Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have reloaded and are our early pick to defend their title as Big Ten champions. Here are ESPN.com’s preseason Big Ten power rankings:
1. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes finished atop the Big Ten last season and are returning 15 total starters from last season’s team. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins showed promise in his limited time, completing 40 of his 57 passes and throwing four touchdowns in the process. Haskins has an opportunity to shine this season and help lead Ohio State back to the conference championship game. Nick Bosa should help lead a defense that lost quite a bit to the NFL, but defensive backs Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah and Jordan Fuller should all be poised to take on bigger roles and pick up the slack in the secondary.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers lose some big contributors on defense, including Conor Sheehy, Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson, but there is still a lot left to like. After finishing 13-1 last season, with the only loss to Ohio State in the conference championship game, quarterback Alex Hornibrook returns some of his bigger weapons, including running back Jonathan Taylor. The sophomore broke records last season and finished third in rushing yards behind only Rashaad Penny and Bryce Love. Taylor will have his entire offensive line returning to help propel his rushing stats even further this season, and potentially help launch the Badgers back to the league title game.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
This was an interesting offseason for head coach James Franklin as he saw star running back Saquon Barkley get drafted No. 2 overall, his offensive coordinator and running backs coach leave for Mississippi State and his wide receivers coach leave for Alabama. On top of that, the Nittany Lions lose eight defensive starters, including linebacker Jason Cabinda and defensive backs Grant Haley, Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. But Franklin and staff have recruited so well the past few years that there is talent on the depth chart that should be able to come in and fill those gaps. Young stars such as Miles Sanders, Justin Shorter and Micah Parsons can rise fast and help keep Penn State among the Big Ten’s best programs.
4. Michigan State Spartans
This one might cause some debate between Spartans and Wolverines, but Michigan State loses only four total starters from last season. That team had 10 wins and brings back one of the more important pieces in quarterback Brian Lewerke. All of Lewerke’s offensive weapons are coming back, and the Spartans are really only replacing center Brian Allen on the offensive side. Defensively, linebacker Joe Bachie and defensive back Josiah Scott should be able to build off strong 2017 campaigns, which will make Michigan State tough to beat in 2018.
5. Michigan Wolverines
The Wolverines once again have the talent to contend for a Big Ten title, but four years into the Jim Harbaugh era they have to start proving it on the field before they climb any higher in the rankings. The defense returns bona fide NFL prospects at all three levels and should once again be good enough to keep any game close. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson — the front-runner to take over at quarterback — and some new blood on the coaching staff will be tasked with jump-starting an offense that struggled in 2017.
6. Northwestern Wildcats
Clayton Thorson returns as the Big Ten’s most experienced quarterback, but he’ll have to up his game without his old backfield partner and the Wildcats’ all-time leading rusher, Justin Jackson. If the coaching staff finds a way to replace a couple of big losses in the secondary, Northwestern’s defense should have the strength to dictate field position and the pace of many of its games. Pat Fitzgerald’s program has averaged nine wins in each of the past three seasons and should remain a team to be wary of in 2018.
7. Iowa Hawkeyes
The steady Hawkeyes finished last season in third place in the West, and that’s where they start 2018. Leading rusher Akrum Wadley is gone, as are three fast, veteran linebackers, headlined by All-American Josey Jewell. This season’s Iowa team will have to lean more on its deep defensive line and its passing game. Nathan Stanley returns at quarterback and has a pair of sturdy tight ends (Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson) to serve as a good foundation for moving the ball through the air.
8. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Scott Frost’s arrival makes the Cornhuskers one of the country’s most interesting teams to watch at the start of the season. With a first-year starter at quarterback (redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and freshman Adrian Martinez are front-runners in the upcoming training-camp battle), it might take some time for the talent level and the understanding of Frost’s new offense to match the level of excitement in Lincoln. Not to mention that the new staff got saddled with having to play Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan from the East this fall. Playmakers like Stanley Morgan Jr. and JD Spielman make Nebraska a dangerous opponent for schools with title hopes.
9. Purdue Boilermakers
Jeff Brohm did a remarkable job getting Purdue to a bowl game — and a bowl victory — in Year 1. Momentum is building in Boiler Country, and Brohm’s offense once again should be fun and productive. Quarterbacks Elijah Sindelar and David Blough both return from major injuries, along with a deep running backs group and wideout Jackson Anthrop. But Purdue lost almost all of its top contributors on defense, a vastly underrated unit that became stingy in Big Ten play and helped the team to bowl eligibility. Purdue will score a lot, but it also probably will give up a lot unless it can build around lineman Lorenzo Neal Jr. and linebacker Markus Bailey.
10. Indiana Hoosiers
Tom Allen’s first season as Hoosiers coach featured four single-digit losses and no bowl game. To close the gap, Allen will rely on young players, particularly with a defense returning only four starters and just one in the front seven. Allen is a terrific defensive coach, but the personnel situation will test him. Indiana has some nice pieces on offense with running back Morgan Ellison and wide receivers Luke Timian and Nick Westbrook, who returns from an ACL tear after a 54-catch season in 2016. The immediate question is quarterback as Peyton Ramsey, who started four games last season and will compete with Arizona graduate transfer Brandon Dawkins and others for the starting job.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers
The Gophers probably will get younger this season, as P.J. Fleck wants to get an upgraded recruiting class into the mix sooner than later. Fleck is playing the long game at Minnesota, which was exposed for much of Big Ten play last fall. The Gophers need to build their passing game behind a yet-to-be-determined new quarterback (Tanner Morgan or Zack Annexstad) after finishing 121st nationally in pass offense last fall. Senior running back Rodney Smith is a reliable producer, and the defensive backfield should be a strength with Antoine Winfield Jr. returning from a hamstring issue. But Minnesota might be a year away from a substantial step forward.
12. Maryland Terrapins
A promising start disintegrated in coach D.J. Durkin’s second season last fall as injuries at quarterback took a huge toll — first with the loss of Tyrrell Pigrome in the season-opening victory over Texas and then when Kasim Hill went down in Week 4. They’re both back, as is Max Bortenschlager, who started eight games in 2017. Much-traveled Matt Canada is in as offensive coordinator. Defensively, the Terps might get a boost from high-profile transfers Byron Cowart and Marcus Lewis, formerly of Auburn and Florida State, respectively.
13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The Scarlet Knights enter camp after the recent dismissal of two key players on defense amid a potential scandal involving a reported credit-card scam that could derail this season before it starts. Third-year coach Chris Ash brings back some talent on defense, led by senior linebacker Deonte Roberts, and might start a true freshman at QB in Artur Sitkowski, once pledged to Miami (Fla.). Aside from a Week 2 visit to Ohio State, the early schedule is manageable ahead of a brutal stretch in November.
14. Illinois Fighting Illini
Things went from bad in coach Lovie Smith’s first season to worse in his second year with the Illini. That is the nature of a complete rebuild, but patience will wear thin if Illinois fails to show notable improvement this fall with a youthful roster that features promising skill at running back with Mike Epstein and the return from multiple injuries of veteran wideout Mike Dudek. Defensive end Bobby Roundtree and safety Bennett Williams are back as talented sophomores.
Photo: AP Photo/Michael Conroy