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The Big Ten East is a gauntlet and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon

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Four Big Ten East teams may be ranked in the top 15 to start 2018. Can Michigan make it out on top?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ever since the realignment of the two (East/West) Big Ten divisions in 2014, it’s without question the East has been the most competitive in the country with several teams clawing to break through to Indianapolis. It’s provided us with season-ending drama that comes down to one game, or as we saw in 2016 one play in overtime with the biggest rivalry in sports.

Here’s a summary of the East division champions since 2014 and how they did after:

2017 - Ohio State (won Big Ten over Wisconsin, no College Football playoff, beat USC in the Cotton Bowl)

2016 - Penn State (won Big Ten over Wisconsin, no College Football Playoff, lost to USC in the Rose Bowl)

2015 - Michigan State (won Big Ten against Iowa, got shutout in College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama)

2014 - Ohio State (won Big Ten over Wisconsin and the College Football Playoff)

It’s only January people!

Now that college football is over and the shift has moved to college basketball, the way-too early preseason polls are being released. While they’re interesting to read and evaluate, they don’t mean a lot right now. It’s similar to when the first preseason rankings come out and people overreact where their team is or isn’t, because it’s just predictions and they never stick.

Below are the full list of rankings by outlet.

ESPN

CBS

USA Today

Can Michigan jump over the hurdle and get to Indianapolis in 2018?

One hurdle Jim Harbaugh and Michigan have been trying to accomplish since he arrived is to fight their way through the division and make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. The 2016 season was close and came down to that one play nobody will forget. While many thought this accomplishment would or should have already happened within Jim Harbaugh’s first three years, it’s taken longer than Michigan fans hoped and the competition within the East continues to be a gauntlet.

Let’s break down the four teams likely competing for the East in 2018 and some of the details about who they have returning.

Ohio State

Early rankings: 3 (ESPN & USA Today), 4 (CBS)

Returning starters: Offense: seven, Defense: five, Special Teams: two

Number of key losses: Nine

They will have a quarterback battle between Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell, along at the running back with J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Urban Meyer will rely on his backups and young recruits to step in on defense with only five returning in order to keep the momentum going after missing out on the College Football Playoff as Big Ten Champions.

Michigan State

Early rankings: 9 (ESPN), 5 (CBS), 10 (USA Today)

Returning starters: Offense: 10, Defense: nine, Special Teams: Two

Number of key losses: Three

With 19 starters returning to East Lansing they are getting some respect in this poll, but it’s only January and it really means nothing. Brian Lewerke had a better 2017 season and got Michigan State to a 10-3 overall record (7-2 Big Ten). The upside to their schedule is they have Michigan and Ohio State at home, which could be deciding games in the East division race.

Penn State

Early rankings: 11 (ESPN), 6 (CBS & USA Today)

Returning starters: Offense: seven, Defense: three, Special Teams: one

Number of key losses: 10

Penn State will have to insert new play-makers on offense due to losing RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki and WR DaeSean Hamilton, along with several new players on defense with only three returning starters. Their schedule is interesting with a couple tough stretches of opponents. They play at Pittsburgh on Sept. 8, then go on to play Ohio State and Michigan State at home in back-to-back weeks starting on Sept. 29. The other tough stretch comes when they play at Michigan on Nov. 3, then host Wisconsin the following week. It favors to play tough games later in the season if you are young and trying to develop, so those four weeks will likely impact the division results in a big way.

Michigan

Early rankings: 14 (ESPN/CBS), 16 (USA Today)

Returning starters: Offense: Everyone but Cole/Kugler, Defense: Everyone but Hurst/McCray, Special Teams: two

Number of key losses: Four; two offensive lineman (Cole/Kugler) and two on defense (Hurst/McCray).

Michigan is waiting on a few players to be eligible and clear to play in the spring. Grant Newsome is progressing very well in his recovery and would instantly boost the offensive line if he is able to start practicing soon. Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson has not been cleared yet by the NCAA to be eligible for 2018. If those two are good to go for 2018, watch out for a whole new offense for the Wolverines.

The downside to their 2018 season and schedule are the tough away games starting at Notre Dame on Sept. 1. Several players for the Irish were recently dismissed and offensive coaches have left, so the hype will be there but the game may be slightly in Michigan’s favor. They also have to play at Michigan State on Oct. 10, then end the regular season at Ohio State on Nov. 24. The first hurdle for the Wolverines is to win road games against ranked opponents, and they’ll have that opportunity in 2018. If they can find an identity on offense and the defense continues their dominance, this team may be just what fans have been waiting for to make that Indianapolis game and win the East division.

Hot on the recruiting trail

These programs have also built some of the best recruiting classes nationally over the last several seasons, according to 247Sports. Championships in collegiate sports begin with recruiting. Alabama’s game-winning play in the Championship this year came from a five-star quarterback to a five-star receiver. The bottom line is recruiting matters.

If you look at the four East teams since 2015, the gap between recruiting class rankings has become much smaller.

Current 2018 and Big Ten East rankings

These are subject to change between now and National Signing Day on February 7.

Ohio State 2

Penn State 4

Michigan 14

Michigan State 26

Full 2017 Results and Big Ten East rankings

Ohio State 2

Michigan 5

Penn State 15

Michigan State 36

Full 2016 Results and Big Ten East rankings

Ohio State 4

Michigan 8

Michigan State 17

Penn State 20

Full 2015 Results and Big Ten East rankings

Ohio State 7

Penn State 14

Michigan State 23

Michigan 37

Wrap up

No other division in the country has become as close and competitive with several ranked teams than the East. The four teams from that division will likely provide us with a lot of drama and excitement through the 2018 season, just like it has since 2014. The division winner will prove they can win big games, whether on the road or as the underdog, but it’s going to be another grueling season for the four fighting for that spot in Indianapolis, and likely beyond 2018.