Big Ten champ Lions over­shad­owed by Buck­eyes, again

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY ERIC OL­SON

De­fend­ing Big Ten cham­pion Penn State re­turns a Heis­man Tro­phy can­di­date at run­ning back and a record-set­ting quar­ter­back, and the Nit­tany Lions gen­er­ally are re­garded as one of the 10 best teams in the coun­try.

They’re not even picked to win their di­vi­sion this sea­son.

The Big Ten East fa­vorite, as usual, is Ohio State, which is loaded with as much tal­ent as ever and mo­ti­vated to atone for an em­bar­rass­ing fin­ish to 2016. So as great an ac­com­plish­ment as it was for Penn State to go from be­ing picked fourth in the di­vi­sion to win­ning its first league ti­tle since 2008, an­other grind is about to start. Coach James Franklin wants his play­ers to put last sea­son out of their minds.

“We’ve talked about it enough. The fans have talked about it. The me­dia’s talked about it,” Franklin said. “They’ve been given rings. So that’s be­hind us. We have moved on.”

Saquon Barkley thrust him­self into 2017 Heis­man con­sid­er­a­tion af­ter a dom­i­nant per­for­mance in the last-sec­ond Rose Bowl loss to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Trace McSor­ley led the Big Ten in passer rat­ing and threw for four touch­downs in both the Big Ten cham­pi­onship game against Wis­con­sin and the bowl. The ques­tion is whether a defense that al­lowed 34 points a game against ranked op­po­nents can hold up its end.

A three-week stretch span­ning Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber – Michi­gan at home and road games at Ohio State and Michi­gan State – likely will be the key to the Lions’ sea­son.

Mary­land has been picked to fin­ish sixth out seven in the East Di­vi­sion.

The fa­vorites

East Di­vi­sion

Ohio State has 15 starters back af­ter hav­ing seven play­ers drafted, in­clud­ing six of the top 70 picks. You can be sure Ur­ban Meyer will have the Buck­eyes on a re­demp­tion tour af­ter they lost 31-0 to Clem­son in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off semi­fi­nals.

Penn State also feels it has some­thing to prove. The Nit­tany Lions beat Ohio State and won the con­fer­ence – and were left out of the play­off be­cause of losses to Pitts­burgh and Michi­gan.

Michi­gan, with losses in three of its last four games, is still wait­ing for the big pay­off from its splash hire of Jim Har­baugh. He’s fin­ished third in the East each of his first two years and still is look­ing for his first win over Ohio State.

West Di­vi­sion

Wis­con­sin brings back an ex­pe­ri­enced QB in Alex Horni­brook and a sea­soned defense from its 11-win team. The Bad­gers don’t play Ohio State, and their tough­est road game is at Ne­braska.

North­west­ern has a three-year start­ing QB in Clay­ton Thor­son and a work­horse in RB Justin Jack­son . Back-to-back games against Wis­con­sin (away) and Penn State (home) come early.

Iowa will rely heav­ily on 1,000-yard rusher Akrum Wadley and a veteran of­fen­sive line as it breaks in a new QB. Penn State vis­its in Septem­ber, but the hard­est part of the sched­ule comes in Novem­ber.

Top play­ers

Penn State’s Barkley is go­ing for a third straight 1,000-yard sea­son. Ohio State QB J.T. Bar­rett should flour­ish un­der new of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kevin Wil­son. North­west­ern’s Jack­son will fin­ish his ca­reer as the FBS’ No. 7 rusher if he matches last sea­son’s 1,524 yards.

Ohio State DL Tyquan Lewis was Big Ten de­fen­sive line­man of the year in 2016. In­di­ana LB Tegray Scales led the na­tion with 23.5 tack­les for loss and a Big Ten­lead­ing 126 stops. Iowa LB Josey Jewell has started 30 straight games and made 124 tack­les last sea­son.

New faces

P.J. Fleck takes his “Row the Boat” mantra from Western Michi­gan to Min­nesota. The Go­phers won nine games un­der Tracy Claeys in 2016, but things got ugly at the end with a threat­ened player bowl boy­cott and sex­ual as­sault in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In­di­ana’s Tom Allen was pro­moted from de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor to head coach af­ter the fir­ing of Kevin Wil­son. Allen over­saw re­mark­able im­prove­ment of one of the FBS’ worst de­fenses, and with QB Richard Lagow re­turn­ing, the Hoosiers should make a run at a third straight bowl if they can sur­vive a tough first half of the sea­son.

Jeff Brohm won back-to-back Con­fer­ence USA ti­tles at Western Ken­tucky be­fore mov­ing to Pur­due, which hasn’t won more than three games since 2012.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Penn State run­ning back and Heis­man Tro­phy can­di­date Saquon Barkley aims for his third straight 1,000-yard sea­son.

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