Power Ranking Every Big Ten Team Post Spring Football
Spring football has come and gone, at least in the Big Ten, which wrapped up its final spring games of the year this past weekend.
Now all eyes in the conference will turn toward offseason conditioning and workouts leading up to the start of fall camps this August.
But with spring ball having passed, we now know more about the Big Ten as a whole than we did even just a couple of months ago. Even with the entirety of each team's 2016 recruiting class having yet to arrive on campus, a clearer picture of a likely pecking order in the coming year is beginning to take form.
With three months down in the offseason, plenty will likely change between now and the time the 2016 season officially kicks off in September. But for now, here's a ranking of how each team in the Big Ten stacks up coming out of spring football.
Having accumulated a combined 6-30 record, including a 2-22 mark in Big Ten play, in each of the past three seasons, it's hard to give Purdue the benefit of the doubt under head coach Darrell Hazell entering 2016.
The Boilermakers do, however, return 68 percent of their offensive and 65 percent of their defensive production from last season's 2-10 team, according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly.
It also bodes well for Purdue that plenty of young talent from last year's team returns with plenty of room to improve in the coming year. Quarterback David Blough (1,574 yards, 10 touchdowns, eight interceptions) is back for his sophomore campaign, as is talented running back Markell Jones (875 yards, 10 touchdowns in 2015).
If Blough and Jones can each avoid sophomore slumps and take the next steps in their respective careers, the Boilermakers backfield will be one of their strengths in the coming year. Still, the remaining holes on the Purdue roster are too much too ignore, as another long season in West Lafayette appears to be in order.
Returning a Big Ten-high 85 percent of total production, Rutgers has, if anything, experience on its side entering 2016.
Despite having lost arguably its best player from a year ago, wideout Leonte Carroo, to the NFL, the Scarlet Knights bring back a number of key players from last year's squad, including quarterback Chris Laviano, running back Robert Martin and defensive back Isaiah Wharton.
What's more, Rutgers will also be adding defensive lineman Darius Hamilton back to its game plan in the coming season, after a knee injury cost the All-Big Ten defensive lineman all but one game of his 2015 campaign.
But even with the returning talent in Piscataway and the addition of new head coach Chris Ash, there's only so much improvement that can be made for a team that went 4-8 a year ago and still finds itself in the ultra-competitive Big Ten East. Nevertheless, Ash, Ohio State's former defensive coordinator, is keeping the expectations high for the Scarlet Knights in the coming year.
"They are demanding us to be great by any means necessary," Hamilton said of his new coaches, per Ryan Dunleavy of the Asbury Park Press. "It's really bringing out the best in us as players. It's a really exciting environment to be around right now."
Just how much of that will show up on the field in 2016 remains to be seen. But for now, Ash has his work cut out for himself in his first year as a head coach.
Much like Rutgers, Maryland finds itself coming off a disappointing season, with a first-year head coach hoping to provide some optimism at his new job.
But one glaring difference between the two Big Ten rivals is that unlike the Scarlet Knights, the Terrapins should get off to a strong start in 2015 with one of the league's weaker out-of-conference schedules, which includes games against Howard, Florida International and Central Florida.
Returning 93 percent of its offensive production from a year ago, Maryland should benefit from its soft schedule at the start and will then attempt to maintain that momentum into conference play. One glaring question mark in College Park, however, remains, as new head coach D.J. Durkin has yet to name a starting quarterback between Perry Hills and Caleb Rowe.
"We're going to keep that competition going into August," Durkin said after the Maryland spring game. "Caleb and Perry are both doing a great job. They both made improvements throughout the spring."
But with both quarterbacks seeing significant playing time in the Terrapins' 3-9 campaign a year ago, it's hard to believe the Terrapins' upside in the coming year will be very high. Durkin may very well have a bright future, but 2016 will be more about building a foundation than anything else.
Coming off a 6-7 season that included its first bowl appearance since 2007, Indiana finally seems to be headed in the right direction under head coach Kevin Wilson.
But when it comes to significant departures for the coming season, the Hoosiers face some of the most glaring in the conference, with quarterback Nate Sudfeld, running back Jordan Howard and left tackle Jason Spriggs each headed to the NFL.
Still, Indiana will return its share of promising talent in 2016, including running back Devine Redding (1,012 yards, nine touchdowns in 2015), wide receiver Simmie Cobbs Jr. (60 receptions, 1,035 yards and four touchdowns) and All-American offensive lineman Dan Feeney. Altogether, the Hoosiers will return 47 percent of their production on offense and 84 percent on defense from last year's team.
The biggest question in Bloomington remains who will replace Sudfeld, the Hoosiers' record-breaking and All-Big Ten quarterback. JUCO transfer Richard Lagow battled it out with sophomore Danny Cameron this spring in a yet-to-be-decided quarterback competition that could ultimately determine whether or not Indiana will be able to maintain its momentum in 2016.
Despite coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, there's a newfound sense of optimism in Champaign when it comes to Illinois football. That's because on the eve of spring football, the Fighting Illini found themselves with an unexpected boost in the form of the hiring of new head coach Lovie Smith.
But while the addition of the longtime NFL head coach has created a buzz for Illinois, unexpected injuries this spring have taken some of the wind out of the Illini's sails.
First, it was wide receiver Mike Dudek, whose re-torn ACL will cause him to miss the second straight season of his college career. Then it was redshirt freshman running back Dre Brown, who announced last week he had suffered a similar fate and will also miss his second consecutive season.
Nevertheless, the show must go on, with the Illini returning 74 percent of their offensive production but just 38 percent on defense from a year ago. Smith will likely get more out of his players than former Illini coaches have been able to, but that should still only carry the Illini so far in just one season.
9. Penn State
Of all the teams in the Big Ten, none finds itself in as interesting a predicament as Penn State does entering 2016.
On the one hand, the Nittany Lions should conceivably be seeing growth in their program after consecutive 7-6 seasons under head coach James Franklin.
On the other, Penn State's litany of departures may make it impossible to do just that.
Despite returning more than half (53 percent) of its production on offense from a year ago, the Nittany Lions will surely feel the loss of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens spent the spring battling it out to replace the former 5-star prospect in a quarterback competition that will carry into the fall, but there's no guarantee either will prove capable of filling Hackenberg's shoes.
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State loses Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Carl Nassib and potential first-round defensive lineman Austin Johnson but will see 63 percent of its production return from a season ago.
With new coordinators on both sides of the ball, it's not unfair to view 2016 as a transitional year in Happy Valley. Running back Saquon Barkley is back, and 5-star prospect Miles Sanders will provide an interesting dynamic, but for now, there's no shortage of question marks to be found in State College.
After contending for the Big Ten West title in 2014, Minnesota was arguably one of the biggest disappointments in all of the Big Ten in 2015.
Expected once again to be a factor in their division, the Golden Gophers went 5-7 in a distraction-filled season in Minneapolis.
But after qualifying for a bowl game based on a shortage of bowl-eligible teams, Minnesota ended its season on a high note with a win over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. Now Tracy Claeys enters his first full season as a head coach with momentum on his side after taking over for Jerry Kill, who stepped down midway through the 2015 season for health reasons.
With 84 percent of its offensive production returning from a year ago, including three-year starting quarterback Mitch Leidner, the Gophers are well-positioned for a bounce-back season in 2016. How they'll handle those expectations remains to be seen, but at the very least, the pieces are in place for Minnesota to exceed expectations in the coming year.
Putting together a 10-2 regular season to finish second in the Big Ten West, Northwestern was one of the most pleasant surprises in the conference in 2015.
But the Wildcats finished their season on a sour note with a 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
Now Northwestern will look to not just continue its progress from a season ago but prove its impressive 2015 campaign was not just a matter of happenstance. Boding well for the Wildcats is that they return Clayton Thorson as their starting quarterback and possess arguably the best running back in the Big Ten in Justin Jackson.
Add in middle linebacker Anthony Walker, and Northwestern possesses cornerstone talents on both sides of the ball. Now it's time to see whether last year was a fluke or if Pat Fitzgerald really has a good thing going in Evanston.
After a historically unlucky season in 2015 which saw no shortage of last-minute heartbreak, Nebraska is setting out to prove that it's better than last year's 5-7 regular-season record indicated.
And based on the roster the Cornhuskers return, they could be poised to accomplish just that.
Bringing back 94 percent of its production on offense, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska should take a collective step forward in Mike Riley's pro-style system in the coming year. Even in the Cornhuskers' Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA, the offense appeared much more comfortable under the direction of their new head coach, totaling 500 yards of offense and 37 points.
Defensively, Nebraska brings back less (63 percent of production from a year ago), but defensive end Greg McMullen could serve as a cornerstone on a unit that just lost Maliek Collins to the NFL draft. The Huskers will also hope to see overall growth from a defense that ranked 10th in the Big Ten in 2015.
"We improved night-and-day from last year," safety Nate Gerry said after Nebraska's spring game, per Sam McKewon of the Kearney Hub.
Ultimately, the Cornhuskers have plenty to prove in the coming year but may just possess the pieces to challenge rival Iowa in the Big Ten West. That's certainly a tall task for a team coming off a losing season, but 2016 will provide Nebraska with an opportunity to show last year was more of a fluke than anything else.
For all the talk about Wisconsin's Murderers' Row of a schedule—and we'll get to that in a minute—there's actually a lot to like about the Badgers heading into 2016.
While Wisconsin only returns 34 percent of its offense and 54 percent of its defensive production from last season's 10-3 team, the return of a healthy Corey Clement at running back should provide a boost in the Badgers backfield. Quarterback Joel Stave took a lot of experience out the door with him when his eligibility expired, but fifth-year senior Bart Houston could conceivably be an upgrade in head coach Paul Chryst's system.
But regardless of what Wisconsin returns or replaces, its schedule still looms. The Badgers will take on LSU in the out-of-conference portion of its schedule before opening Big Ten play against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive games.
That's four consecutive games against teams that possessed a combined 46-8 record in 2015.
From a talent standpoint, the Badgers are one of the Big Ten's best and good enough to win the West. But with a schedule like that, their ceiling seems only so high.
4. Michigan State
After accumulating a 36-5 record over the past three seasons and winning two of the past three Big Ten championships, Michigan State has established itself as one of the conference's top programs.
But now the Spartans find themselves facing no shortage of question marks as several key players from their impressive three-year run head to the NFL.
Between quarterback Connor Cook, wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, left tackle Jack Conklin, center Jack Allen and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State is losing a lot of talent that was integral to its recent success. The Spartans return just 26 percent of their offensive production and 64 percent on their defense from 2015.
One big key will be how an ongoing quarterback competition between Tyler O'Connor, Damion Terry and Messiah deWeaver plays out through the remainder of the offseason. But regardless of who's starting for Michigan State come September, the standard left from its recent teams remains the same.
"Our goal is to go back-to-back," Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. "That's always our goal here: to win the championship."
After unexpectedly finding itself one win away from crashing the College Football Playoff, the question in Iowa City is whether or not the Hawkeyes are capable of sustaining their success.
Based on the makeup of their 2016 roster, it certainly seems possible.
With 72 percent of its production on both offense and defense set to return, Iowa is well-positioned to remain the top team in the Big Ten West in the coming year.
The Hawkeyes bring back second-team All-Big Ten quarterback C.J. Beathard and Thorpe Award winner Desmond King to a team that compiled a perfect 12-0 regular-season record before closing the year with back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Stanford in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl, respectively.
Facing a manageable schedule that will see its toughest opponents—Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska—come to Kinnick Stadium, the pieces are in place for Iowa to repeat as division winners. That would once again put the Hawkeyes back in the playoff picture, but this year it shouldn't be so unexpected.
With a 10-3 record that included a win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl to close the season, it'd be tough to argue that Jim Harbaugh's debut season as Michigan's head coach was anything but a success.
Now the Wolverines will aim to take the next step in their progress, with several key players from last year's team returning in Ann Arbor.
Between tight end Jake Butt, safety Jabrill Peppers, cornerback Jourdan Lewis, running back De'Veon Smith wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and four of five starting offensive linemen, there will be no shortage of experience for Harbaugh to rely on in his encore campaign.
Add in the nation's fifth-ranked recruiting class in 2016, which includes possible Week 1 starter Rashan Gary, and Michigan already has a compelling case for being one of the most talented teams in all of the Big Ten.
While a quarterback competition between John O'Korn and Wilton Speight is ongoing, the pieces around the rest of the Wolverines roster should give whoever winds up being the starter plenty to rely on. Road games against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State won't help Harbaugh's cause, but at this point, Michigan deserves to be considered one of the conference's top teams.
1. Ohio State
After accumulating a 50-4 record and winning the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship in his first four years at Ohio State, Urban Meyer finds himself with several holes in his depth chart. The Buckeyes return just six total starters from last season's 12-1 team—three on offense and three on defense.
So with Ohio State expected to take a step back this season, it probably pained the rest of the Big Ten to hear the way the Buckeyes head coach praised his team following its spring game. OSU's annual exhibition showcased several of its younger, once-highly touted prospects, such as wide receiver Torrance Gibson and running back Mike Weber, who could make an instant impact in 2016.
"That was an all-good right there, a bunch of winning going on," Meyer said after the spring game. "What didn't I like? I liked it all."
That might have been some hyperbole on the three-time national champion head coach's part, but with J.T. Barrett returning as Ohio State's starting quarterback, the Buckeyes should be considered the Big Ten's team to beat in the coming year. With his recent run of recruiting, Meyer has set up Ohio State well not just for the present but also the future, as this season should see the latest crop in the cycle of stars in Columbus emerge.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.