Welcome to the first version of the Big Ten Power Rankings of the 2016 regular season. A year ago, the winners of each division were Iowa and Michigan State. The Spartans inched past the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis thanks to a long, last minute drive that propelled them into the College Football Playoff Semifinals in Dallas, Texas.
Where will the defending East and West champions debut? We unveil that now.
BIG TEN EAST
1.) MICHIGAN WOLVERINES
This is a combination of Jim Harbaugh's program being in an upward trajectory and the fact that we expect Michigan State and Ohio State to take at least a step back as they look to replace many key contributors and integral pieces from their respective teams. Michigan has a lot of returning talent but their fate will likely rest on the caliber of quarterback play in Ann Arbor. But it's hard not to give Jim Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt after seeing the success he's had with every other quarterback that has been under his tutelage and the impressive projects he's taken on. John O'Korn is the projected starter and he will benefit from having two of the best receivers in the conference in Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson.
2. OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
Yes they have to replace every other starter but this is a program that can reload pretty quickly and in almost any circumstance, Oh, and they got a guy by the name of Urban Meyer in charge. It's hard to pick against them in any year. The defense will be the main question mark as they not only replace the majority of the starters but insert a new coordinator on that side of the ball as well. The offense should give them enough wins to contend for the East title.
3. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Replacing Connor Cook under center will be a tough job. Criticize him all you want but he won a ton of games for Mark Dantonio and that coaching staff. There will be a lot on the shoulders of the next signal caller which is expected to be Tyler O'Connor. He did assume the duties for Michigan State in the win over the Buckeyes a year ago when Cook was unable to play. Their defense should be stout and will have to carry the team in the early going. Expect a large dose of L.J. Scott at running back early and often.
4.) PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
It's put up or shut up time for James Franklin. The Nittany Lions are still extremely young but the folks in Happy Valley are going to want to start seeing results. He no longer has the excuse of Christian Hackenberg not being a fit for his system. It'll be a boom or bust season for Penn State. They're young and have some holes but they have a manageable road schedule while they're particularly difficult to beat at home. Add in having the best running back in the league in Saquon Barkley and the top wideout in the Big Ten in Chris Godwin, and there's some fun pieces to play with.
5.) INDIANA HOOSIERS
It'll be the same story as always with Kevin Wilson's team. Can they hold the other team to enough points to come up with enough wins? There will be no worries about the offense and it should be high-powered again lead by standout receiver Simmie Cobbs. They'll break in a new quarterback but points have never been hard to come by in Bloomington during the reign of Kevin Wilson. Can the new defensive coordinator improve his unit enough to come up with a few more wins? That is the question.
6.) MARYLAND TERRAPINS
New coach D.J. Durkin takes over a program that has an electrifying athlete in Will Likely but not a whole lot of other proven weapons. They'll fight with Rutgers in all likelihood to see who will be in the cellar of the division but the Terrapins are a bit more talented and should avoid a last place finish.
7.) RUTGERS SCARLET KNIGHTS
New head coach Chris Ash takes over a mess and the first year will likely bring a lot of failure. The message needs to be about the future and building and improving with the next few years in mind. This season will likely be one worth forgetting.
BIG TEN WEST
1.) IOWA HAWKEYES
There's not really an argument for anyone else other than Iowa to hold the top spot. The Hawkeyes bring back their stars from a season ago that helped push Iowa towards an undefeated regular season and appearances in the Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl Game. One story that will be re-iterated over and over is that Kirk Ferentz's teams often underachieve when expectations are at their highest. This will be one of those years where expectations will be rather high. How will they respond?
2.) NORTHWESTERN WILDCATS
There's been a lot of conversation about if Wisconsin or Nebraska can knock the Hawkeyes off the top of the division. I think Northwestern is the one team that can overtake Iowa. They have a cornerstone on each side of the ball in running back Justin Jackson and linebacker Anthony Walker. Both should be up for conference player of the year awards on their side of the ball. The Wildcats are talented and have a chance to be very, very good and they're quietly going through the offseason as a very dangerous team.
3.) NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS
A lot will depend on which Tommy Armstrong you see under center. He can be a fantastic player that just picks opposing defenses apart with his arm and legs at will. He can also be a turnover machine that makes costly mistakes that the offense can't come back from. I see a clash of 'fit' and 'style' between Armstrong and Riley's system. When they force him into being a pocket passer, the errant passes and decisions occur at a rapid rate. When they take the kid gloves off and allow him to be himself, an athlete, and give him full control of what he wants to do, he shines. This is a team that can compile double digit wins or just as easily be a .500 team. The Huskers are intriguing to say the least.
4.) WISCONSIN BADGERS
This has the potential to be a very, very good football team. They have the cornerstones on both sides of the ball as well in running back Corey Clement and linebacker Vince Biegel. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton is a pretty good player in his own right. However, the schedule is just so brutal. Five of their first seven games are against teams ranked in the top 15 of the initial coaches' poll. Four of the five are away from Camp Randall Stadium.
5.) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
It's a bit of a surprise that I favor the Illini over Minnesota but I do respect Lovie Smith a lot as a coach. You can say what you will but he has produced results at just about every stop he's had. He's also got some nice offensive weapons in quarterback Wes Lunt, running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, and defensive lineman Dawaune Smoot. Those are some nice pieces to start with. It'll be a fun team to observe as the season goes on as I expect to see some apparent progress and improvement in their play.
6.) MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS
Quarterback Mitch Leidner returns to run the offense once again and he's received some very high NFL Draft praise as a prospect. I'm not disagreeing with those projections but it's hard to view him as that dangerous when he's never showed on the field how prolific of a passer he can be. I think they'll be in a lot of close games but they seem to lack the firepower that other teams have.
7.) PURDUE BOILERMAKERS
It'll be quite a battle in the Big Ten to see which team is worse, Purdue or Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are such a mess but still could finish ahead of the Boilermakers. Head coach Darrell Hazell's seat in West Lafayette is as hot as anyone's in the country. It's going to take drastic improvement for him to remain at the helm of the Purdue program. It's hard to see that taking place at this point.