What are we to make of the Big Ten?

In many ways, 2017 was the best of times. Three teams finished in the top eight of the final AP poll. Five teams finished in the top 17. The league went 7-1 in its bowls, including three marquee New Year’s Six events.

And yet, the apparent best of times. . . wasn’t good enough.

In this era of the College Football Playoff, all the accolades ring hollow when there isn’t one Big Ten team answering the Final Four bell.

If Ohio State doesn’t have that brutal no-show at Iowa. . . if Wisconsin finds a way to deal with Ohio State’s athleticism. . . flip either of those games and the Big Ten has a playoff berth.

But teams all around the nation can come up with woulda-coulda-shouldas like that.

On the bright side, there’s every reason to think No. 5 Ohio State, No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 8 Penn State, No. 15 Michigan State and No. 17 Northwestern are well positioned to keep it going next year. And I would throw Michigan into that mix.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Purdue, Nebraska and Minnesota started accomplishing things they haven’t accomplished lately. They all have promising young coaches in place.

All eyes, of course, will be on the Buckeyes. They lose wondrous QB J.T. Barrett. But like Alabama, which pulled a quarterback out of its hat against Georgia, Ohio State made us blink when unsung Dwayne Haskins came in for an injured Barrett against Michigan.

Wisconsin returns gritty quarterback Alex Hornibrook and stud running back Jonathan Taylor, who had a big-time debut as a freshman. The Badgers also are loaded with their usual cast of stifling blockers and defenders. Whether Wisconsin will ever have the all-around quickness of foot to dance on the biggest stage is an open question. But I say this as a devoted alum. At Wisconsin, these are the good old days.

Penn State loses stud running back Saquon Barkley, but it returns clutch QB Trace McSorley. The Nittany Lions have questions to answer, but at this point, James Franklin has shown that he, like that investment guy, has answers. And at least one of my obsessive-but-knowledgeable Penn State friends believes departed offernsive coordinator Joe Moorhead could have done a better job of unleashing Barkley.

By taking Michigan State from 3-9 to 10-3, Mark Dantonio erased any doubt, if there had been any, that he’s fully capable of keeping the Spartans in the thick of things with traditional powers Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan in the rugged Big Ten East.

And speaking of Michigan, did you know that Jim Harbaugh will take the Maize and Blue on spring vacation to Normandy this year?

That’s appropriate because a D-Day mentality is needed in Ann Arbor. It’s time to establish the beachhead of excellence that has eluded the Wolverines in Harbaugh’s first three years. The defense again will be tough to beat. The key will be whether Harbaugh can find a top-notch quarterback. Returnee Brandon Peters, or possibly Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, if he’s ruled eligible to play in 2018, are the candidates.

Harbaugh also has hired former Michigan State quarterback, Central Michigan head coach and Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos as receivers coach. His $150,000 salary jumps to $750,000 if he becomes offensive coordinator, the Detroit News reported. I’m guessing that’s a when, not an if. But we’ll see.

Barring a miracle, those five teams are the only Big Ten teams that should be considered candidates for the 2018 four-ball known as the College Football Playoff.

The question is, how does the Big Ten get over the hump? The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here.