. He was the one who could. When we lost him, everybody knew it. The coaches knew it, the players knew it.

“We still have to go out and coach and play and do our job, but in games when Janarion was there, if we were behind, everybody just felt like at some point he was going to make a play to spark the sideline and change momentum and get us back in the game. And he did that. When he was gone, we lost that. The mentality changed and the confidence wasn’t there. Having him back is a big lift for everybody.”

Grant’s return wasn’t a sure thing, since he could have still tested his luck and entered the NFL draft instead of appealing for a medical redshirt for a mulligan on his senior season.

But a combination of boosting his professional stock, the chance to add to his college legacy as a returner and helping rebuild Rutgers were all among the factors pulling Grant back. And now he’s got the chance to finish what he started when he took that short screen pass, turned up field and came so close to leaving only the Hawkeyes in pain.

“I’m itching for it,” Grant said. “It’s just a daily thing because I want to be out on that field and I love the game.

“The results I’m seeing with the strength, the stability of my leg, being able to make cuts, being able to run and turn sideways ... I envision coming back and doing the same things. I’m willing to do anything for our team. I’ll put my body on the line for each and every one of those guys just to be able for us to have a successful season.”

Rutgers certainly knows how important Grant is to having one. And if the Scarlet Knights are winning again, expect to see plenty of opponents checking their ankles.

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.

Giovanni RescignoPhoto by Rich Graessle/Icon SportswireGiovanni Rescigno showed some signs that he can be Rutgers' answer at quarterback.

The mantra is simple, direct and keeps the focus exactly where it needs to be for Rutgers.

There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on last year’s record so that conversation is over. The Scarlet Knights can’t improve by wasting time worrying about what other teams might have that they don’t so those discussions have been eliminated. And there’s no sense at all in spending a second looking for sympathy just because Rutgers happens to reside in the most difficult division in college football.

But just in case there’s a temptation within the locker room or on the practice field this spring, Chris Ash has a four-word weapon that can be unleashed in a hurry to snap anybody back to attention.

“No comparisons, no complaints,” Ash said. “We could complain about the division we’re in or the fact that we have to play this team and that team, they’ve got this or they’ve got that. That’s not going to do anything but waste time and energy. Right now, it’s about focusing on what we can control, focus on what we have, go recruit, go develop and go coach our tails off.

“We can just sit here and complain, but it’s not going to do any good. I’m not going to do that, and nobody else in the organization is going to either. We’re here to build a program. We’re here to compete against the best. We’re here to find a way to win games.”

A successful formula for doing it proved elusive in Ash’s first year at Rutgers. And if he wanted to, there would be a few excuses he could easily provide for the 2-10 record and the winless run through the Big Ten schedule.

Ash was well aware of the challenge he inherited when he left his post as a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State last year to rebuild Rutgers in the daunting East Division. But the roster was perhaps a bit more deficient than even he imagined in some spots, the schedule didn’t do him any favors, his quarterback situation wasn’t ideal and injury luck also worked against the Scarlet Knights with game-changing athlete Janarion Grant lost for the season after a productive four-game stretch to open the year.

There were some silver linings for the future mixed in for the Scarlet Knights, though. Ash was able to get a handful of true freshmen early experience. His recruiting efforts produced three four-star signees as a step in the right direction. And before dealing with a nagging injury, quarterback Giovanni Rescigno showed flashes that he might be the answer at the most important position on the field. But even those discussions are largely off the table at the moment for Ash, save for an occasional mention of last year’s record if an extra jolt of motivation to get through a workout is required.

“It’s not something I’m going to keep bringing up, I’m not going to keep harping on the negative all the time,” Ash said. “It’s been used, it happened, we discussed it, but we’ve moved on. We’re focused on getting better.

“Anytime you go 2-10, it’s tough on everybody. That’s not what you set out as a goal. That’s not what you work hard for, to go 2-10. There’s no doubt about it, can’t hide that, can’t deny that it was tough for everybody involved. But that’s part of our process. We’re trying to build the program a certain way and that’s part of the process. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to bounce back up, and we did.”

Just how high the Scarlet Knights are capable of bouncing remains to be seen, and there’s plenty of work to be done before the season kicks off in September. Fresh off an appearance in the College Football Playoff, Washington looms to offer a stiff test right off the bat for a program that will have no shortage of them with East Division heavyweights Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all on the docket.

Phase Two in Ash’s Rutgers Rebuild isn’t likely to include contending for a championship this early. But that’s not a conversation the Scarlet Knights would be likely to have anyway, since it would take some comparisons outside of the program to have an idea how they measure up -- and the focus right now is locked in on themselves.

“Some of it can change in a year, and some of it’s going to take a little bit of time because you have to recruit,” Ash said. “Can you develop players in one year? Yeah, you can. Can you coach better and do things based off your personnel has for strengths and weaknesses? Yeah, you can. But to create a competitive roster at certain spots, that takes some time to recruit to it.

“I feel a lot better about our football team than I did a year ago. We’re more developed physically, our guys understand our offense, defense and special teams a lot better, our practices are just a lot cleaner and crisper and faster. I just feel a lot better about where we’re at right now.”

Obviously, no complaining is allowed anyway. But the fact that Ash doesn’t even have a reason to do it now is even better.

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.

There was never any indication the rebuild at Rutgers was going to be easy for Chris Ash. But the first season still had to be an eye-opener for him and the Scarlet Knights.

Taking much of what he learned at Ohio State and applying it to his program overhaul at Rutgers didn’t produce much success in Year One. And the blowout defeats against the Big Ten’s best and the winless record overall in the conference offered a clear reminder of just how sizable the challenge is for Ash.

But including everything from installing his defense to changing offseason conditioning workouts and adapting new social-media strategies, getting through the first year was crucial in laying the foundation for the Scarlet Knights -- no matter how difficult it might have been.

Chris AshEd Mulholland/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash's first season as head coach proved there are no quick fixes at Rutgers.

Now all the pieces should be in place to start showing progress. And spring camp is the perfect place to start.

Spring schedule: The Scarlet Knights hit the field for the first of 15 scheduled workouts on Thursday. They’ll work throughout the next four weeks leading up to the annual Scarlet-White Game on April 22 at 5 p.m.

What’s new: The revolving door on the offensive coordinator’s office continues to spin, but Rutgers is planning on establishing some long overdue stability by bringing in Jerry Kill to lead the attack. The former Minnesota coach seems to be in good health again, and he already has proven he can help lead a turnaround of a Big Ten program. Kill is inheriting a unit that ranked last in the conference in scoring a year ago, averaging less than 16 points per game for former coordinator Drew Mehringer and his spread attack. Kill has been known to experiment and show flexibility with his personnel, so what exactly he can cook up with the Scarlet Knights could be fascinating to watch in the spring.

Three things we want to see:

1. A clear starter emerge at quarterback: The first step for Kill in reshaping the offense will be figuring out who should run it, a question that isn’t exactly new for Rutgers recently. Giovanni Rescigno showed some occasional glimpses that suggest he has the potential to be a productive triggerman for the Scarlet Knights, and he’s likely going to enter camp as the leader to win the job. But Kill may see something he likes in Zach Allen or Tylin Oden that could shuffle up the depth chart again. And there’s always a chance Rutgers could revisit all of this again in the fall when Johnathan Lewis arrives -- unless somebody definitely steps forward to run the show.

2. Defensive growth: Ash rose to prominence by arriving at Ohio State tasked with revamping a defense in disarray and helping turn it into a championship-level unit within a year. That sort of instant success obviously wasn’t realistic with the talent on hand at Rutgers, but giving up more than 37 points per game still will sting a coach with the pride, track record and competitiveness of Ash. There were always going to be growing pains for a team that had four true freshmen see action at times defensively, with two of them starting games for the Scarlet Knights. That early experience could pay dividends, though, and Rutgers should be in better position now to turn the corner on that side of the ball with a strong spring.

3. A healthy Janarion Grant: There’s no need to rush him back to full participation this spring, but simply seeing the dynamic weapon back on the field could provide a jolt for the Scarlet Knights and a boost of optimism heading into the summer. Before breaking his ankle last year, Grant had established himself not just as the most dangerous threat on the roster for Rutgers, but also one of the top playmakers in the Big Ten as both a wide receiver and returner on special teams. How crucial is Grant to Rutgers? He still finished third on the team in all-purpose yardage and tied for the team lead in touchdowns despite playing in just four games. Getting him back in action, even on a limited basis, would be an encouraging sign.

Spring isn’t necessarily a time to deliver a finished product. But this time of year is crucial for setting up a team for success in the fall -- and some programs have more work to do than others.

Who stands to benefit the most from these workouts heading into the summer offseason in the Big Ten? Our conference reporters break it down, roundtable style.

Wilton SpeightCharlie Neibergall/AP PhotoIf Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, quarterback Wilton Speight needs to take ownership of the offense and team as a whole.

Brian Bennett: Minnesota

After the player-led boycott last December, the wave of suspensions and the firing of coach Tracy Claeys, it's an important camp for Minnesota and few teams have as much to accomplish this spring as the Golden Gophers. They’ve got a new head coach in P.J. Fleck and an entirely new staff. There’s a wide-open quarterback race with no proven veterans on the roster. This is going to be a young team, one that’s led by running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Fleck’s personality and schemes represent a major change. It’s a fascinating story to watch, and spring is more important than it usually is in the Twin Cities.

Dan Murphy: Michigan

The Wolverines have to begin filling 17 openings in the starting lineup this spring. Some spots are fairly easy to figure out but will need to use the next month to get comfortable in a new role. Others (like the safeties, receivers and one or two offensive line positions, for example) are wide open competitions. Spring practice will go a long way in determining an offseason pecking order at those spots.

It's also a big month for quarterback Wilton Speight. If Michigan is going to contend for championships in 2017, Speight will have to take ownership of the offense (which loses seven seniors) and team as a whole. He can start asserting himself this spring as the guy his teammates can trust to pull them out of tight spots. After losing three of their last four games in dramatic fashion, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his players shouldn't have any problem finding motivation to get a lot accomplished in March and April.

Jesse Temple: Purdue

Boilermakers fans are hungry for a reversal of fortunes, and optimism abounds with new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm in charge. His first spring in West Lafayette will be essential as he begins to put the building blocks in place for a potential turnaround. Purdue ranked 11th in the Big Ten last season in scoring offense (24.6 points per game) and last in scoring defense (38.3 points). Brohm, who came from Western Kentucky, helped the Hilltoppers lead the FBS in scoring offense at 45.5 points per game last season. His up-tempo style could benefit Purdue quarterback David Blough, who has a ton of talent and led the Big Ten in passing offense last season. Brohm needs to find enough receivers to help out Blough, and the offensive line must improve to create more of a running game. That doesn't address defensive issues, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Brohm has much work to do and only 15 practices this spring to sort things out.

Austin Ward: Rutgers

Considering the situation Chris Ash inherited a year ago and the brutal division in which he’s trying to make up ground, it wouldn’t have been fair to expect significant improvements during his debut season with the Scarlet Knights. With the roster still in rebuilding mode and the Big Ten’s East Division only getting stronger, expectations should perhaps still remain relatively low heading into 2017. But the second season is generally a time to show progress and is critically important in solidifying the foundation of a coach’s program, which makes this a significant spring for Ash.

After showing flashes of productivity leading the offense last season, this spring could be a chance for Giovanni Rescigno to stake a solid claim to the quarterback job and build some momentum in new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s offense. That position is always under the spotlight, but perhaps even more than most programs, Rutgers needs to find a reliable answer there soon.

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.

On Oct. 28, 2015, Jerry Kill announced his retirement as Minnesota's head football coach in a teary-eyed news conference. Battling seizures as a result of his epilepsy, Kill stepped down under his doctors instructions.

And that, he figured, would be the end of his long coaching career.

"I had reached the point where there was nothing left at all," he told ESPN.com earlier this month.

Less than a year and a half later, though, Kill is back working in the game he loves, if in a slightly different capacity. In December, Rutgers hired the former Big Ten coach of the year as its offensive coordinator.

The move came with some serious question marks. The pressure and stress of coaching certainly contributed to Kill's health problems in the past, which included a seven-game leave of absence from Minnesota in 2013 after a series of seizures. Yet the 55-year-old Kill is moving forward with no hesitations.

Jerry KillMichael Hickey/Getty ImagesJerry Kill thinks that better sleeping habits will help him keep his epilepsy at bay at Rutgers.

"I'm sure some people are like, 'What the hell is he doing?'" Kill said. "But the way I look at it is, you only have one life. There's no do-overs. And, hey, I don't feel like I'm done helping kids."

Besides, Kill has reason to believe things will be different this time around.

After stepping down from the Golden Gophers, he took some time to relax in Florida. He then went back to work on controlling his epilepsy.

A big breakthrough was teaching himself how to sleep. Kill estimated that he slept an average of only three hours a night in the previous 12 years, as he was unable to keep his mind from spinning when he lay down in bed. He began practicing meditation, which helped him get much more rest.

He also altered the way he eats, going to a low-carb diet. Those changes, he said, have kept him seizure free for the past year.

Kill said he had several offers to get back into coaching right after he left Minnesota. They included a call from Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, who told him he could have any part-time role he wanted with the Wolverines. But Kill wasn’t ready to go back to work until May 2016, when he took a job as an assistant athletic director at Kansas State, where he worked closely with the football program and head coach Bill Snyder in an administrative capacity.

"Going to K-State was one of the greatest things I ever did," Kill said. "It allowed me to test drive myself a little bit, health-wise."

Reinvigorated by that job, Kill decided he was ready to coach again when Rutgers' Chris Ash called about his vacant offensive coordinator position.

"When I heard through the coaching rumor mill that he might want back in, I reached out right away," Ash said. "The obvious question was, 'What type of shape are you in?'"

The two went over what Kill's schedule would look like. Ash insists that his coaches go home on Wednesday and Thursday nights during the season. There will still be long work days, but Kill assured Ash that he's properly managed his condition and could handle the load.

Now an assistant coach for the first time since 1993, Kill won't have as much on his plate as he did when he was a head coach. He was stretched in many directions at Minnesota, where he often had to be the face of the entire athletic program through some administrative disarray and lead a major fundraising campaign.

"You've got a problem every day when you're the head coach," Kill said. "Your mind's never going to stop, because there's always a problem."

Kill has another motivation for getting back into football. He knows his elevated profile as a coach can help raise more awareness and money for people with epilepsy.

He has his own foundation, Chasing Dreams. It supports such projects as Camp Oz, a summer camp for Minnesota kids with epilepsy, and instructing schools how to respond to and care for students who have seizures. Kill also wrote a book, "Chasing Dreams: Living My Life One Yard at a Time"; all proceeds from sales go to the foundation.

He also promotes the social media campaign #TackleEpilepsy, which was tied in with the NFL during the Super Bowl.

Once reluctant to discuss his health in detail, Kill is now using the platform he has with football to bring as much attention as possible to epilepsy. He knows that every time Rutgers plays on TV this season, for example, the announcers will likely tell his story. He embraces the role of public advocate.

"His willingness to speak out and share the struggles and successes he's had living with seizures is inspiring to all," said Phil Gattone, president and CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation. "He is inspirational and courageous as he continually moves forward with the challenges ahead of him. He is changing the world and its view on epilepsy as he rises above his own personal circumstances to help and give hope to others."

Kill's immediate coaching challenge is a tall one. The Scarlet Knights had one of the worst offenses in the country last season, finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams at just 15.7 points per game. It's a major rebuilding job. Then again, Kill's entire career, from small schools like Saginaw Valley State to places such as Northern Illinois and Minnesota, has been about rebuilding.

"These are the things I'm used to doing," he said.

Ash, in just his second year as a head coach, appreciates the experience and knowledge that Kill brings to the staff.

"People assume he's a sounding board for you as a head coach and he does bring that," Ash said. "But more than anything, it's the way he attacks his job. He goes out and attacks it the way he wanted his assistants to do when he was a head coach. That's a great thing for me, because it's one less thing I have to worry about."

Kill isn't worried that his health will derail him this time around. He wants to be a shining example of someone living with epilepsy and still realizing their dreams.

"My life's good, but some of these young people are having 40-50 seizures a day and there’s no answer," he said. "So we need people to help. And it's a lot easier to help when you have a platform to do so."

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 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash and Rutgers lost their final nine games last season.

Must-win game: Oct. 14 at Illinois. Rutgers needs to break the Big Ten ice after going winless in conference play during Chris Ash’s first season as head coach in 2016. Ash’s second go-round in the league starts with games at Nebraska and against Ohio State. Neither of those are realistic victories for the Scarlet Knights at this point, but a trip to Illinois the following week might be the best chance they have to get some positive vibes flowing in Piscataway. The Illini won 24-7 last year at Rutgers, but a more settled lineup might have a better chance this time despite being on the road.

Trap game: Sept. 9 vs. Eastern Michigan. The last time a team from southeast Michigan visited Rutgers, it didn’t go well for the Scarlet Knights. Eastern Michigan doesn’t have the firepower that their neighbors at Michigan brought to High Point Solutions Stadium in 2016, but the Eagles are coming off of their best year (6-7) in recent history. Redshirt senior quarterback Brogan Roback and redshirt junior running back Ian Eriksen both return this season, which should help their offense continue to improve. A loss against Eastern Michigan would likely leave the Scarlet Knights with four defeats in their first five games and an increasingly deep hole for Ash and company to try to escape.

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.

Paul Walsh/Actionplus/Icon SportswireJohnathan Lewis is the type of dual-threat quarterback who should be a good fit for coach Chris Ash at Rutgers.

Up next: Rutgers

Player: QB Johnathan Lewis

There's no nice way to put this: The Scarlet Knights stunk at quarterback last year. Just look at Rutgers' passing stats from this game. Or this one. Or this one. You get the point. It was almost historically bad.

That's why Lewis has a chance to make an impact from Day 1, even though it's unusual for true freshmen to start at quarterback in the Big Ten.

He won't arrive on campus until this summer, so veteran players such as Giovanni Rescigno, Zach Allen and Tylin Odin will have a big upper hand in experience and a headstart to learn new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill's system. Then again, all three guys had a chance to make an impact last year, and it didn't go so well.

The 6-foot-4, 228-pound Lewis is a dual threat who ran a similar offense in high school and looks like a perfect fit for what Rutgers coach Chris Ash wants to do. The Jersey City native was an important recruit for Rutgers, and even though Ash isn't guaranteeing him immediate playing time, the path certainly exists.

"I don't care what level of football you're a part of -- whether it's the NFL, college, high school -- if you don't have a quarterback, you really don't have a chance," Ash said on national signing day. "And to be able to get a quarterback with the characteristics Johnathan Lewis has means everything to us."

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

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

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

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

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

Best of the best: Iowa and Indiana

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

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

Runners-up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

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

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

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

Team that could surprise: Maryland

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

Teams that need to step it up: Rutgers and Purdue

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

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

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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