7 things to know as Big Ten football conference play starts

Welcome to the first week of Big Ten football for 2016.

We see some new people in the crowd, but don’t worry – there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon.

Yes, even you folks from the South can come along if you want. This could be the best ride we’ve had in a while, so we can’t say we blame you for being interested all of a sudden.

But if it ends the same way it always seems to, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Here’s what you need to know as the 121st season of Big Ten football begins this weekend.

1. Five Big Ten teams are in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll, led by No. 1 Ohio State. Michigan is No. 4 while Michigan State is eighth, Wisconsin is 11th and Nebraska is 20th. Last year three Big Ten teams finished in the top 10 for the first time since 2009. The last time five teams finished in the top 20 was 2003, when there were also three top 10 teams.

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2. Eight teams are undefeated so far, including five in the East division. At least half the league’s teams will have a loss after this weekend as Wisconsin is scheduled to play at Michigan State at noon.

3. What could be the best Big Ten season in at least five years will be the longest in more than 30. Everyone will play nine conference games for the first time since 1984. Games to watch this season after the Badgers and Spartans this weekend include Ohio State at Wisconsin (Oct. 15), Michigan at Michigan State and Nebraska at Wisconsin (Oct. 29), Nebraska at Ohio State (Nov. 5), Ohio State at Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan at Ohio State (Nov. 26).

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4. While the title of Big Ten’s best team is up for grabs, the conference’s best player is easier to determine. Jabrill Peppers has already been named the Big Ten Defensive Player and Special Teams Player of the Week, something that had never been done in the same week before. He also figures to be a threat on the Wolverine offense, too.

Will they need him on that side of the ball? Well, Michigan has already scored 159 points this season, which is a school record for the first three games of the season. That’s an eye-popping fact if you know your college football history, but it also owes to what has been a very weak schedule so far for the Wolverines. Jim Harbaugh’s team figures to need all hands on deck to navigate the conference slate.

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5. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s rebuilt defense has been outstanding so far this season. Despite three new starters in the secondary, the Buckeyes have already tied the school record for pick-sixes in a season with four. They rank 11th in the nation and No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring defense through three weeks (12.3 points per game) while checking in sixth in pass efficiency defense. That is also tops among conference teams, and Ohio State’s plus-nine turnover margin is the best in the country.

6. The annual showdown between the Buckeyes and Wolverines has had the potential for major impact on the Big Ten standings 44 times since it moved to the end of the regular season, but for that to be the case again at least one of them is going to have to beat Michigan State. Both failed to do so last year, and coach Mark Dantonio’s team heads into conference play riding high off a win over Notre Dame. The Spartans have a new quarterback and some new faces on defense, but they look like they will again be a tough out when all is said and done.

7. The East has won the conference championship game both years since the divisions were realigned, and the looks like it will be the case again. Wisconsin is probably the West’s best bet, though Football Outsiders advanced stats don’t think as much of the Badgers as pollsters do, ranking them 20th. Michigan tops the nation in S&P+ while Ohio State is fifth. Unbeaten Nebraska is 29th in the advanced stats while Iowa and Northwestern are both off to disappointing starts after stronger-than-expected 2015 campaigns.

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