Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Speaking of champions, we're taking a look at the defending champs today: the Penn State Nittany Lions.
1. They have the best player in the league: Saquon Barkley is a beast. There's no better word for it. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, he shredded USC's defense in the Rose Bowl and he ran a hand-timed, sub 4.4 40-yard dash in winter workouts. He accumulated nearly 1,900 total yards last season with 22 total touchdowns, and with two years of experience under his belt, he should be even better in 2017. Barkley is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and he's the type of player who can drag his team to a title.
2. They might also have the best quarterback in the league: Going into last season, and even deep into it, there wasn't much debate that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten's top quarterback. But Trace McSorley had a better season than Barrett. So much so that the league awarding Barrett its quarterback of the year trophy now looks pretty silly. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He got better as the season went along and was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, when he destroyed Wisconsin's elite defense for 384 passing yards and four scores. With Barkley and McSorley in the same backfield, running Joe Moorhead's high-paced offense, this will continue to be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses.
3. The talent is getting better: It's still pretty amazing what James Franklin and his staff were able to do last season with such a young roster, as Penn State finally began to emerge out of the sanctions era. The kicker is that not only are several key players back, but the young ones who are coming in might be even more talented. Franklin has recruited very well, and former problem areas like the offensive line are rounding into legitimate upper-tier Big Ten units. This is illustrated by the team's testing during winter conditioning. Strength coach Dwight Galt told reporters recently that the Lions had two players run in the 4.4 second range in the 40 back in 2014. Now they have five players, including Barkley, in the 4.3s. Other benchmarks like, well, the bench press are the highest they've been in years as well. The weight room isn't the same as the football field, but this program is assembling more and more high-level athletes.
4. Experienced secondary: Penn State's defense has some question marks up front. But the back end boasts plenty of experience. Three starters return, including the underrated Marcus Allen at safety and cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley. One of the safety spots is up for grabs this spring, but Troy Apke played in every game as a backup last season. Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan will be basically starting from scratch with their defensive backs in 2017, though they have a lot of talent to work with.
5. Hunger: The Nittany Lions accomplished an awful lot in 2016, but they also fell just short enough of their ultimate goals to still be hungry for more this fall. They didn't make the College Football Playoff despite winning a stacked Big Ten and beating the league's playoff representative, Ohio State. They squandered a lead in Pasadena and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. They will be eager for revenge against rival Pitt and to avenge last year's blowout at Michigan when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. Combine the talent, experience and hunger, and you've got a recipe for a possible repeat.