Big Ten coaches and top players gathered in Chicago this past week to mingle and fulfill various media obligations. Everybody seemed relaxed, as much as football coaches know how to unwind.

Jim Harbaugh wore his usual gameday attire (shocking, I know), P.J. Fleck set a world record for words spoken during a 15-minute news conference and Urban Meyer might have actually smiled. A rousing success all around.

Now it’s time for work.

Fall camps open this week, and the Big Ten has three teams — Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin — that look capable of crashing the College Football Playoff.

Here’s a 14-team primer in order of strength:

Ohio State: Meyer won’t look far for motivation (31-0 thumping by Clemson in playoff semifinals). If J.T. Barrett can recapture magic he showed as a freshman, the Buckeyes are good enough to win it all. The defensive line is supremely talented and deep.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions are officially back after winning the Big Ten with a Rose Bowl appearance. Expectations are higher, with good reason. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley give a 1-2 punch that few offenses can match.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are the favorites in the West. Their schedule is far more inviting than last season, the defense is stout and the offense returns nine starters, including stud tight end Troy Fumagalli. That’s the look of a top-10 team.

Michigan: Harbaugh’s crew lost three of its final four games last season. The sky is not falling, but the Wolverines lost 11 players to the NFL draft and return only five starters. I don’t see them finishing better than third in the East.

Northwestern: Hard to believe Pat Fitzgerald is the second-longest-tenured coach in the conference in his 12th season. The Wildcats open Big Ten play vs. Wisconsin and Penn State. Yikes. Good news: Justin Jackson returns as the league’s leading rusher.

Nebraska: Mike Riley is showing that veteran coaches don’t have to be stuck in their ways by switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Tulane transfer Tanner Lee replaces departed Tommy Armstrong Jr. at quarterback.

Iowa: Who’s the quarterback? That’s the No. 1 question facing the Hawkeyes, who also have a new offensive coordinator, Brian Ferentz, son of Kirk. Nothing uncertain about their offensive line — the Hawkeyes might be best in Big Ten at that position.

Michigan State: What the heck was that last season? The Spartans drove off a cliff after constructing a model program. What remains to be determined is whether that was a just blip or the start of a decline. This is a critical season for coach Mark Dantonio.

Gophers: Nobody will ever accuse Fleck of being boring, but he has a lot of work on his hands. Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, secondary and overall depth are major question marks. Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks must carry a heavy load.

Maryland: Building a program in the East Division is tough. But DJ Durkin led the Terrapins to six wins last season and is proving to be a skillful recruiter. Maryland’s 2017 recruiting class ranked 17th nationally. Durkin is on the right path.

Indiana: Tom Allen is the new head coach after one season as defensive coordinator. He did solid work in that capacity, making Indiana one of the most improved defenses nationally. The Hoosiers gave up 25 fewer touchdowns from the previous season.

Purdue: Jeff Brohm was a smart hire as head coach. He’s energetic and brings an innovative offense that should produce a lot of points. David Blough is experienced at quarterback, but he’s been turnover-prone. Brohm needs time to recruit and build this program.

Illinois: Lovie Smith’s debut season was a dud with only two Big Ten wins, over Rutgers and Michigan State. Year 2 probably won’t be much better, leaving one to wonder how patient Smith and/or Illini fans will be with this experiment.

Rutgers: Uff da. The Scarlet Knights were strong contenders for worst FBS team in Chris Ash’s first season, outscored by opponents 450-188. Ash hired Jerry Kill to run the offense this season, Kill’s first stint as a coordinator since 1993.


Chip Scoggins