Big 10 Conference West Division Season Preview
The Big 10 Conference is usually one of the most entertaining of all the conferences and this year should be no different. The West division should be very competitive with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern all battling it out to move on to the Big 10 Title game. How will it play out in this conference?
All Team & Player Rankings Are Courtesy Of Phil Steele’s CFB Preview
Teams are in predicted order of finish.
Wisconsin Badgers: The Wisconsin Badgers went just 4-3 last year, but they will have a much better season this year. Wisconsin has 17 starters back from last year, and they have a very favorable schedule to navigate. Wisconsin has easy road games against Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers, and Minnesota while getting the likes of Penn State. Michigan, Iowa, and Northwestern at home. Their toughest games are all at home, and Camp Randall Stadium is a very tough place for opposing teams to play, especially with fans in the stands. When you think of the Badgers, you think defense, and they have eight starters back from a group that allowed just 17.4 ppg last year. Their top 4 tacklers are back from last year, and the Back eight for the Badgers is exceptional. The linebacking corps rates 6th in the nation, while the secondary is 10th. This will be the best defense in the Big 10 this year.
The offense last year was very mediocre as the Badgers averaged just 25.1 ppg, but even if they did that this year, they would still win a lot of games. Wisconsin has nine starters back on offense, including QB Graham Mertz, who threw for 1238 yards with nine TDs and five INTs last year. Not spectacular numbers, but the Badgers are more about the run. Leading rusher Jalen Berger is back and the Badgers running back corps ranks 16th in the nation. They will set up behind the 13th rated offensive line in the land. The Badgers will still be led by their defense, but the offense should be strong than last year. They will face a favorable schedule and will parlay that into a Big 10 West title and a date in the conference championship game. I don’t expect the Badgers to win the league title, but if they do, they could very well end up in the NCAA playoffs.
Iowa Hawkeyes: The Iowa Hawkeyes went 6-2 last year, and they are in store for another solid season. They are not very experienced as Iowa ranks 112th in the nation in that department, but this will still be a tough team to take down each and every week. The offense was solid last year in averaging 31.8 ppg, and they have seven starters back on that side of the ball. Like Wisconsin, Iowa will be about their power running game, and they do have top running back Tyler Goodson back after rushing for 762 yards and seven TDs last year. He will set up behind one of the best offensive lines in the Big 12. The receiving corps loses two of its top three from last year, and the QB position rates as 12th best in the league. Spencer Petras will need to step up this year, and he could have a good showing if the running game does its thing. Iowa Shot put up about the same amount of offense as they did last year.
The Hawkeyes have not allowed more than 19.9 ppg in any of the last five years, and they gave up just 16.0 ppg last year. This year’s defense may take a step back, but it will not allow more than 20 ppg for the 6th year in a row. Iowa has seven starters back on this side of the ball, and all three defensive units rank 4th or better in the Big 10. The Hawkeyes allowed just 206 ypg through the air last year, and they could improve on that with a secondary that ranks 9th best in the nation. All four starters return to that group, Including Jack Koener, who had three INTs a year ago. Riley Moss had two INTs and four PBUs. With strength at all three levels of this defense, it could rival Wisconsin’s as the best in the league. The Hawkeyes are going to be a tough out for most teams this year, but back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Northwestern late in the year will keep the Hawkeyes from winning the Big 10 West.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: The Minnesota Golden Gophers went just 3-4 last year, but this team could be one of the most improved in the nation. Minnesota comes in with 20 returning starters, and they rank as the number one overall team in experience this year. The offense is built around a ground attack that averaged 192 ypg a year ago, and it should be even better this year. Mohamed Ibrahim rushed for 1076 yards and 15 TDs last year and is rated as the top running back in the Big 10. He will set up behind an offensive line that is ranked 11th in the nation with all five starters back. The QB position is in good hand with Tanner Morgan, who threw for 1324 yards with seven TDs and five INts a year ago, but the receiving corps is one of the worst in the Big 12. If the Gophers can get more production from their passing game, they couple top 30 ppg this year.
The Minnesota defense is not expected to do a whole lot, but I'm afraid I have to disagree as they have 29 of 35 lettermen back on this side of the ball, including ten starters. Despite that, Phil Steele has all three units on defense ranked 10th or worse in the Big 10. Minnesota did allow 30.1 ppg, and they must clean up a run defense that allowed 207 ypg last year. The line is not expected to be that good, but with all four starters returning and all four being upperclassmen, I see the line as being better than advertised. Minnesota has a tough road slate with games at Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana, plus home games against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Still, I expect the most experienced team in the nation to pull some surprises and finish 3rd in the Big 10 West.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: It is a tossup between Northwestern and Nebraska in the 4th spot, but the Cornhuskers have a bit more experience, and this is Scott Frost’s best team yet. Granted, the Huskers have just 21 returning lettermen, but 17 of them are starters, including QB Adrian Martinez, who seems to have been here forever. Martinz threw for 1055 yards with four TDs and three INTs last year while also leading the team in rushing with 521 yards and seven INTs. Markese Stepp will take over at RB, and he was the 12th rated RB recruit a couple of years ago. The Huskers could top the 201 ypg on the ground they put up last year, and they will need to as the passing game does not look very strong with the 10th rated set of receivers in the Big 10. The offensive line is right in the middle of the pack. This will be an average offensive team once again.
The defense has a chance to be very solid as they have ten starters back on that side of the ball. Nebraska allowed 29.4 ppg, and with a very average offense, they need to improve on this side of the ball. The linebacking corps will be the strength of this defense, with all four starters back and two recruits that rank 34th and 30th in the nation. Nebraska was decent against the pass last year, but they allowed 170 ypg on the ground and the hope that a stronger LB corps will help them stop the run much better this year. They need the LB corps to step up as the line is nothing special. Another reason I like Nebraska in this spot is that they get Northwestern at home. At the very least this year, the Cornhuskers should make it to a bowl game for the first time since 2016.
Northwestern Wildcats: The Wildcats come in as the least experienced team in the nation, plus they face Nebraska, Michigan, and Wisconsin on the road while getting Iowa at home. The Wildcats have 56 lettermen back but just eight starters, with four on each side of the ball. They must replace QB Payton Ramsey, two of their top three RBs, and their top four receivers from a year ago. Ryan Hillinski will take over at QB after spending the last two years in South Carolina. He was the 5th rated QB prospect when he came out a few years ago. The QB spot is the strength of this offense as the WR corps, RB corps, and offensive line all rank 10th or worse in the Big 10. The Cats may have trouble topping the 24.7 ppg and 361 ypg they put up last year.
Northwestern is a defensive-minded team, and they will need their defense to carry them this year. They have just four starters back on that side of the ball, but 28 lettermen from a team that allowed just 15.9 ppg a year ago. It is clear that the East Division has the better offenses while the West has the better defenses. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern could all finish in the top 15 in the nation in ppg allowed this year. The Cats have the 4th rated DL and the 5th rated secondary in the big 12, so you know they will field another solid unit. This is a solid Northwestern squad that will play a lot of low-scoring games. They have some challenging games on their schedule but also have enough easy contests to at least challenge for a bowl game this year.
Illinois Fighting Illini: The Fighting Illini had a rough 2-6 season last year, which prompted the firing of Lovie Smith. In step Bret Bielema, who had many great seasons with the Wisconsin Badgers. He inherits a team that is 15th in the nation in experience, with 44 of 50 lettermen returning, including 18 starters. The offense was poor last year, averaging just 20.1, but we could see it have a better showing with nine starters back on that side of the ball. Brandon Peters is back at QB after throwing for 429 yards with three TDs and no INTs in five games last year. He could have a good season, but this is a Bielmea team, and he likes to run the ball. That may be the way they go as the Illini have their top six ball carriers back and an offensive line that rates as 4th best in the Big 10. Once the running game gets going, the passing game should have a better showing than last year when they passed for 153 ypg. Illinois will average more than 20.1 ppg this year.
Bret Bielema is a defensive-minded coach, and he had some very good defenses at Wisconsin. The Illini have 16 of 19 lettermen back on this side of the ball, including nine starters, so I would look for them to allow less than the 34.9 ppg and 467 ypg that they gave up a year ago. The run defense was horrid last year as the Illini allowed 230 ypg on 5.1 yards per carry, but Bielema has a solid defensive line that ranks as 4th best in the league. Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be critical as the secondary is the worst in the Big 10. Still, this is an improved defense overall. Give Bielema a couple of years to get his players in there, and then Illinois will start to return to bowl games. This year, they are rebuilding and will do just enough to escape the basement of the Big 10 West.
Purdue Boilermakers: The Boilermakers went just 2-4 last year, but they are hoping for better results with 18 starters back from that squad. The problem is that even if they were to improve on both sides of the ball, the Boilermakers have an extremely tough schedule to navigate. Purdue has roadies against Notre Dame, Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio State, while facing Wisconsin and Indiana at home, plus Northwestern on a neutral field. The defense has been average at best the last few years, but it could improve on the 29.8 ppg they allowed last year with nine starters back on that side of the ball. The back seven are among the worst in the Big 10, but Purdue does have a defensive line that is one of the best in the league. George Karlaftis was the 7th rated defensive end when he came out of high school a few years ago. He played in just three games last year, but as a true frosh, Karlaftis has 7.5 sacks and 9.5 TFL in 12 starts. He is the anchor of this defense.
The offense was rather mediocre last year as it put up just 27.2 ppg, but we could see them improve on that number with nine starters back on this side of the ball. Aidan O’Donnell and Jack Plummer each had three starts last year, and both threw for over 900 yards. Both are back, and it looks as Plummer will get the call to start the year. Purdue averaged 309 ypg through the air last year, and you can bet they will look to air it out again with their top three receivers back from that team. Purdue’s receivers do rate out at 22nd in the nation, so this is a good group. The offensive line is very average, while the RB corp is 12th best in the league. Purdue averaged just 82 ypg on the ground last year, so this is not a team committed to the run. Purdue will throw the ball a ton, which could help them top 30 ppg, but stopping teams from throwing the ball will be an issue, and the schedule is an even bigger issue. It will be a long year for the Boilermakers.