Ohio State and Michigan made good on their preseason rankings as top 10 teams in 2016. Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines notched double-digit victories, qualified for New Year’s Six Bowls (with the former advancing to the national semifinals) and finished in the top five nationally in average point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule. None of that was surprising; we already knew Ohio State and Michigan were great. Yet the Big Ten East revealed last season that its strength does not derive exclusively from its two flagship programs led by iconic coaches.
After getting out to a rocky 2–2 start, a stretch that so unnerved Penn State fans that athletic director Sandy Barbour felt compelled to publicly comment on coach James Franklin’s job security, the Nittany Lions ripped off a nine-game winning streak to earn a date with the Trojans in the Rose Bowl. With stud running back Saquon Barkley and starting quarterback Trace McSarley back to front offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s devastating up-tempo attack, Penn State should begin 2017 as, at worst, a co-favorite to win the division.
Meanwhile, Maryland delivered a promising first season under rookie coach D.J. Durkin and followed up by signing the most decorated recruiting class in program history this February. Chris Ash is still hard at work digging Rutgers out of a deep pit of futility, but one also-ran doesn’t counterbalance the East’s overall depth. And even if Michigan State can't rise to its 11-plus-win standard under Mark Dantonio in 2017, improvement on last season’s 3–9 campaign feels like a sensible expectation.