Let’s not give Urban Meyer credit for too much. The program he has built at Ohio State has become the envy of every team in the Football Bowl Subdivision but a select few, while Meyer’s deft touch has placed him alongside Nick Saban as the top coaches in the sport – so, in other words, he’s been praised plenty, in this space and elsewhere.
Yet we can praise Meyer in one other regard: He saw, in early 2013, an area where the Big Ten Conference was trailing, and was unafraid to essentially call out his peers and colleagues for lagging behind the rest of the Power Five landscape.
In terms of recruiting, Meyer said during a radio interview shortly after signing day, the Big Ten “as a conference (needs) to keep pushing that envelope to be better … When you see 11 of the SEC teams are in the top 25 in recruiting, that’s something we need to continue to work on and improve.”
In a broad stroke, it’s true that the Big Ten’s overall talent level once largely failed to match up with its Power Five peers; this gap was seen most clearly during postseason play, as during a 2-5 mark in bowl games to cap the 2012 season.
That this is no longer the case is obvious. On signing day in 2013, for example, just three Big Ten teams finished among the top 25 in the team rankings compiled by Rivals.com. This past February, the Big Ten had five teams in the top 20: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland and Nebraska.
Combine this uptick in overall talent with increasingly impressive hires across both divisions to find the Big Ten’s recipe for recent success. James Franklin at Penn State. Jim Harbaugh at Michigan. DJ Durkin at Maryland. Paul Chryst at Wisconsin. Mike Riley at Nebraska.
Maybe it’s the coaches. Contrast the Big Ten’s hires during the past three or four seasons with the same hires made in the SEC – which continues to recycle familiar names or grant high-profile positions to unproven assistants.
And the best part, from the Big Ten’s perspective? This rapid growth and development from punch line to national power is clearly sustainable: Hire elite coaches, recruit, increase talent and contend for national championships. The Meyer method has taken hold across the conference.
QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State
RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern
WR: Nick Westbrook, Indiana
WR: Stanley Morgan, Nebraska
TE: Mike Gesicki, Penn State
OL: Mason Cole, Michigan
OL: Sean Welsh, Iowa
OL: Billy Price, Ohio State
OL: Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin
OL: Jamarco Jones, Ohio State
DL: Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State
DL: Nathan Bazata, Iowa
DL: Rashan Gary, Michigan
DL: Nick Bosa, Ohio State
LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa
LB: Jerome Baker, Ohio State
LB: Tegray Scales, Indiana
CB: Denzel Ward, Ohio State
CB: Rashard Fant, Indiana
S: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
S: Marcus Allen, Penn State
K: Emmit Carpenter, Minnesota
P: Blake Gillikin, Penn State
RET: De’Mornay Pierson-El, Nebraska
Quarterback: Ohio State. It’s a tight one between the Buckeyes and Penn State, but J.T. Barrett’s experience and leadership qualities gives OSU the slight edge.
Running back: Penn State. Saquon Barkley is the best back in the country and one of the best backs in the history of the Penn State football.
Wide receivers and tight ends: Penn State. There’s no real standout unit in this conference, but the Nittany Lions are deep at receiver and feature one of the nation’s top tight ends in Mike Gesicki
Offensive line: Ohio State. The best line in the Big Ten should be even stronger than it was last season despite losing an all-timer in Pat Elflein.
Defensive line: Ohio State. This is the deepest, most talented and overall strongest defensive front in college football.
Linebacker: Ohio State. I would’ve given Wisconsin the edge a month ago, but Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury gives OSU the nod.
Secondary: Ohio State. Yeah, the Buckeyes again. Even with three of last year’s starters going in the first round of the NFL draft, this secondary is going to make things awfully difficult for Big Ten quarterbacks.
Special teams: Penn State. The Nittany Lions are very strong in the kicking game and should continue to improve in the return game and coverage as James Franklin continue to add talent to the roster.
RANKING THE STARTING QUARTERBACKS
1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. Barrett is going to regain his Heisman Trophy form in Kevin Wilson’s rebuilt offense.
2. Trace McSorley, Penn State. There’s a very good argument for having McSorley atop the list and as the first-team quarterback on the preseason all-conference team.
3. Tanner Lee, Nebraska. Get to know the Tulane transfer as he takes the controls of Mike Riley’s offense for the Cornhuskers.
4. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern. He’s yet to gain a ton of recognition outsid of Evanston, but Thorson is looking more and more like one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten.
5. David Blough, Purdue. The Boilermakers will lose more games than they’ll win, but there’s no question that Blough is going to shine in Jeff Brohm’s quarterback-friendly system.
6. Wilton Speight, Michigan. While he seems to have a tight grasp on the starting job, Speight should be looking over his shoulder at impressive redshirt freshman Brandon Peters.
7. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin. The staff will place more on Hornibrook’s plate this fall, his second as the starter, and I expect the sophomore to respond very well given his experience a year ago.
8. Richard Lagow, Indiana. The Hoosiers will tailor their offense in 2017 to fit Lagow’s strengths as a passer, but the future of this system might be with a dual-threat option.
9. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State. Lewerke will benefit from his two starts as a freshman, though there’s ample room for growth as he ascends to the starting job.
10. Nathan Stanley, Iowa. Stanley has a lot to prove as he works his way into the Hawkeyes’ starting job, but there’s no doubting his athleticism and overall ability to competently run this offense.
11. Kasim Hill, Maryland. This is pure guesswork, since DJ Durkin hasn’t made any statements about the competition, but with junior Caleb Henderson sidelined with a foot injury, Hill might have the window he needs to grab the job as a true freshman.
12. Kyle Bolin, Rutgers. We here at USA TODAY Sports wish the Louisville graduate transfer the best of luck as he takes over the reins in Rutgers’ offense.
13. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, Minnesota. P.J. Fleck named Rhoda and Croft as co-starters for the Golden Gophers. We’ll see how that plays out.
14. Chayce Crouch, Illinois. Perhaps the biggest key for Crouch is the Illini getting a full and healthy season from wide receiver Mike Dudek.
Ohio State CB Kendall Sheffield. The junior college transfer continues to live up to his billing as he locks down a key role for the Buckeyes’ defense.
Michigan WR Donovan Peoples-Jones. I would not be surprised to see the five-star freshman earn all-conference honors as a rookie.
Rutgers P Ryan Anderson. The transfer from Division III Olivet (Mich.) College – where he was twice named the level’s punter of the year – should get a workout for the Scarlet Knights in 2017.
Wisconsin CB Nick Nelson. Nelson might be the Badgers’ lockdown cornerback after starting his career at Hawaii.
Nebraska WR Tyjon Lindsey. The Cornhuskers will find ways to get the ball into the hands of this agile true freshman.
GAMES OF THE YEAR
Michigan vs. Florida (in Arlington, Texas), Sept. 2. I expect a Michigan win, though this one probably won’t feature a ton of fireworks.
Maryland at Texas, Sept. 2. The Terrapins will be the co-stars in the debut appearance of Tom Herman along the sidelines at Texas.
Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9. It hasn’t gotten much love in the shadow of Alabama and Florida State, but this is very clearly one of the premier games of the regular season.
Nebraska at Oregon, Sept. 9. For either team, a win could be a springboard to a highly satisfying season.
Wisconsin at Brigham Young, Sept. 16. This is the toughest game on Wisconsin’s non-conference schedule, which could end up an issue for the Badgers come early December.
Michigan State at Michigan, Oct. 7. The Wolverines would love to add to the degree of separation already evident between this two in-state rivals.
Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 7. That the Cornhuskers get Wisconsin at home could upend the consensus view of the West Division, which has the Badgers standing atop the division with room to spare.
Michigan at Penn State, Oct. 21. Even if you buy into the idea of Ohio State as the undisputed favorite, this game will have deep ramifications on the hunt for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28. The Buckeyes will look to return the favor after last year’s disappointing loss in Beaver Stadium.
Nebraska at Penn State, Nov. 18. Given the nature of Penn State’s November slate, this might be the Nittany Lions’ best and last shot at impressing the Playoff selection committee during the regular season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18. It’s been almost a generation since the last time the Wolverines won at Camp Randall, in a series that has historically favored the home team.
Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 24. The Hawkeyes just maul the Cornhuskers along the line of scrimmage.
Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25. Just because the Wolverines seem to lack experience doesn’t mean they won’t at least be within a game of the Buckeyes in this season finale.
BEST CHANCE AT THE PLAYOFF
There are a number of Big Ten teams that could conceivably make a play at a New Year’s Six bowl should the optimistic view turn into reality.
Michigan State could bounce back and reclaim its stride in the East Division, though there are so many hurdles in the Spartans’ path – namely Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – that such a leap back into national relevance seems unlikely.
Northwestern deserves its share of recognition as a dark-horse contender in the West Division, though it’s far more probable that Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch maxes out at eight or nine wins during the regular season.
Iowa’s normal consistency sometimes transforms into a skyrocket up the polls, as was the case two years ago, but this team does not seem capable of making that sort of charge. Nebraska is very intriguing, but the Cornhuskers’ overall talent level still needs at least two more recruiting cycles to match wits with the league’s best.
In reality, the chase for the Playoff centers on four teams: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
The idea that Michigan is going to plummet due to a lack of experience is stupid. The Wolverines are immensely talented, led by a standout coaching staff and entering their third season in Jim Harbaugh’s system. UM isn’t going anywhere.
Penn State will wear a bullseye in 2017 as a result of last year’s breakthrough, but the Nittany Lions have the quarterback, running back, offensive front and overall depth to at least match and potentially exceed last year’s win total.
It’s true that Wisconsin’s Playoff hopes are based in large part on a very manageable schedule. The Badgers won’t face a fellow Power Five team in non-conference play; get Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan at home; face only one potential top-25 foe, Nebraska, on the road; and miss Ohio State and Penn State from the East Division.
But this is Ohio State’s league. Can the Buckeyes run the table? It’s entirely possible, though even the elite teams in college football tend to slip up once during the regular season.
OSU has a senior quarterback. A rebuilt offense. Skill talent galore at running back and receiver. The best lines in the conference. Quality and depth at linebacker. Again house a potentially elite secondary. You can make the case that no team in the FBS looks better on paper.