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The Big Ten's best bet at a return to the College Football Playoff? Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Again.

College football rankings 2018: Ohio State’s on top of Big Ten, with Penn State, Wisconsin next

That 7-1 bowl record wasn’t by design, but it wasn’t an accident, either. Top to bottom, nobody does it better than the Big Ten these days, no matter how loudly or how often the SEC crows about its top.

The next time someone brings up South Carolina 26, Michigan 19 and snickers, kindly remind them of Purdue 35, Missouri 3. Or Northwestern 24, Kentucky 23. Or Michigan 33, Florida 17.

Or, if you’re a Nebraska fan, UCF 34, Auburn 27, because that Scott Frost guy — The Associated Press and Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year — is now under the Big Ten umbrella, too.

P.J. Fleck to the north, Urban Meyer to the south. From Lincoln to College Park, the star power is everywhere. Conventional wisdom says Meyer’s Buckeyes should be knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff at the end of the year, but if we learned anything from 2017, it’s that — when you’re this deep — conventional wisdom doesn’t always stick to the script.

Land of 10’s Way-Too-Early Power Poll for 2018

14. Illinois

The Lovie Smith hire was a throw of the dice. But when Purdue changed jockeys and took off, the basement in the West division got very, very lonely — and very, very orange. If the tweak at offensive coordinator doesn’t start to right the ship, look for more pieces to start getting tossed overboard.

13. Rutgers

Chris Ash has steadily raised the Knights’ floor in a relatively short period of time and has things trending in the right direction. In the crazy-deep East division, though, how high — and realistic — is the ceiling? How much will re-retired offensive coordinator Jerry Kill be missed?

12. Minnesota

Until the passing game finds its feet, the Gophers are facing an uphill climb. Fleck is already being likened to former coach Tim Brewster by one grizzled Twin Cities scribe, and it’s not a compliment. Lots of sizzle. No steak. Yet.

11. Indiana

Are the Hoosiers at a place under Tom Allen where the loss of Tegray Scales and Simmie Cobbs, NFL talents, won’t be felt? Can run-pass quarterback Peyton Ramsey stay upright? When almost every league dance card opens with four losses, in pencil anyway, crossover games matter — which means the Hoosiers need badly to take advantage of getting Iowa and Purdue at home if they’re to return to the postseason.

10. Maryland

The Terrapins’ karma couldn’t possibly be worse than a star-crossed 2017, could it? Wideout DJ Moore will be missed, but coach DJ Durkin has quietly built one of the division’s most talented rosters, and a healthy backfield has the potential to be electric. Still, the problem with Indiana and Rutgers is the same problem for the Terps — the East has a concrete ceiling that goes four-deep now, so picking off your peer middleweights is vital. Minnesota and Illinois visit College Park, and both games are must-wins if Durkin’s turtles want to bowl.

9. Northwestern

Justin Jackson leaves massive cleats to fill at tailback, but Jeremy Larkin — a cousin of baseball Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin — has the goods to take the baton. Young linebacker Paddy Fisher is a budding star, and the defense, despite some losses in the secondary, should be fine. The fate of the offense, though, depends on quarterback Clayton Thorson’s knee. Or what’s left of it.

8. Purdue

Is 4-star wideout Rondale Moore the tip of the iceberg? Once coach Jeff Brohm starts getting some better toys to play with, watch out. The Boilermakers only return three of their top 10 tacklers from a defense that surprised in 2017, and the season likely hinges on a fascinating home slate that features visits from Northwestern (Aug. 30), Missouri (Sept. 15), Boston College (Sept. 22), Ohio State (Oct. 20), Iowa (Nov. 3) and Wisconsin (Nov. 17).

7. Nebraska

Scott Frost’s first two UCF teams improved by an average of 6.5 wins over the previous season. It might be a bridge too far to slot the Huskers with 10 regular-season victories in Year 1, but flipping a 4-8 bunch to, say, 8-4 right out of the chute looks plenty doable. Assuming, of course, there’s a quarterback who fits the big picture.

6. Iowa

The defensive line should be one of the league’s best; the back seven, minus Josey Jewell, Josh Jackson and Ben Niemann, is a wait-and-see. Nate Stanley-to-Noah Fant is only just getting started, and the Hawkeyes don’t play Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State.

5. Michigan

The biggest gap, on paper, is between the league’s top 5 and the rest of the pack. The Wolverines remain part of the penthouse, and, depending on Shea Patterson’s availability/effectiveness, have the juice to move up even more. The naysayers, especially those in the national media, aren’t holding back when it comes to kicking a young roster while it’s down, so that rivalry game at Notre Dame that launches 2018 will either shut up the Harbaugh Haters, or provide more kerosene for the Twitter roast.

4. Michigan State

If the Holiday Bowl was a taste of what’s to come, mercy. One of the league’s younger rosters is swinging a big stick again, and with gunslinger quarterback Brian Lewerke, wideout Felton Davis III and tailback LJ Scott all back, the sky’s the limit. The Spartans get Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Purdue at home and, unlike a year ago, a winter with the wind at their collective backs.

3. Wisconsin

Meet the West’s version of Ohio State: Names and coaches change, but Bucky’s expectations — and results — don’t. Some key components from one of the nation’s best defenses will have to be replaced, yet an offense with running back Jonathan Taylor and quarterback Alex Hornibrook at the reins looks more than capable of pulling the sled in the early going. The Badgers ought to be 5-0 heading into Ann Arbor on Oct. 13 in a contest that should say a lot about where both programs are in 2018.

2. Penn State

This is the year James Franklin proves that he reloads, and any offense with Trace McSorley at the controls still has the potential to score in bunches. It’ll take a village to replace the things Saquon Barkley could do, but the depth is there, and the dance card is more than manageable: Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin all have to visit Beaver Stadium.

1. Ohio State

It’s a CFP-worthy dance card (TCU in Arlington, Texas; at Penn State; at Michigan State) with CFP-worthy stars (running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Nick Bosa lead the cast) and CFP-worthy additions on the coaching staff (former Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch). Buckeyes fans who’ve been clamoring for life without J.T. Barrett for the last two-plus years will finally get their wish, but this thing is such a well-oiled machine now that it might not matter who gets the bulk of the snaps behind center this fall. If there wasn’t an “Iowa moment” in 2017, the Buckeyes would’ve been in the playoffs. Meyer won’t forget that. Chances are, his kids won’t, either.


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