2017 Big Ten East Preview

1. Penn State Nittany Lions– This one came out of left field and surprised us all. Penn State was way ahead of schedule in their quest to compete for the division title and a Big Ten Championship. James Franklin has this program headed in the right direction for years to come. Despite the slow start, Penn State leaned on quarterback Trace McSorley and they won nine of their final ten games which included an upset victory Ohio State last October. I see this offense taking a step forward once again in 2017. Trace is back under center and running back Saquon Barkley enters the year as a Heisman Candidate along with the title of the best running back in the country. The defense is the biggest concern for James Franklin. They’ll be without defensive ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell and safety Malik Golden. However, Safety Marcus Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and cornerback Grant Haley headline the key returnees for the Nittany Lions defense.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes– 2016 was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. They lost so much from the year before. Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Eli Apple and Braxton Miller were some of the names they lost to the NFL, so how would Urban work with what he has? This past season showed me just how great of a head coach he is. They made the CFP in December, but were embarrassed by the eventual champion Clemson Tigers. They will be making some necessary changes on offense. Former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson has been hired as the new offensive coordinator and Ryan Day was hired from the NFL as the new quarterback coach. The goal with these two new hires is to help get J.T. Barrett to play at the same level he did when he was a freshman. The ground game is still intact with Mike Weber returning and the receiving core will have some questions to answer and will need to develop playmakers on the outside now that Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown are both in the NFL. For the second season in a row, the defense will be hit hard with departures. Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and linebacker Raekwon McMillian are all gone and replacing those four will be the top priority for defensive coordinator Greg Schiano.

3. Michigan Wolverines– Just like every team in college football, you’re going to have some personnel losses on both sides of the ball. Michigan will have to of course address those, but I still see this team being a factor within the mix to win the Big Ten East in 2017. Wilton Speight is back after a nice first season as the full-time starter under center as quarterback, but the supporting cast will have some question marks. The offensive line had many issues last year and there were times when Speight was taking unnecessary hits. The next issue is the receiving core and who will step up to replace Jake Butt, Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson? The defense has also lost many pieces. Jabrill Peppers, Taco Charlton, Chris Wormely, Ryan Glasgow and Jourdan Lewis are all gone. If guys can have an immediate impact, the offensive line plays better and Harbaugh keeps his guys confident, life will be alright in Ann Arbor.

4. Michigan State Spartans– This is a team that you just expect to do well year in and year out and that’s because the numbers don’t lie. They’ve won 11 games in five of their last six seasons. Last season’s 3-9 mark wasn’t only a shocker, but a big disappointment in college football. I don’t see them staying down for much longer. I could see them making a return to the top 25 within the next year. L.J. Scott is back as the starting running back and he will be used frequently until the passing game can balance things out with the ground attack. Despite only winning three games, Sparty wasn’t bad on defense. Coming into the season, they will enter having lost guys on each level of the defense starting with tackle Malik McDowell, linebacker Riley Bullough has expired his eligibility, and the secondary loses both starting safeties (Demetrious Cox and Montae Nicholson) and cornerback Darian Hicks. This will be another rebuilding year for Mark Dantonio.

5. Indiana Hoosiers– New coach Tom Allen is tasked with elevating Indiana football a notch higher in 2017 and beyond. The Indiana native was hired by former coach Kevin Wilson to coordinate the defense after one year as USF’s defensive coordinator and the move paid dividends for the Hoosiers. Indiana allowed 27.2 points per game in 2016, which was a significant improvement from the 37.6 total allowed in 2015. This unit should be the strength of the team in 2017, as linebacker Tegray Scales should be one of the best in the nation, and cornerback Rashard Fant returns after breaking up 17 passes last year. Linebacker Marcus Oliver and lineman Ralph Green III are the biggest losses for Allen’s defense. The Hoosiers are in relatively good shape on offense, but this unit has a couple of big question marks to answer in spring ball. Will quarterback Richard Lagow (19 TDs, 17 INTs) take a step forward under new play-caller Mike DeBord? And who steps up at running back to replace Devine Redding?

6. Maryland Terrapins– D.J. Durkin maybe on to something and Maryland finishing higher than sixth in the East is definitely within reach. There will be a new quarterback under center to start the season, and they have some candidates that can win the starting job. Sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome would figure to have the inside track based upon experience. However, North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson and freshman Kasim Hill will push for snaps. The ground game remains intact with Lorenzo Harrison back for another year. The offensive line has been the issue for Maryland. In 2016, they gave up 49 sacks. The defense is slowly but surely improving.

7. Rutgers Scarlet Knights– Second-year coach Chris Ash inherited a major rebuilding project, so it is no surprise the Scarlet Knights finished 2016 without a win in Big Ten play. Some of the pieces are starting to fall into place for Ash, as veteran coach Jerry Kill joined the staff to call the plays in 2017. Developing more consistency from the quarterbacks is Kill’s top priority. However, there are promising skill players returning next fall, including running back Robert Martin (625 yards) and receiver Jawuan Harris (39 catches). The offense also received a boost around the NFL Draft deadline, as receiver Janarion Grant decided to return to campus after suffering a season-ending knee injury early in the 2016 campaign. The Scarlet Knights allowed 37.5 points per game last fall and did not have a player earn consideration for All-Big Ten honors. This unit returns largely intact.

Prediction: I like Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes to win the Big Ten East. J.T. Barrett must be at his best all season long for this team to not only win the Big Ten Championship, but if they want to be in the playoffs or the national title game, he has to have a big year. They will go as far as he takes them. Nothing should scare the Big Ten or the rest of the country more than an angry Urban Meyer, and that’s exactly what they’ll get when the 2017 season kicks off. This time around, they’ll have at least 16 starters back for another potential playoff run and a shot of getting back to the national championship. The Buckeyes are loaded with young talent and they are looking to have an immediate impact right away.