Things to know about the Big Ten preseason

Jonathan Taylor will have the full strength of his offensive line to power him across the line of scrimmage. Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the Ohio State coaching staff, the defending Big Ten champs should be one of the nation's top teams. Wisconsin brings back top talent in lead back Jonathan Taylor and junior QB Alex Hornibrook, whose only loss last year came to the eventual conference champs. Though Penn State loses star running back Saquon Barkley to the NFL, its young talent can keep it near the top of the Big Ten after losing eight players on defense. And Michigan can finally make a turn to contend for the conference title.

Each team's fate is to be determined, but we've got you covered with everything you need to get you ready for Big Ten football this season.

Five most important conference games

By Mitch Sherman

Nov. 24: Michigan at Ohio State

This is the Big Ten's most important game every year, even when the stakes aren't sky high, which is rare. Nearly four months ahead of The Game, it's more difficult than usual to predict the direction of these storied programs in 2018. But no matter if one or, to the significant detriment of the league, both schools disappoint, so much remains on the line the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Buckeyes, of course, have won six straight in the series and 13 of 14. Last time in Columbus, J.T. Barrett's disputed first down made the difference. A year ago, Dwayne Haskins saved the day for Ohio State. Who steals the spotlight this time at the Shoe?

Sept. 29: Ohio State at Penn State

Remember the College Football Playoff ramifications that echoed through the remainder of the season after the Nittany Lions came from two touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Buckeyes in Week 8 two years ago? This next visit to Happy Valley by Ohio State may loom equally as large in the postseason picture. The trip across the Pennsylvania-Ohio border marks the first true road game for the Buckeyes in 2018 and matches the Big Ten's best pass rusher, Nick Bosa, against its best passer in Trace McSorley.

Oct. 13: Wisconsin at Michigan

A Week 7 trip to the Big House presents the biggest obstacle for the Badgers in their bid to start 9-0 ahead of a November visit to Penn State. And, of course, you can't win your first nine games without winning your sixth. Moreover, not much in the Big Ten is bigger than the battle of Wisconsin's stacked offensive line -- which features four all-conference candidates -- against Rashan Gary and the Wolverines up front on D. That's not even to mention Taylor, the Badgers' super sophomore running back, who may on this day need to do more than just follow a few blocks to post his usual huge numbers.

Oct. 13: Michigan State at Penn State

The two most polished passers in the league on the same field just as the race for supremacy in the top-heavy East Division takes shape? Yes, please. Matched with Wisconsin-Michigan, this completes the recipe for Separation Saturday in the league. Left standing after the second weekend of October are the real Big Ten playoff contenders. Just hope for better weather than last year as a 3 ½-hour delay halted the Nittany Lions' momentum in East Lansing. If the conditions are right for McSorley and Brian Lewerke to operate, it'll be as entertaining as important.

Sept. 22: Nebraska at Michigan

The Big Ten debut for Scott Frost, the Cornhuskers' first-year coach who ruffled Michigan feathers in 2016 while at UCF, ought to serve as a litmus test for progress at Nebraska. But even if it's another year or two before the Huskers stand toe to toe with Big Ten heavyweights, there's importance in this matchups of the Nos. 1 and 4 winningest programs in the history of the sport. For Jim Harbaugh's team, after a Week 1 trip to Notre Dame, the schedule is back-loaded. The Wolverines can't afford a misstep in the league opener.

Heisman hopeful

Ron Dayne, the last Badger to win the Heisman Trophy, sees a little bit of his younger self in the Big Ten's best threat to win the coveted prize this year, running back Taylor. The fellow New Jersey natives who transplanted to Wisconsin connected on Taylor's first campus visit and traded weekly text messages throughout a breakout freshman season in 2017.

Taylor, like Dayne and other Wisconsin backs between them, is a workhorse. He carried the ball 299 times last fall, averaging more than 6 yards per carry behind a terrific offensive line. He adds an extra burst, though, that helps him turn turf-churning short gains into big plays that change field positions. Taylor and former Heisman winner Lamar Jackson had the same number of runs (61) that went at least 10 yards last season. Only one player in the FBS had more. Taylor topped 40 yards on a single play seven times, which was better than all but five others at the FBS level last season.

"What I noticed, in my 25th year [as commissioner] I did a tour of all of my camps, and it was eye-opening to me. Not so much the growth spurt, but the branding and the history and tradition, that they're able to bring alive their stories of what it means to play at a Big Ten school: practice facilities, health and safety, training." Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney

The cerebral runner, who considered Harvard among his possible choices for college, says that one of his strengths with the ball in his hands is knowing when to use which weapon.

"Where do I have the advantage?" he said. "If I'm squared up toe-to-toe with a guy, I'm probably more lowering my shoulder, but if some guy is coming at an angle I have more of an advantage if I can just rip my shoulder or plant my outside foot and cut back. I just like to go with where my advantage is."

He's gone a long way with those advantages, and one of the most important edges he had last year will be back in 2018: A veteran offensive line replete with All-American talent. The Badgers are massive, agile and deep in the trenches this season. All five of the starters who helped Taylor reach sixth place in Heisman voting last year are back again. There's a good chance they'll help push him a little further this time around.

Coaches rundown

Some of the biggest names in coaching now reside in the Big Ten, and all of them have an interesting year ahead of them.

At the top of the list is Ohio State's Urban Meyer, who started August training camp on paid administrative leave while the university sorts out whether he properly handled past allegations of domestic violence made against a former assistant coach. Meyer's future is unclear at the moment, but if he's back on the sideline this fall, he'll have to handle a type of controversy he hasn't faced yet in his lengthy and impressive coaching career.

If Ohio State decides to keep Meyer away from the team for part of the 2018 season or longer, his duties will fall on interim head coach Ryan Day. The 39-year-old offensive coordinator would have help from two former head coaches -- Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson -- while trying to sort through what could be a season of turmoil for the Big Ten's defending champs.

In the West Division, Nebraska handed its program over to an alum and one of the coaching community's brightest rising stars in Scott Frost. He joins a wave of relatively new faces in a division that is scrambling to match the depth of the East. Purdue's Jeff Brohm and Minnesota's P.J. Fleck are both optimistic that their teams will be able to take another step forward in their second years at their current homes.

Frost, the former quarterback who overhauled UCF's football program in two short years, promised Husker fans that he will return them to the halcyon days with a mixture of innovation and tradition. Frost has set the bar high for himself in Lincoln, but will likely need a couple of years to develop his roster and battle for championships.

Commissioner Q&A with Jim Delany

By Adam Rittenberg

What do you think about the strength of the league entering the season?

Delany: We are at a moment in time where a lot of programs have the arrow pointed up. There's no doubt about that. We've had seven teams in the top 10 in the last two years. We've won a lot of games in the postseason and non-conference, and last year we had nine teams competing in Week 11 for divisional championships. There's a lot of depth. That's one thing that probably doesn't get mentioned enough, the quality depth. Everyone understands we had seven teams in the top 10 over a two-year period, but if you have Indiana getting wins at Missouri or Virginia; you see Purdue push Louisville, beat Missouri, beat Arizona; you see Northwestern and what they've done, Michigan State, what they have done, Iowa. So we're in a good moment in time. It's hard to predict the future, but we're positioned well, based on performance.

What has contributed to the league's overall uptick in the past five or six years?

Delany: A lot of things. I was looking at some numbers from '04 to '11. We had about the same number of top-5 teams in that six-year period as we've had in the last six-year period, and we had similar number, a little bit less, of Top-25 teams. But there's been an influx of strong coaching, strong leadership and improvement in recruiting. I don't think there's any doubt about that. If you compare '07 with this year, I think we had three teams in the Top 25 of recruiting. Now we have seven or eight. So I think we're getting better players. I would put our group of coaches up against any group, top to bottom. The experience, success, the way they approach things, very strong. We've had a lot of great coaches in the past, but I think this might be the deepest. So better players, better coaches, certainly more resources and when others are losing some attendance, we're growing a bit.

How does the Big Ten's scheduling approach factor into the playoff conversation?

Delany: Of course we're trying to get into the playoff, but we're also trying to keep people in the stands, recruit to it. Young people want to play against the best, and we have great coaches, great venues, great tradition, great schedules. That's not to say everybody's playing an A5 opponent every week in the non-conference, but you can see there's real effort to put together schedules that are as strong as anybody's in the country. It's for somebody else to judge it, but we certainly haven't made it easy to go undefeated, and we'll just have to watch and see how it plays out. I guess if you were just trying to go undefeated or lose one game, you would do something different, but that's not the be all and the end all. It's a reward and the result of having quality football teams.

How has the investment programs are making in football changed in the past few years?

Delany: What I noticed, in my 25th year [as commissioner] I did a tour of all of my camps, and it was eye-opening to me. Not so much the growth spurt, but the branding and the history and tradition, that they're able to bring alive their stories of what it means to play at a Big Ten school: practice facilities, health and safety, training. We had a majority of our facilities build in the mid to early part of the 20th century, and you had three choices: You could ignore them, you could put duct tape on them, or you could rebuild them. And people rebuilt them. That, in many cases, was 10, 12, 15 years ago, and people have continued to invest. It's not only in football. To see what Northwestern is doing and has done. Looking at the Breslin Center. And there's work to be done at Rutgers and at Maryland, to some extent, but they'll have in influx of resources. It doesn't hurt that we've been successful in generating resources through media, but trying to do it in a way that we still keep the living, breathing, student, fan, alumni, coming to our games.

Team with the most to prove

By Tom VanHaaren

Michigan's 2017 season sputtered out to finish 8-5 after dealing with injuries and offensive woes that led to losses against Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State. Coming into the 2018 season, after landing quarterback transfer Shea Patterson from Ole Miss and revamping the coaching staff, the Wolverines and coach Jim Harbaugh have a lot to prove in Harbaugh's fourth season as head man at Michigan.

There is no talk of the hot seat for Harbaugh, but the spotlight is starting to get brighter and the microscope is focusing in on what the Wolverines will be able to do with a more veteran roster and quality depth at the quarterback position. The defense should be able to improve on its stellar showing from 2017, returning all-everything defensive lineman Rashan Gary along with Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerbacks Lavert Hill and David Long, among others.

The questions won't be with the defense, however, as the offense has been the unit searching for the most answers over the past few seasons. Adding Patterson to a quarterback room that will include Brandon Peters, who saw plenty of game action last season, along with Dylan McCaffrey and true freshman Joe Milton, someone should be able to step up and take the reins of the offense. New offensive line coach Ed Warinner has his work cut out for him, trying to get some consistency from his unit going forward.

The line loses tackle Mason Cole and center Patrick Kugler, but is returning some key pieces that now have more reps and more experience under their belts. Cesar Ruiz saw action as a true freshman and should be able to help anchor the middle of the line. If Warinner and his offensive linemen can put it together this season, and Harbaugh can find his quarterback within the roster, it will be a huge step forward for Michigan fixing its offensive problems.

There are still a lot of ifs, though, and the gauntlet of playing Wisconsin at home, Michigan State on the road and Penn State at home in a four-week span will be a big test for where this team is at and how much progress it has made.