<
>

B1G mailbag: Early rankings consternation, surprise team, Iowa's offense?

The Big Ten mailbag is back, this time on a Tuesday thanks to some technical difficulties last week. As always, if you've got questions, tweet them to me or shoot an email to ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com. It's the offseason, but keep them coming.

Let's ride ...

Brian Bennett: Arguing over preseason rankings by a few pundits in January? Never change, guys.

OK, let's start with Michigan. Few if any teams in the country were hit harder by graduation than the Wolverines, who had 18 senior starters and Jabrill Peppers. That's why the enthusiasm for next season, I think, has been a bit muted. Colleague Mark Schlabach ranked Michigan No. 12 in his first Top 25 of 2017, and even that might be a bit generous given the massive personnel losses.

Yet there are two main reasons to remain excited about the Maize and Blue prospects for next fall: Jim Harbaugh and talent. This program is never going to dip too low as long as Harbaugh is still calling the shots, and there are a ton of skilled players percolating and coming into Ann Arbor. I'll take a very talented but inexperienced team over the opposite situation any day. Look at what Ohio State accomplished using that same mix last season.

Speaking of the Buckeyes, I've seen some people rank them ahead of Penn State for next year and some doing the opposite. Schlabach, for example, has the Nittany Lions fourth and Ohio State sixth. Seems fair. James Franklin's team will start in a great position with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, but Urban Meyer still has J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber. Plus a roster full of blue-chippers, even after another draft exodus.

Remember, too, that Meyer has still only lost two regular-season Big Ten games. Franklin got him last year, but that was a night game in Beaver Stadium, a week after Ohio State had a physical night at Wisconsin, and it took a fluke special teams play to pull off. The challenge for Penn State to repeat that result in the Horseshoe this season will be much tougher.

Then again, the Nittany Lions played better in the final few weeks and in bowl season than Meyer's team did. It's pretty much a coin flip right now, in my view. And assuming Michigan is good and Michigan State can bounce back, well, the East Division could be flat out ridiculous in 2017.

Brian Bennett: I could cop out here and say Michigan State, since the Spartans certainly were a bottom-half team in 2016. But that kind of pansy answer isn't what you've come to expect from this mailbag, is it?

So instead, I'll take Purdue. I don't expect the Boilermakers to make a bowl, not with a neutral-site game against Lamar Jackson and Louisville, a trip to Missouri and a visit from Michigan all by Week 4. Yikes.

But Jeff Brohm is an offensive whiz who oversaw some of the most explosive teams in the country at Western Kentucky. He's got a quarterback, David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards per game in 2016. Though the defense requires a major overhaul, I think Purdue could win a shootout or two over a team most people wouldn't expect them to beat this season.

Brian Bennett: Can I hold?

The big question here is, what is Nathan Stanley? I'm not even sure the coaching staff knows exactly what to expect of its young and untested quarterback. Getting Akrum Wadley back was big, but he may need a backfield mate to help carry the load, given his size. He averaged less than 13 rushing attempts per game last year, after all.

The offensive line should remain sound, led by the underrated Sean Welsh. I'm bullish on Brian Ferentz as offensive coordinator, and getting the entire coaching staff on that side of the ball on the same page is crucial.

Developing receivers remains an issue, though the return of Matt VandeBerg will settle some of that. Iowa simply has to stretch the field better. But if you're asking me if I buy that the Hawkeyes will improve over 2016, when they ranked No. 121 nationally in total offense, then yes, I'm rushing to the counter to make that purchase.