How wide open is the Big Ten West this fall?
The Division is full of parity, with no clear-cut favorite and will be up for grabs this upcoming season.
All seven teams have established coaches, however only three of them have ever clinched a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game. For the first time since the league merged into two Divisions, the West is approaching the upcoming season with equal amount of talent as the East.
The West could very well have four ranked teams entering the 2019 season. Are these teams legit contenders or overrated pretenders? Here’s a look at each program’s chances to win the West Division.
Illinois: Lovie Smith enters the upcoming season clearly on the hot seat, yet the Fighting Illini extended his contract last November. He has gone 9-27 in three seasons in Champaign, including 4-23 in Big Ten play. Illinois hasn’t posted a winning conference record since 2007, when the team clinched a Rose Bowl berth. The Fighting Illini will be green at quarterback, but Smith will have one of the best rushers in the Big Ten in Reggie Corbin. The senior eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and averaged a jaw-dropping 8.5 yards per carry, which ranked first in the league. On the other side of the ball the defense returns nine starters, but will need major improvement. The unit finished dead last in the league in scoring, rushing and total defense. It helps that the Fighting Illini return their leading tackler Jake Hansen. Smith loses All-Big Ten kicker Chase McLaughlin, but returns one of the best punters in the conference in Blake Hayes, who averaged 43.6 yards per punt. Illinois should be able to establish some momentum and be 3-0 heading into the conference opener at home against Nebraska. Illinois also gets Michigan and Wisconsin at home in back-to-back weeks. The pressure is on Smith to get Illinois back to the post season for the first time since 2014. Still, the schedule is favorable enough for the Fighting Illini to reach six wins.
Iowa: Kirk Ferentz is the dean of all FBS Coaches and his team returns the most experienced quarterback and arguably the most feared defender in the Big Ten. Senior signal-caller Nate Stanley has 52 touchdowns passes and 10 interceptions over the last two seasons. A.J. Epenesa led the conference with 10.5 sacks last season, despite coming off the bench. Both players will take on a bigger role this fall. Stanley must find new targets after losing wide receiver Nick Easley, who led the team in receptions last season and tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, who were selected in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft. Epenesa looks to anchor the front seven after the Hawkeye’s lost three starters along the defensive line. Speedy receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette is the team’s leading returner in touchdown catches. He’s up to the challenge of filling Iowa’s receiving void and earned All-Big Ten honors last season as a return specialist. The Hawkeyes will be a three-headed monster at running back. Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Kelly Ivory-Martin will battle it out for carries this fall and all three are capable of eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark. The offensive line has two studs in tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs. The defense will be one of the best units in the Big Ten and will dominate again against the run. Iowa’s schedule is no cake walk, hosting Penn State and having to travel to Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska. However, Ferentz has gone undefeated against rivals Iowa State, Minnesota and Nebraska over the past four seasons. The Hawkeyes have a good chance at clinching the West for the first time since 2015.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers were one of the youngest teams in the country last season and still clawed their way to seven wins. P.J. Fleck continues to row the boat and boasts three different 1,000-yard rushers in his backfield in Mohamed Ibrahim, Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Tyler Johnson tied for first in the league in touchdown catches last season and earned first team All-Big Ten honors. Quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad were effective in different games last year. Morgan threw for more yards, less interceptions and had a solid performance in the bowl win over Georgia Tech. On the defensive side of the ball Minnesota returns seven starters, including one of the Big Ten’s best defenders in edge rusher Carter Coughlin. The senior had 9.5 sacks last season, which ranked third in the conference. Minnesota can very well stroll into the home showdown with Nebraska undefeated at 5-0. The winner of that game will have a ton of momentum heading into the meat-grinding Big Ten schedule. Fleck has raised the program’s expectations and Golden Gopher fans are as optimistic as ever for the upcoming season. Fleck now has his players in place and year three has the potential to be his best in Minneapolis.
Nebraska: The Huskers appear to be the media darlings of the off season. A team that’s coming off back-to-back 4-8 campaigns is expected to be the favorite in the West this fall. After all, Nebraska has talented young quarterback Adrian Martinez, who has major upside and is fresh off a solid true-freshman season. He’ll be throwing to speedster J.D. Spielman out of the slot, who hauled in eight touchdown catches, returned a punt for a score and earned third team All-Big Ten honors last season. The status of true sophomore running back Maurice Washington remains unknown as he deals with legal issues and Nebraska’s backfield may likely be a liability. Scott Frost wants to keep Martinez upright and healthy, but a running back needs to step up to take the pressure off the young signal caller. The Blackshirts were one of the Big Ten’s worst units last year and struggled mightily on third downs. Linebacker Mohammed Barry is the Big Ten’s leading returning tackler and will need to set the tone for the front seven every game. The Huskers were a turnover-prone, penalty-plagued team last season, but finished the year strong, winning four of their last six games. The schedule this time around is very favorable for Nebraska and Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa have to come to Lincoln. Frost has a track record of doing amazing things in his second season on the job and the Huskers have the potential to reach nine wins by the end of November.
Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald was named The Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Wildcats clinched the West Division last season. Fitzgerald has led his alma mater to four-straight winning seasons, including a 26-9 record in conference play. He must find a replacement for quarterback Clayton Thorson, who’s the program’s all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. However, former five-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will try his best to fill the void left by the record-breaking signal-caller. The Wildcats may have to lean on their talented defense early-on. Defensive end Joe Gaziano and linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are one of the best at their positions in the Big Ten. It’s going to be extremely hard for teams to run on Northwestern’s front seven this fall. The Wildcats’ schedule is flat-out brutal for the first seven games, which will effect the team’s record come November. It’s a stretch for Northwestern to get back to the Big Ten Championship Game for a second year in a row, but Fitzgerald should be able to deliver his team a fifth-straight winning season.
Purdue: Jeff Brohm has the Boilermakers on the rise. Purdue is coming off back-to-back bowl bids and finished last season with a winning conference record. Not to mention over the last five months Brohm landed a Top-25 recruiting class and received a seven-year contract, worth up to $36.8 million and the deal included a $1.7 million signing bonus. The Boilermakers have arguably the best wide receiver in College Football in Rondale Moore, who led the nation with 113 catches last season. Replacing quarterback David Blough will be key, although having Moore to throw to will make life easier on whoever takes the snaps. Purdue’s defense will determine how far the team will go. The unit returns nine starters, but finished dead last in the league against the pass and 113th nationally in total yards allowed. The schedule will be very challenging also, especially on the road. Purdue hosts Vanderbilt and TCU in week two and three and travels to Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. If Brohm can pull seven wins out of this schedule, he’s worth every penny.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin has ruled the Big Ten West with an iron fist, but loosened up on its’ grip last season. The injury bug took its’ toll on the Badgers and they lost four conference games for the first time since 2012. Still, Wisconsin is expected to contend for the Division crown every season and 2019 will be a great opportunity for the program to climb back on top. Alex Hornibrook took a lot of criticism during his career in Madison and transferred to Florida State. Now the Badgers will be breaking in a new quarterback and the position battle may carry on into fall camp with the arrival of four-star prospect Graham Mertz. However, Paul Chryst has the reigning Doak Walker Award winner in Jonathan Taylor and he’ll make any quarterback’s life easier behind center. Most importantly the Badgers have to get back to playing great defense. Chryst loves controlling the clock with a bruising rushing attack, but time of possession is ineffective without great defense. Depth will be a major issue with Wisconsin returning only two starters in its’ front seven. The team is out to prove last season was a fluke, but their schedule is more challenging this time around. Wisconsin swaps Rutgers and Penn State with Michigan State and Ohio State. Plus Wisconsin opens up the season on the road at South Florida, hosts Michigan in game three and travels to Nebraska and Minnesota. With the right breaks the Badgers could carve out nine wins.