The “way-too-early” power rankings are starting to approach the territory of just “too early” now that a full season of Big Ten spring football is in the books and the 2017 version of the conference has started to take shape. Fifteen spring practices didn’t provide any major shake-ups in the league, but they did offer a window into how most programs are evolving and which new faces will be the ones to watch in the fall.
With that in mind, it’s time to provide an update to the Big Ten power rankings as teams start to look ahead toward summer.
1. Ohio State: From a talent and depth standpoint, no one in the Big Ten has a better chance to play for a national championship in 2017 than the Buckeyes. Their defensive front promises to be one of the toughest in the nation. Their offense, now under the direction of Kevin Wilson, will try to push the ball downfield more often. If the younger receivers are ready by September, this team won’t have many weaknesses.
2. Penn State: The defending conference champs still boast the best backfield in the league with quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions should have one of the most entertaining offenses in the country. The defensive depth and size is still building in James Franklin’s fourth season in Happy Valley, so his team may need to win some shootouts to hang with their toughest competition.
3. Michigan: The Wolverines piled up as many reps as possible in spring practice to try to get a young team -- especially on defense -- a bit more time on task. Jim Harbaugh’s enthusiasm (most recently manifested in a trip to Rome) has helped bring in prospects that can physically match any team in the Big Ten. They won’t be able to move past the slightly more proven teams on this list until all that youth shows what it’s capable of doing in a game.
4. Wisconsin: The Badgers didn’t make any big waves on National Signing Day or during spring ball, which is par for the course and a positive sign in Madison. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook and several others skipped the spring game, but there isn’t much mystery about what to expect from Wisconsin’s offense. First-time defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard (the Badgers’ third DC in three years) should have plenty of depth to help him get used to his new role.
5. Northwestern: Veteran running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson should be able to provide good leadership for a team that slipped to 7-6 last season. Their 1-3 start in 2016 was a popular discussion topic this spring among the Wildcats, who feel like they put themselves in a hole to start the year. Pat Fitzgerald’s 10-year contract extension signed in April shows the type of trust he’s earned in being able to get back to comfortably above .500.
6. Nebraska: Former Tulane transfer Tanner Lee won Nebraska’s quarterback competition this spring. That’s one question settled for the Huskers. In order to compete for a West Division title in Mike Riley’s third season, they’ll have to figure out the pecking order for who will be catching Lee’s passes and settle quickly into a new defensive scheme under coordinator Bob Diaco.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes’ best offseason news came in January when linebacker Josey Jewell and running back Akrum Wadley both decided to return for senior seasons. That pair should help Iowa remain steady on defense and in the running game. Will they find a quarterback who can help them climb back toward the top of the West? That job is likely to remain open well into August.
8. Minnesota: P.J. Fleck’s stated mission for his first spring at Minnesota was less about scheme and more about putting a rocky offseason in the rear-view mirror. Fleck felt that he made progress there. He also inherits a roster that has enough talent to win games early in his tenure.
9. Maryland: The Terps have a handful of potentially electric playmakers in 2017 and the fast-paced offense that can lead to fireworks. They’ll need to continue to get stronger in the trenches and settle the quarterback competition this summer.
10. Indiana: After only a little more than a year in Bloomington, Tom Allen has flipped the Hoosiers’ defense into the strength of the team. Tegray Scales and Rashard Fant are both potential first-team All-Big Ten players. Offensively, though, Indiana may be headed for a step backward after Kevin Wilson’s departure.
11. Michigan State: The Spartans ended a 3-9 season in search of some positive vibes and so far the offseason has not provided any. Mired in sexual-assault allegations and player departures, Michigan State’s spring left more questions than answers. While there is enough talent still in East Lansing to keep them out of the cellar, Mark Dantonio and company have a lot of rebuilding to do.
12. Purdue: The Boilermakers should take a step forward under Jeff Brohm. The first-year head coach runs a dynamic offense that can help eliminate some of the talent gap between Purdue and others in the Big Ten. Despite some good junior-college additions to the roster, he’ll need more than one offseason to accrue the talent he needs.
13. Illinois: Lovie Smith had a little more time on his hands this spring compared with 2016 when he was hired in March. He used it to hold early practices and try to build some much-needed depth. The combination of quarterback Chayce Crouch and receiver Mikey Dudek provides a reason for optimism if they can both stay healthy.
14. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights finished spring football with only one healthy scholarship quarterback. Chris Ash has a lot of problems to solve in his second season as head coach, but nothing will be as important as finding a solution under center.