The Big Ten East put two teams in New Year’s Six bowl games, one in the College Football Playoff and three in the top 10 of the final Associated Press rankings in 2016. At the top, it was the best division in the nation.
Could the East be even better in 2017? And better yet again in 2018?
Yes. And yes.
While Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan were among the best teams in the country in 2016, the rest of the East did not help win any arguments that focused on the deepest division in the nation. Indiana and Maryland both made bowl games, and lost, to finish at 6-7.
Michigan State had its worst season since at least 1991 and arguably since 1982. Rutgers might have been the worst Power 5 team in the country after Week 4.
The ACC Atlantic had the national champs (who drilled Ohio State), Florida State (which beat Michigan), Boston College (which beat Maryland) and six bowl teams that all finished 7-6 or better. The SEC West had Alabama and five other bowl teams.
Even the ACC Coastal had five teams with at least eight wins and Pitt (which beat Penn State). And the Big Ten West actually won more games overall (50-48) and went 32-31 in conference play (the East was 31-32).
This isn’t to say the Big Ten East wasn’t great in 2016. It was … at the top, anyway.
Those three teams should be great again in 2017 as well. Penn State and Ohio State could both open the season ranked in the top five, and will likely be no lower than seventh or eighth. Michigan has a solid chance of landing in the back end of preseason top 10s as well, even though the Wolverines have a huge number of players to replace.
The reasons why the Big Ten East will be better in 2017, and take another step forward in 2018, lie with the rest of those teams.
Let’s consider …
Indiana returns a ton of experience
The Hoosiers have a new coach, and maybe Tom Allen is just a great defensive coordinator miscast as the lead general. That’s always possible, but Allen’s resume is really strong.
Indiana has the most returning production on defense in the country, according to the data put together by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. The Hoosiers defense was 57th in points per game and 31st in S&P+ last year, and that was a big improvement with Allen in his first year. They could be really salty in 2017.
The offense could look different without Kevin Wilson around, but quarterback Richard Lagow and leading receiver Nick Westbrook are back, so that’s a solid place to start.
If the defense keeps improving and the offense is competent, Indiana will be better in 2017.
Mark Dantonio’s track record
From 2010-2015, Michigan State won at least 11 games five times and slipped to seven once, basically the transition year between Kirk Cousins and Connor Cook in 2012.
The Spartans struggled at quarterback in 2016, but Brian Lewerke might have ended all of that drama had he not gotten injured just as it seemed like he was taking control of the job. Michigan State also played better than its 3-9 record indicated.
So if the Spartans were more like a 5-win team in a down year, and if they get consistent quarterback play, it’s really not that far to go to improve to 6-6 or 7-5, at a minimum, in 2017.
D.J. Durkin is working on the recruiting trail
Maryland was a bit of a surprise at 4-0, then quarterback Perry Hills got hurt and a thin team got thinner in other areas. The Terps did limp to 6-6 and earn an extra few weeks of practice, which could pay off in 2017.
Durkin’s staff also put together a top-20 recruiting class, the fourth-best in the Big Ten behind Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. The 2016 class was pretty good, too (seventh in the conference) despite limited time for Durkin’s cadre of recruiters to make an impact.
The Terps need a quarterback. There’s enough talent, even if it’s young, to have a dynamic offense with coordinator Walt Bell running the show. But quarterback is a big question mark. It could be true freshman Kasim Hill. Regardless, the stable of running backs could be among the best in the Big Ten, and one of the better wide receivers in the league (D.J. Moore) will be back.
The defense will likely be younger, deeper and, hopefully, better. Maryland might not break through in a big way in 2017. The Terps might only tread water, or even slip back to 5-7, but Durkin is one more big recruiting class from really being on to something in College Park.
Maryland is the biggest reason why the Big Ten East could be better in 2018 than it is in 2017, because the Terps are coming.
Rutgers can reset now, and move forward
The Scarlet Knights were a mess the final two-thirds of the 2016 season, getting shut out by Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State by a combined 224-0. There were a couple of competitive games in there, but those four were an embarrassment.
Thing is, Rutgers wasn’t that bad in the first month of the season. The Scarlet Knights got blown out by Washington in the opener, but three Pac-12 teams, including Stanford, lost by more points to the Huskies than Rutgers did. They handled an FCS team, beat New Mexico, which went on to win nine games, and lost 14-7 to Iowa.
Janarion Grant, a do-it-all star, was lost for the season against Iowa. So, too, was one of the top defensive players, linebacker Quanzell Lambert. Two other top guys on defense were eventually injured, plus a backup to one of them.
That’s not to say Rutgers wouldn’t have gotten blown out by Ohio State and Michigan if the Scarlet Knights had two or three more good players. But this was a thin team that was already pretty fragile from the end of the Kyle Flood era, which was a gong show.
Grant will be back in 2017. Giovanni Rescigno looked like a quarterback to build with at the end of the season. Like Durkin, Chris Ash is going to try to recruit his way out of the previous regime’s mess.
The Scarlet Knights finished 42nd in the 247Sports composite team rankings, but were in the 30s until a few late de-commitments. They still finished ahead of everyone in the West, except for Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Rutgers doesn’t need to go far in 2017 to improve. Just winning three or four games and not losing any by 78 points would be a start. Ash had to replace his offensive coordinator, but Jerry Kill is an interesting addition.
Like the Terps, the Scarlet Knights could make a more significant move upward in 2018.
Maybe Allen, Durkin and Ash aren’t capable of getting their teams to a point where they can win seven or eight games consistently. We don’t really know with any of them.
Maybe Dantonio’s ability to do that at Michigan State has passed. Years from now, maybe that six-year run will be remembered as the time the Spartans took advantage of the decline of Michigan and Penn State, but fell back when Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin revived those traditional powers.
Those don’t seem like very wise bets, though. It seems much more likely that the Big Ten East is about to get deeper in 2017, and maybe a lot deeper in 2018. Penn State and Michigan are both recruiting better.
Trace McSorley has two more years in Happy Valley. The Wolverines might take a half-step back in 2017, but could be ready to make a national title run in 2018. Ohio State remains a machine, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Those other four teams might all improve over the next two seasons. The Big Ten East might just really be the best division in the nation, regardless of how someone wants to measure it, really soon.