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Ohio State and Michigan poised to rule Big Ten, but don't tell Michigan State or Iowa

Back when Woody Hayes scowled from Ohio State’s sideline and Bo Schembechler screamed from Michigan’s, the Big Ten Conference became popularly known as the Big Two and the Little Eight.

With Urban Meyer’s dominance with the Buckeyes, and Jim Harbaugh’s ostentatious first season at Michigan, pundits have predicted a return. They’ve forgotten someone: Michigan State, the Big Ten East stepchild that just keeps winning.

Together, they could be the best conference trio in college football. Plus, the Big Ten has defensive stars, top recruits and pesky Iowa.

A look at how the conference shapes up:

Top story lines

Can Jim Harbaugh win a conference title?

Harbaugh came close but never won a conference title at Stanford. Michigan hasn’t won one since 2004, which ties the longest drought in its history. (The other: 1906 to 1918.)

Winning this season means succeeding where the Wolverines failed last season: defeating rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. Michigan might be good enough, but both games are on the road.

Is Iowa more than a one-season wonder?

Iowa was a field goal away from the College Football Playoff last season. A long stretch of mediocrity makes it easy to forget that Coach Kirk Ferentz once seemed destined for many such seasons after winning conference titles in 2002 and 2004. 

Can Iowa repeat last season’s magic? The Associated Press poll hedged its bets, ranking Iowa No. 17. Bad omens: the Hawkeyes won three of four close games last season, and they hardly outgained opponents. The good: a stout, experienced defense and a schedule that includes three tough opponents at home.

Top players

Offense

♦ J.T. Barrett, quarterback, Ohio State: Barrett has already experienced more action, drama and intrigue than most players see in a career. He was fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as Ohio State won a national championship in 2015 — even though he was injured for the title game. He began 2016 as the backup, then won the job back. And he’s still just a junior. No controversy this year: Barrett is the starter.

♦ Pat Elflein, center, Ohio State: The Big Ten has some of the best interior linemen in the nation and Elflein, at 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds, may be the best among them. 

♦ Saquon Barkley, running back, Penn State: As a freshman on a middling team, Barkley finished fourth in the Big Ten with 1,075 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, he averaged 3.82 yards per carry — after contact.

Defense

♦ Jourdan Lewis, cornerback, Michigan: The two best cornerbacks in the nation play in the Big Ten. Lewis’ case: Opposing quarterbacks completed less than 37% of passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus.

♦ Desmond King, cornerback, Iowa: King is considered the better NFL prospect of the Big Ten’s lockdown corners. He intercepted eight passes last season — one for every 10 passes thrown to his area.

♦ Jabrill Peppers, linebacker, Michigan: Every season, one defensive player usually becomes a trendy dark-horse pick to win the Heisman Trophy. This season, it’s Peppers. History says he probably won’t, but he could be the conference’s most exciting player. Peppers played 10 positions last season on offense, defense and special teams, and was pretty good at all of them.

Newcomers

♦ Rashan Gary, defensive end, Michigan: The nation’s top recruit joins an already loaded defensive line, Michigan’s strongest unit.

♦ Nick Bosa, defensive end, Ohio State: A man named Bosa will play defensive end for the Buckeyes and wear No. 97. That worked out well last time: Bosa’s brother, Joey, was the third overall pick in April’s NFL draft.

The games

Best during nonconference

♦ Ohio State at Oklahoma, Sept. 17

♦ Wisconsin vs. Louisiana State, Saturday

Best during conference

♦ Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26: If this game ends up deciding a playoff spot, it would be the rivalry’s biggest game since a 2006 match of unbeatens.

♦ Michigan at Michigan State, Oct. 29: Tip, leave the television on until the clock reads “zero.” That last-second punt? Might be important.

♦ Iowa vs. Nebraska, Nov. 25: Last season, Iowa finished its first undefeated regular season by beating the Cornhuskers in a game that decided the Big Ten West.

You read it here

With apologies to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division, the Pac-12’s North and, yes, even the Southeastern Conference’s West — which will lead the nation in self-congratulation for the 10th straight season — the Big Ten East is college football’s premier division. The East champion will be the next national champion.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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