Ranking Best College Football Conferences Entering 2017 Season – Bleacher Report

    Saquon Barkley is one of the nation's most dynamic players.

    Saquon Barkley is one of the nation’s most dynamic players.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Top teams

    If you’re a coach trying to find a path to the College Football Playoff, you’d be advised to avoid the Big Ten East. It has become one of the toughest, if not the toughest, in college football, and that will continue this year. Consider that Ohio State made the College Football Playoff last fall but didn’t even win the division following a 24-21 loss to Penn State.

    The Buckeyes return 15 starters, led by dual-threat quarterback J.T. Barrett and talented defensive linemen Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, who combined for 18.5 tackles for loss last fall. Penn State won the Big Ten and returns 16 starters, including perhaps college football’s top tailback in Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,496 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall.

    Michigan could take a step back this season after returning just one defensive starter, but the Wolverines do have one of the nation’s best emerging stars in sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary.

    Meanwhile, Wisconsin faces a much easier road in the Big Ten West, but the Badgers boast a bruising defense and return 17 starters overall. The Badgers also avoid Ohio State and Penn State in the regular season, which will help, and get Iowa and Michigan at home.

    Depth

    The Big Ten has talent at the top, but also has a solid middle. With Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson (1,524 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) in the offensive backfield, Northwestern will have a fighting chance in the Big Ten West. Is Tanner Lee the right fit for Mike Riley’s pro-style offense in Nebraska? We’ll see. Iowa will have a solid running game but lacks receivers, but the Hawks will be physical and tough regardless.

    Michigan State cratered to 3-9 after a CFP appearance in 2015, but Mark Dantonio is too good of a coach to stay down for long. Can P.J. Fleck make a difference for a Minnesota team that won nine games in 2016? And don’t forget that D.J. Durkin got Maryland to a bowl in his first season.

    Why it’s here

    The Big Ten has some serious star power at the top, particularly in the East Division, but could have as many as 11 bowl teams this season if the cards break right. That’s an impressive feat in its own right. Purdue, Rutgers and Illinois drag down the bottom of the league, but the top of the Big Ten can hang with anyone, which gives it some heft overall.