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Big Ten Football: Super-Early Conference Rankings for 2017

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 01: Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer prepares to take his team onto the field before the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Ohio Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 58-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
David RegimbalFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2017

Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin were the best teams in the Big Ten last season, and that won't change when toe meets leather and the college football season kicks off next August. 

Each of those four teams returns key starters but also loses superstars to graduation and the NFL draft. Will that change the pecking order at the top? And will any of the Big Ten's non-playoff contenders from 2016 make a big leap next fall?

Here's an early look at the conference hierarchy as each team enters winter conditioning and prep for spring practice.

    

No. 14: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Rutgers suffered through a disastrous 2016 season that produced just two wins and finished with nine consecutive losses in conference play. The Scarlet Knights were at their worst against the heavyweights in the East Division, getting outscored by a combined 224-0 by Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State.

There are signs things are headed in the right direction, most notably Rutgers' No. 34-ranked recruiting class. But second-year head coach Chris Ash still has a major rebuilding project on his hands, and it could be another rough season before things turn around.

    

No. 13: Illinois Fighting Illini

BRADLEY LEEB/Associated Press

Lovie Smith's return to college football (and his first head coaching gig at the collegiate level) produced a rough first season that featured just three wins, but an exciting 31-27 win over Michigan State down the stretch showcased the Illini's potential.

Illinois has to replace quarterback Wes Lunt, but the offense has some playmakers with leading rusher Kendrick Foster and leading receiver Malik Turner back for their final seasons in 2017.

    

No. 12: Purdue Boilermakers

If not for Rutgers' complete collapse in Big Ten play, Purdue would've run away with the worst season in the conference last fall. The Boilermakers fired former head coach Darrell Hazell midway through the year and struggled to get to three wins.

But Purdue made a sensational hire when it brought on Jeff Brohm, who won 30 games in his three seasons as a head coach at Western Kentucky from 2014-16. During that stretch, the Hilltoppers ranked Nos. 6, 3 and 1 in total offense. 

It may take Brohm a season to get his Boilermakers a winning record, but it wouldn't be a surprise if they made a huge surge this fall.

    

No. 11: Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana made a big leap last year, when an improved defense that jumped 76 spots from the previous year in total yards surrendered fueled a 3-1 start last September. But the Hoosiers stumbled to a tumultuous finish that was highlighted by the resignation of former head coach Kevin Wilson.

The architect of Indiana's defensive turnaroundthen-defensive coordinator Tom Allenwas promoted to head coach after Wilson's departure. The defense should continue to improve, but will the offense suffer without Wilson at the helm?

    

No. 10: Maryland Terrapins

D.J. Durkin was the first-year coach who enjoyed the most success last season, as Maryland won six games and earned an invite to the Quick Lane Bowl, where it fell to the Boston College Eagles.

COLLEGE PARK, MD - OCTOBER 15: Ty Johnson #6 of the Maryland Terrapins rushes the ball against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on October 15, 2016 in College Park, Maryland.  (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)
G Fiume/Getty Images

It was still a promising start for the Terrapins, who have some nice pieces to build around on offense in running back Ty Johnson (who eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards last season) and wideout D.J. Moore. The schedule in 2017 is absolutely brutal with road games against Texas (in the season opener), Ohio State and Wisconsin and home bouts against Michigan and Penn State.

    

No. 9: Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State cracked the Top 10 of the Associated Press poll after its Week 3 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and it looked like Mark Dantonio was primed to make another run at the playoff after an embarrassing 38-0 showing against Alabama the previous December.

The Spartans completely fell apart, though, losing nine of their last 10 games to finish with the worst record of Dantonio's career (3-9). There are significant hurdles for Michigan State to become a major league contender in 2017, highlighted by finding a suitable quarterback, but running back LJ Scott is back, and wideout Donnie Corley could be the breakout star in the league.

    

No. 8: Nebraska Cornhuskers

How will Nebraska handle the loss of the heart and soul of its offense in Tommy Armstrong Jr.?

The three-and-a-half-year starter played his last football game for the Cornhuskers in 2016, and he left Lincoln, Nebraska, with the program's career record for total offense. Armstrong's backup, Ryker Fyfe, also graduated, so the Cornhuskers have a big question mark at quarterback and could start true freshman Tristan Gebbia, who enrolled early to take part in spring drills.

    

No. 7: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Minnesota may have won the coaching sweepstakes not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country after it fired Tracy Claeys and hired P.J. Fleck, who commandeered a brilliant 13-1 season at Western Michigan last fall.

Fleck made Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell and wideout Corey Davis one of the most lethal combinations in college football, and he'll be tasked with overhauling an offense that struggled greatly with Mitch Leidner behind center.

The Gophers get relief on the scheduling front with Ohio State out of the rotation, while Wisconsin has to visit Minneapolis at season's end.

    

No. 6: Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa was one of the surprises of the 2015 season when it bulldozed its way to an undefeated regular season and Rose Bowl berth, but it took a step back last fall, losing four games in the regular season, which included a 41-14 drubbing at the hands of Penn State.

But the Hawkeyes returned to their '15 form in a 14-13 upset of No. 3 Michigan at home, which triggered a three-game winning streak to close out the season. But a 30-3 blowout loss to the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl halted that momentum, so 2017 could go either way for Kirk Ferentz's squad.

    

No. 5: Northwestern Wildcats

Whenever there are high expectations for Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern, they seem to disappoint.

That was the case this fall when the Wildcats followed up their 10-win 2015 season with a six-loss clunker that included a horrendous loss to FCS foe Illinois State. But they turned things around at the tail end of the season and upset the No. 23 Pitt Panthers (the only team to beat national champ Clemson) in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Northwestern returns nine starters on defense and has quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson back on offense, which should help it compete with Wisconsin for the West Division title. 

    

No. 4: Michigan Wolverines

IOWA CITY, IOWA- NOVEMBER 12:  Head coach Jim Harbaugh of the Michigan Wolverines before the match-up against the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 12, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.  (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)
Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Michigan will always be a factor in the Big Ten title race as long as Jim Harbaugh is on the sideline, but it'll have a hard time keeping pace with Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State as it works to replace 17 senior starters and the early deflection of do-everything playmaker Jabrill Peppers.

The Wolverines find themselves in a nearly identical situation as Ohio State was in 2016. A mass exodus of talent to the NFL has created enormous holes in the depth chart, but there's stability at the most important position with the return of quarterback Wilton Speight.

If Michigan can do what it did last year and start hot (it won its first nine games before losing three of its last four), Harbaugh's young team could gain confidence for a tough two-week stretch to close the season on the road against Wisconsin and then back at home against the Buckeyes.

    

No. 3: Wisconsin Badgers

Wisconsin has to replace a ton of talent as well after losing running back Corey Clement and key defenders in linebacker T.J. Watt and cornerback Sojourn Shelton.

But unlike the Wolverines, the Badgers have a solid, proven foundation with players such as wideout Jazz Peavy, tight end Troy Fumagalli and linebacker T.J. Edwards coming back. And with another year under head coach Paul Chryst, quarterback Alex Hornibrook should take a big step forward in his sophomore season.

    

No. 2: Penn State Nittany Lions

The reigning Big Ten champion checks in at No. 2 in this power ranking. 

There's plenty to like about Penn State after its unexpected title run in 2016. The offense returns most of its major pieces with quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley, wideout Saeed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki.

But the defense is losing the two players who gave Ohio State the most trouble in defensive end Garrett Sickels and linebacker Brandon Bell.

If this year's showdown with the Buckeyes were taking place in Happy Valley, Penn State would have a stronger case for the No. 1 spot. But the Nittany Lions have to travel to Columbus next October, just a week removed from what should be a physical and emotional game against Michigan. And while the Nittany Lions are battling against the Wolverines, Ohio State will be on its bye week with an extra seven days to prepare for James Franklin's squad.

    

No. 1: Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State replaced 16 starters and still managed to rip off an 11-1 campaign that earned it a bid to the College Football Playoff.

Next fall, the Buckeyes will try to get back to the four-team semifinal on the strength of 15 returning starters, including quarterback J.T. Barrett.

And while the continuity on the depth chart is a big reason for optimism, the changes that took place on the coaching staff could have a bigger impact. Urban Meyer wants to open up the offense and become a better passing team in 2017, which is why he brought on former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to coordinate the offense.

Wilson's Indiana team had the conference's No. 1 passing attack in 2015 and was ranked No. 2 last season. With better athletes on the perimeter and a two-and-a-half-year starter at quarterback, the Buckeyes offense could explode next fall.

     

All recruiting and rankings information via Scout. All stats via cfbstats.com.

David Regimbal covers the Big Ten for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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