Big Ten Power Rankings, pre-season version

The good thing about rankings? They force the ranker—Rankman?—to make choices, which is entertaining and good for debate.

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The bad thing about rankings? The debates are settled much more definitively when actual games are played.

I can lawyer myself up and tell you that Michigan is going to beat Ohio State. That’s the stance I’m taking because, even though I believe the Buckeyes are the safer pick, I can’t resist going out on a limb for the riskier pick.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

That’s the product of a former Sun-Times sports editor who used to kick back my NCAA tournament bracket if it didn’t have enough upsets.

At this point, I’m more interested in groupings than rankings. The front-runners, Michigan and Ohio State, will solve their differences down the road--for all the marbles, we assume at this point.

Can Michigan State and/or Iowa unseat the Buckeyes or Wolverines? That would be a #B1G deal.

If anyone besides those four wins the Big Ten, that’s a h-yuge surprise. If any of those four takes a big tumble in the standings, that’s also a big surprise.

Beyond the obvious jockeying at the top, the group identified below as The Who Knows Quintet ought to be of significant interest. A couple of these teams are going to do well, and make this fall memorable for their fans. The others are going to have bumps and bruises that will test their fan bases.

And the bottom feeders? We’ll see if they can be mildly interesting, and/or show encouraging signs for the future.

Move up or down in these groupings, and you've done something.

With that mind, here’s my first set of. . .

BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS

THE HAVES. . .

1, Michigan: The Wolverines’ cupboard isn’t as stocked as it’s going to be in a year. And the QB situation is unsettled. But Jim Harbaugh has a knack for producing over-achieving teams.

1a, Ohio State: Beyond quarterback J.T. Barrett, a strong pre-season candidate for Big Ten player of the year, the Buckeyes are awfully young. But Urban Meyer is expected to overcome that by ``coaching ‘em up.’’

THE LURKERS. . .

3, Michigan State: This is viewed as a bit of a reloading year for the Spartans. But it’s also an opportunity, should they over-achieve against the expected Michigan and Ohio State juggernauts.

3a, Iowa: The Hawkeyes have a lot of pieces back, notably quarterback C.J. Beathard, from last year’s 12-0 regular-season start. And they are the best in the Big Ten’s uncertain Western Division.

THE WHO-KNOWS QUINTET. . .

5, Wisconsin: The Badgers are talented, and they’ll need to be with a schedule that includes five ranked teams (LSU plus the top four Big Ten teams) in their first seven games.

5a, Nebraska: Are the Cornhuskers due for a bounceback after a string of close losses last season? Or is that a tough pattern to break?

5b, Northwestern: If sophomore QB Clayton Thorson learns from last season’s passing woes, the Wildcats, who should have a solid running game and could have a solid defense, could approach last season’s 10 wins. The schedule is dangerous, though.

5c, Penn State: Emerging from years of sanctions, Penn State has a better-stocked cupboard. Third-year coach James Franklin needs to use it to keep Nittany Lions fans from growing seriously restless.

5d, Minnesota: Freed from the interim-coach label, Tracy Claeys has a strong running game and a good Eastern Division draw. Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State are in; Ohio State and Michigan are out.

THE TRADITIONAL NON-POWERS. . .

10, Indiana: Despite scaring Ohio State and Michigan but coming up short, the Hoosiers are coming off their first bowl trip since 2007. A second straight bowl is possible thanks to an improving defense and some solid replacements on offense.

11a, Illinois: Can Lovie Smith work as much magic on the field as he has with Illini Nation, which has embraced the former Bears boss? QB Wes Lunt is a great place to start. But there seem to be many personnel holes.

11b, Purdue: This shapes up as a make-or-break year for third-coach Darrell Hazell (6-30). There were some tentative strides last year. The Boilers will need to show more progress this year, and the signs are not pointing that way.

11c, Maryland: Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin takes the reins at Maryland after a tumultuous 2015 that saw the mid-season firing of Randy Edsall. With a schedule that provides a chance for a 4-0 start, sailing should be smoother for the Terps—until reality sets in.

14, Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights have turned to former Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash to rebuild a turmoil-filled program. Just call this Year One. [/membership]

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