An unforgettable season in the Big Ten is officially over, and now it’s time to turn the page for the resurgent conference.
What’s next? Plenty can change during offseason conditioning, spring practice and training camps in August, but the ESPN.com reporting crew is already taking its first stab at the power rankings for the 2017 campaign.
1. Ohio State (four first-place votes): The Buckeyes were clearly humbled by the shutout loss in the College Football Playoff, but there was no shame in reaching that stage with 16 new starters. Urban Meyer shouldn’t have to worry about inexperience this year. With a chance to retool the offense, a talented roster will again be in position to contend for the national title.
2. Penn State: The reigning Big Ten champions aren’t going away after their magical run to the title this season, and James Franklin has more than enough pieces to take a stab at defending the crown this fall. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back to lead an explosive offense, the Nittany Lions are again going to be a handful.
3. Wisconsin: The schedule was supposed to keep the Badgers out of contention last season, which makes what they accomplished even more impressive (11 wins, a New Year’s Six victory). With a fundamentally sound defense and a lighter load on the schedule, Wisconsin will enter the season as the favorite in the West.
4. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh’s presence on the sideline earns the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt in the offseason conversation, but there are major questions for a roster that will lose so many key contributors -- particularly on defense. Is Michigan already at a point where it can reload without taking a step back? That answer is going to have to wait for a while.
5. Nebraska: Year 2 with Mike Riley brought clear signs of progress, but the Huskers still came up short in their biggest games. The flop at Ohio State made it clear there was still plenty of work to be done, and after years of relying on Tommy Armstrong Jr., Nebraska will finally have to break in a new quarterback.
6. Northwestern: Once the Wildcats got over their September slump, they looked like a team capable of hanging with the powerhouses in the Big Ten. Pat Fitzgerald has no shortage of returning starters to work with this offseason, and Northwestern might just be a sneaky dark horse in the West this season.
7. Michigan State: No program’s early projection looks as different from the year-end rankings as Michigan State’s, a direct reflection of faith that Mark Dantonio can right his ship in a hurry. The Spartans were one of the biggest disappointments in the league last season, but if that just turns out to be a development year for so many young players, Dantonio could have his team back in the mix quickly.
8. Iowa: The Hawkeyes took a step back as a contender last season, but other than failing to meet oversized expectations, there couldn’t be too many complaints about an eight-win campaign. Replacing C.J. Beathard at quarterback will be at the top of the offseason to-do list, and that could help determine the ceiling for Iowa this season.
9. Indiana: Change unexpectedly arrived at the top of the coaching staff at the end of the season, and with Kevin Wilson now gone, all eyes will be on Tom Allen and how his defensive-minded approach affects the Hoosiers. There were encouraging signs of improvement for Indiana, though, which could bode well for Allen as he puts his stamp on the program.
10. Minnesota: With a jolt of energy having just arrived in P.J. Fleck, the Gophers have a chance to outperform this early ranking. There is still some uncertainty with the roster in the fallout of the off-the-field incident that helped end the tenure of Tracy Claeys, and quarterback Mitch Leidner is now out of eligibility, but Fleck has shown he can maximize his resources.
11. Maryland: DJ Durkin’s early work with the Terrapins qualifies as something of an under-the-radar success. The gap between Maryland and the top programs in the league still appeared to be pretty sizable, and this season will be crucial in closing it, but Durkin looks to be up to the task.
12. Purdue: There is an enormous rebuilding job awaiting Jeff Brohm with the Boilermakers, but the program took one step forward just by making a major commitment with a big-time hire backed up by a significant financial investment. Success probably isn’t going to arrive overnight, but expect improvement, at least on the offensive side of the football.
13. Illinois: Expecting an instant turnaround last season with the Illini wouldn’t have been fair, but Lovie Smith’s 3-9 debut campaign with the program still felt underwhelming given his track record. As he works to finalize a recruiting class and sets the tone for his second year in the offseason program, it’s not unreasonable to expect Smith’s club to be more competitive in 2017.
14. Rutgers: Chris Ash inherited an absolute mess with the Scarlet Knights, and the job might even be more challenging than he could have anticipated when he left his post as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator last year. As he worked tirelessly to try to close the gulf that has emerged between the best teams in the Big Ten and his program, that margin actually seemed to expand during an 0-9 campaign in the conference. How soon can Ash start to close it?