Defending Big Ten champion Penn State returns a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back and a record-setting quarterback, and the Nittany Lions generally are regarded as one of the 10 best teams in the country.
They’re not even picked to win their division this season.
The Big Ten East favorite, as usual, is Ohio State, which is loaded with as much talent as ever and motivated to atone for an embarrassing finish to 2016.
So as great an accomplishment as it was for Penn State to go from being picked fourth in the division to winning its first league title since 2008, another grind is about to start. Coach James Franklin wants his players to put last season out of their minds.
“We’ve talked about it enough. The fans have talked about it. The media’s talked about it,” Franklin said. “They’ve been given rings. So that’s behind us. We have moved on.”
Saquon Barkley thrust himself into 2017 Heisman consideration after a dominant performance in the last-second Rose Bowl loss to USC. Trace McSorley led the Big Ten in passer rating and threw for four touchdowns in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin and the bowl. The question is whether a defense that allowed 34 points a game against ranked opponents can hold up its end.
A three-week stretch spanning October and November — Michigan at home and road games at Ohio State and Michigan State — likely will be the key to the Lions’ season.
Ohio State has 15 starters back after having seven players drafted, including six of the top 70 picks. You can be sure Urban Meyer will have the Buckeyes on a redemption tour after they lost 31-0 to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
In the West, Wisconsin brings back an experienced QB in Alex Hornibrook and a seasoned defense from its 11-win team. The Badgers don’t play Ohio State, and their toughest road game is at Nebraska.
Penn State’s Barkley is going for a third straight 1,000-yard season. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett should flourish under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Northwestern’s Justin Jackson will finish his career as the FBS’ No. 7 rusher if he matches last season’s 1,524 yards.
Ohio State DL Tyquan Lewis was Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2016. Indiana LB Tegray Scales led the nation with 23 1⁄2 tackles for loss and a Big Ten-leading 126 stops. Iowa LB Josey Jewell has started 30 consecutive games and made 124 tackles last season.
Florida vs. Michigan, Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas; Pitt at Penn State, Nebraska at Oregon, Oklahoma at Ohio State, Sept. 9; Wisconsin at BYU, Sept. 16; Northwestern at Wisconsin, Sept. 30; Wisconsin at Nebraska, Oct. 7; Michigan at Penn State, Oct. 21; Penn State at Ohio State, Oct. 28; Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18; Iowa at Nebraska, Nov. 24; Ohio State at Michigan, Nov. 25.