Eighth in an 11-part series. Read previous entries on the AAC, ACCC-USAMACMountain WestSun Belt and Independents.

It was inevitable that things would become interesting in the Big Ten Conference once Jim Harbaugh returned to his alma mater prior to last season. This is Harbaugh, boiled down to four syllables: interesting.

Yet it’s OK to be caught off guard by the speed with which Harbaugh rejuvenated moribund Michigan, rocketing the Wolverines from a spot miles behind the Buckeyes to a position at Ohio State’s heels in the span of a single season.

One year after his arrival, the Wolverines are back in the national swing of things. Beat Ohio State? It could happen. And more: Michigan isn’t merely a trendy pick to win the Big Ten East Division but in the mix for a higher goal — the national championship.

There’s only one problem — or two problems, rather. The first is Ohio State, the strongest program in college football this side of Alabama. The second is Michigan State, which tends to let the Wolverines win the offseason before taking control of the Fall.

Projected order of finish 

Rank among the FBS’ 128 teams in parentheses

EAST

1. Ohio State (No. 3)

2. Michigan (No. 7)

3. Michigan State (No. 14)

4. Penn State (No. 50)

5. Maryland (No. 65)

6. Indiana (No. 89)

7. Rutgers (No. 109)

WEST

1. Nebraska (No. 25)

2. Wisconsin (No. 27)

3. Iowa (No. 29)

4. Northwestern (No. 53)

5. Minnesota (No. 72)

6. Illinois (No. 101)

7. Purdue (No. 120)

Preseason all-conference

OFFENSE

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State

RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State

RB: Corey Clement, Wisconsin

WR: Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska

WR: Jehu Chesson, Michigan

TE: Jake Butt, Michigan

OL: Nick Gates, Nebraska

OL: Dan Feeney, Indiana

OL: Pat Elflein, Ohio State

OL: Dan Voltz, Wisconsin

OL: Erik Magnuson, Michigan

DEFENSE

DL: Dawuane Smoot, Illinois

DL: Malik McDowell, Michigan State

DL: Jaleel Johnson, Iowa

DL: Sam Hubbard, Ohio State

LB: Jabrill Peppers, Michigan

LB: Vince Biegel, Wisconsin

LB: Anthony Walker, Northwestern

CB: Desmond King, Iowa

CB: Jourdan Lewis, Michigan

S: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern

S: Demetrious Cox, Michigan State

SPECIALISTS

K: Drew Brown, Nebraska

P: Cameron Johnston, Ohio State

RET: Janarion Grant, Rutgers

Best units

Quarterback: Ohio State. Though Michigan and Michigan State go through quarterback competitions, the Buckeyes bring the league’s best starter to the table.

Running back: Wisconsin. With a healthy Corey Clement in tow, no other Big Ten team can match the level of backfield depth the Badgers bring into 2016.

Wide receiver and tight end: Nebraska. This Jordan Westerkamp-led unit is the Big Ten’s best, likely the best in program history and one of the best in the country.

Offensive line: Michigan. Of all the areas where the Wolverines have shown improvement under Harbaugh, the growth and development of this offensive line is most indicative of the program’s immense progress.

Defensive line: Ohio State. This group might be slightly less productive without three starters — including Joey Bosa — but there’s more than enough talent to keep the Buckeyes rolling up front.

Linebacker: Michigan State and Northwestern (tie). The Spartans tout a deep and battle-tested unit, while the Wildcats have one of the nation’s top defenders in Anthony Walker.

Secondary: Michigan and Iowa (tie). Between Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Iowa’s Desmond King, the Big Ten is home to a pair of All-America cornerbacks.

Special teams: Ohio State and Nebraska (tie). After a slight dip in production last fall, look for the Buckeyes to bounce back in the kicking game and in coverage.

National award candidates 

Heisman Trophy: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. Like most, I’m expecting a bounce-back season from Barrett after his largely uneven 2015 campaign.

Doak Walker Award (best running back): Saquon Barkley, Penn State. He’ll need help from the Nittany Lions’ passing game, but Barkley is as physically gifted a running back as you’ll find in college football.

Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver): Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska. Westerkamp’s only issue is that the Cornhuskers’ receiver corps is so deep that he might not put together the numbers needed to contend for the award.

John Mackey Award (best tight end): Jake Butt, Michigan. Butt’s decision to return for his senior season puts him in line for a slew of national accolades.

Rimington Trophy (best center): Pat Elflein, Ohio State. The reigning All-America pick is one of the leading preseason contenders for the award.

Lombardi Award (best lineman): Malik McDowell, Michigan State. McDowell is more than ready to serve as Michigan State’s next great defensive lineman.

Butkus Award (best linebacker): Anthony Walker, Northwestern. Big Ten coaches know all about Walker, who fills box scores against the run and the pass at a level nearly unmatched across the country.

Thorpe Award (best defensive back): Jourdan Lewis, Michigan, and Desmond King, Iowa. Both Lewis and King are as good as they come in coverage.

Ranking the starting quarterbacks 

1. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. Look for Barrett to rebound from a disappointing sophomore season with numbers closely resembling — if not bettering — his totals from his breakout campaign of 2014.

2. C.J. Beathard, Iowa. He’ll avoid turnovers, keep the chains moving, convert on third down and dictate the tempo for Iowa’s offense — so, in short, Beathard is exactly what Kirk Ferentz is looking for under center.

3. Tommy Armstrong, Nebraska. He’s an all-conference candidate if Nebraska continues to tailor its offense to his strengths — as seen during a bowl win against UCLA.

4. John O’Korn or Wilton Speight, Michigan. It doesn’t matter which junior gets the nod: Michigan’s going to get terrific quarterback play.

5. Tyler O’Connor, Michigan State. Much like Beathard at Iowa, look for O’Connor to not impress with his flash but do a very nice job protecting the football.

6. David Blough, Purdue. It might be a near-disaster everywhere else, but Blough gives Purdue a bright future under center.

7. Trace McSorley, Penn State. Though there was never doubting Christian Hackenberg’s skill set, McSorley represents a stronger fit for what James Franklin wants from the quarterback position.

8. Mitch Leidner, Minnesota. Leidner has the physical tools and ability to excel as a senior; now he needs to put his game together.

9. Wes Lunt, Illinois. Lunt could put up major numbers in the right offense, but what will he be asked to do under new coach Lovie Smith?

10. Clayton Thorson, Northwestern. There’s no ignoring Thorson’s record as the starter, just as there’s no avoiding the fact that he must improve as a passer if Northwestern hopes to win the West Division.

11. Bart Houston, Wisconsin. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how Houston will fare as the starter, but don’t forget about the benefit of playing in front of a loaded backfield.

12. Richard Lagow, Indiana. The junior-college transfer will play in an offense geared toward quarterback production, but it’s hard to see Lagow matching what Nate Sudfeld brought to the table as a senior.

13. Chris Laviano, Rutgers. Laviano brings the most experience of any potential starter for first-year coach Chris Ash, but is he the sort of quarterback the new staff wants in its offense?

14. Perry Hills, Maryland. After an atrocious season last fall, Maryland’s Hills-led quarterback group can only improve under D.J. Durkin and the new coaching staff.

Top newcomers 

Ohio State QB Dwayne Haskins. All Haskins has done since arriving on campus is draw rave reviews from Urban Meyer and the OSU coaching staff.

Michigan State WR Donnie Corley. There may be a starting role in his near future, but Corley will be at worst a key part of the Spartans’ receiver lineup.

Ohio State OL Michael Jordan. Despite being a true freshman, Jordan is in heavy competition to grab a starting job along the Buckeyes’ front.

Michigan DE Rashan Gary. The nation’s consensus No. 1 recruit will begin his freshman season as a cog in the Wolverines’ line rotation, and has the potential for far more by the end of the year.

Nebraska DB Lamar Jackson. He brings the sort of length and athleticism Nebraska needs to compete with the Big Ten’s best for conference titles.

Games of the year

LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Green Bay, Wis.), Sept. 3. Wisconsin may struggle with LSU’s combination of size and athleticism, but don’t discount the benefit of a playing a neutral-site in the Badgers’ backyard.

Ohio State at Oklahoma, Sept. 17. Two of the strongest programs in college football history meet in a defining game of the nonconference slate.

Oregon at Nebraska, Sept. 17. Mike Riley is reunited with a former rival in a game the Cornhuskers dearly need to bolster their national reputation.

Michigan State at Notre Dame, Sept. 17. This game will provide the victor with a huge résumé-builder in the push for the Playoff.

Michigan at Michigan State, Oct. 29. That the Wolverines must face the Spartans and Buckeyes on the road — see below — is cause for concern.

Ohio State at Michigan State, Nov. 19. The Buckeyes hope to avenge last season’s loss; the Spartans hope to maintain their run of success in the series.

Nebraska at Iowa, Nov. 25. There’s reason to think this will decide the West Division.

Michigan at Ohio State, Nov. 26. Last year’s OSU romp showed the gap between the two rivals, but this year’s meeting should indicate a different story.

Best chance at the playoff

Iowa remains a wild card coming out of the West Division, particularly when the Hawkeyes draw Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska at home. The same recipe — a dependable offense, a stingy defense and a manageable schedule — left Iowa within a single play of the College Football Playoff last season.

Nonetheless, I have some misgivings about the Hawkeyes’ chances of a similar run toward perfection, just as I have little faith in the West Division as a whole factoring into the Playoff mix by the time the calendar turns to November. The top four are solid: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern, in some order of another.

But the East Division rules the Big Ten, and is in position to do so for the foreseeable future. How good is this division? In terms of the top three, it might be the best in college football — rivaled only by the Southeastern Conference West Division, home to Alabama, LSU, Mississippi and others.

The race for the Playoff centers on Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. For now, the Spartans sit third in this race; however, recent history suggests that this program cannot be counted out at any point — not now, not in September, and not when trailing by two points with seconds left against Michigan.

And what about the Wolverines? It might be too soon to anoint Michigan as title contenders — yet Harbaugh has earned the benefit of the doubt, both as a result of his tenure at Stanford and the speed with which he has rebuilt this program. At the very least, look for Michigan to enter the finale against Ohio State in line for a New Year’s Six bowl.

I still think it is Ohio State’s conference to lose. The Buckeyes’ offense will rally around J.T. Barrett, who will help a younger cast round into form in advance of a make-or-break tilt against Oklahoma on Sept. 17. The defense is a tough and inexperienced yet overflowing with a degree of play-making ability unshared by the rest of the conference. If Urban Meyer pushes the right buttons — and he typically does — Ohio State is on the verge of another Playoff berth.

QUARTERBACK COMPETITIONS ENTERING THE 2016 SEASON