2017 Big Ten football power rankings: This is a 4-team race

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Tier 1

Ohio State

College football’s still a Big 2 sport. The Buckeyes are loaded.

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Penn State

The Nittany Lions were 2016’s most fun team. Now, expectations are soaring.

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Jim Harbaugh’s doing an excellent job, whether you like it or not.

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These power rankings are drawn up completely independent of any S&P+ projections below; they are purely my opinions on matters. Typically, when compared to S&P+, my own rankings take shape like the NBA Lottery, with mostly the same order as what the numbers dictated and maybe one or two teams in completely different places.

That’s not really the case here. Things get a little shuffled around in Tier 3, but heading into 2017, I feel like the top four teams are pretty clearly the top four teams, and No. 5 feels pretty clear to me as well.

If anybody outside this top three wins the conference, it would be a surprise.

Tier 2


This might be the most Wisconsin team ever.

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If anybody outside this top four wins the conference, it would be a stunner.

Tier 3


The Wildcats are closer than you think to a Big Ten West title run.

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P.J. Fleck’s first Gopher team is a West division wildcard. This will be fun.

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Kirk Ferentz might be the dean of major CFB, but are the Hawkeyes trending up or down?

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Can Husker fans have patience? 2017 might require lots of it

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The Terps are building, but their schedule is going to hide that.

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IU's post-Kevin Wilson future: great defense and iffy offense. What?

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Michigan State

After a rebuilding-year record, MSU faces an actual rebuilding year.

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Here’s where things get messy.

Wisconsin is vulnerable to be challenged by somebody in the West, but I go back and forth on who that is. I think Northwestern has the highest floor, Nebraska has the highest ceiling, Minnesota (with its massive change in coach and personality) has the widest range between ceiling and floor, and Iowa has the smallest range.

Basically, teams 5-8 occupy exactly the same space to me, but thanks to continuity, I trust Northwestern a hair more than the others. Which makes that September 30 Northwestern-Wisconsin game pretty big.

Tier 4


Jeff Brohm was a great hire, even if the wins don't come right away.

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Lovie Smith’s first Illini team was all-or-nothing. When will it be something?

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The Scarlet Knights might look like a Big Ten team by 2018 or so.

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I love Purdue’s hire, and I think Rutgers could threaten six wins in 2018. But this group starts a few steps behind the others.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the Big Ten laid out for 2017, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2017 S&P+ projections here.)

2017 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.


  • Ohio State: 7.6 (10.2)
  • Penn State: 6.8 (9.6)
  • Michigan: 6.5 (8.9)
  • Indiana: 4.3 (6.6)
  • Michigan State: 3.9 (5.7)*
  • Maryland: 2.4 (4.1)
  • Rutgers: 2.1 (3.7)


  • Wisconsin: 7.1 (9.7)
  • Northwestern: 4.9 (7.2)
  • Minnesota: 4.5 (6.6)
  • Nebraska: 4.4 (6.3)
  • Iowa: 3.8 (5.9)
  • Illinois: 2.5 (3.7)
  • Purdue: 2.4 (3.4)

Three top-10 teams in the East, one top-35 team in the West. Now seems like a good time to remind everyone that we should get rid of divisions. Just scrap them altogether. Pods are the future.

How these teams looked in 2016

Big Ten offenses heading into 2017

Penn State was one of the most fascinating teams in the country last year. You aren’t supposed to be able to live on inefficiency and explosiveness.

Best 2017 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

Lots of exciting skill guys. Lots of unproven quarterbacks getting them the ball.

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Big Ten defenses

Rutgers and Purdue made every offense look like Penn State’s.

Best 2017 defensive players by team (best overall in bold):

Indiana might have the best defensive player in the conference, Maryland nearly has the best offensive player in the conference, Nebraska’s best offensive player is a receiver, and it was hard finding a worthy Michigan State defender for this list. 2017 is weird, man.

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