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Will Ohio State best Penn State and Michigan to win the Big Ten in 2017?

Next season’s title race may feel a lot like 2016’s.

The early advanced stats projections have Ohio State and (surprise) Alabama leading the race for the 2017 playoff. Bill’s S&P+ projections has Ohio State at second and ESPN’s FPI puts the Buckeyes on top.

Earlier we looked at exactly what went in to Ohio State’s S&P+ projections — now we’ll look at why that ranking is justified both within the Big Ten and compared to the other top playoff contenders.

The Big Ten overall

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Proj. S&P+ Rk Team Recruiting Returning Production Weighted 5 Yr Rk Proj. S&P+
Proj. S&P+ Rk Team Recruiting Returning Production Weighted 5 Yr Rk Proj. S&P+
2 Ohio State 2 3 3 26
8 Penn State 18 4 29 21.4
10 Michigan 4 13 17 19.8
11 Wisconsin 36 11 15 18.6
37 Northwestern 48 31 61 6.6
39 Indiana 61 23 75 6.5
42 Nebraska 22 72 32 5.6
44 Michigan State 25 79 12 5.1
47 Minnesota 52 47 55 4.4
48 Iowa 41 60 48 4.4
72 Maryland 32 94 77 -1.5
85 Illinois 57 107 73 -6
87 Purdue 72 96 82 -6.6
92 Rutgers 63 109 84 -7.3

Four teams have clearly separated themselves from the rest — Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, and Ohio State rank in the top-11 of the Projected S&P+, while six teams rank between 37th and 48th, and then the bottom rung of Maryland, Illinois, Purdue, and Rutgers all rank 72nd or worse.

The Big Ten is incredibly stratified, with clear delineations between the tiers. The top tier averages 8th, the second tier averages 43rd, and the bottom tier averages 84th.

But within the top tier, the S&P+ margins (the far-right column) show how much higher Ohio State’s projected rating is than the others in the top tier. At 26th, the difference between Ohio State and eighth-ranked Penn State (2nd in the Big Ten) is 4.2, which is more than the difference between Penn State and Wisconsin (2.8).

Ohio State’s Big Ten schedule includes four mid-tier teams, three lower-tier teams, and two top-tier teams in Penn State and Michigan.

2017 B1G Race

So the Big Ten race is likely between the four teams in the chart above. I created separate bars for the three variables that go in to the projected S&P+ ratings — weighted 5-year S&P+, returning production (measured by returning starters x last year’s S&P+ performance on both sides of the ball), and a rolling recruiting measure. This allows you to see the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team heading in to the 2017 season (and obviously, since these are ratings, it’s better to have shorter bars!).

Ohio State ranks in the top-3 in the country in all three categories, which justifies their second-overall 2017 projected S&P+ ranking.

The other three teams all have one category they’re particularly strong in, then two others were they are just solid. For Penn State, they bring extremely high returning production and then decent recruiting. It’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions performing much worse than they did last year, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley both returning.

Michigan is strongest in recruiting, which should help offset some of their personnel losses. The Michigan defense, their inarguable strength in 2016, loses most of their secondary and key pieces along the defensive line. They also lose experienced wide receivers and their starting running back. Ohio State was able to weather incredible personnel losses last year because of the talent they have stockpiled. It’s unclear whether Jim Harbaugh has accumulated enough talent in Ann Arbor to do the same.

Finally, Wisconsin continues to defy expectations. Their recruiting puts them squarely in the Big Ten’s mid-tier, but their on-field performance and returning experience should ensure there’s not much of a dropoff from 2016. Ohio State misses the Badgers during the regular season, so it will take a Big Ten title game matchup for the Buckeyes to worry too much about the Badgers.