2022 NCAA Football preview - Big 10 West
We're down to the last of the Power 5 conferences and with the Big 10 just announcing in July that (former) Pac-12 fixtures UCLA and Southern Cal will be joining beginning in 2024 and a new media rights deal that has been finalized as of August 18, Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren has had a full summer.
The B10 West is the Pac-12 North, the SEC East, and the ACC Coastal equivalent- one team expected to be at the top and a lot of fighting for second place. That doesn't mean it's not interesting. Illinois has (despite Bert's Arkansas fiasco) a coach that knows what he's doing as does Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern. Nebraska? Well, we'll find out, won't we?
It'll be interesting to see whose head ends up on the chopping block when the divisions are realigned in 2024, after all, there's no way they have USC and UCLA in the East, right?
Illinois Fighting Illini (5-7)
Head Coach – Bret Bielema (5-4 in 1 season)
Top Recruit – Aidan Laughrey – ATH – 3 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Will a schedule that features eight teams that made a bowl game appearance in 2021 stunt the growth of Bielema’s squad or will the 2021 experience of not being able to close out close games (4 games lost by <7 points) help them win some of those games?
If things go right. . . the Illini head into October with a 4-0 record and a big win over offensive powerhouse Virginia in their pocket. With the confidence from that win, they manage to pull a couple of mild upsets and be bowl eligible before the season finale with Northwestern.
If things go wrong. . . an inexperienced (5 returning starters) Wyoming team beats them in the season opener and games @Indiana and Vs. Virginia goes the same way leaving the Illini entering the meat of their B10 schedule with a 1-3 record and a potential 1 win season hanging over their heads.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . Without knowing how the team is responding or developing you have to think that they will be better than last year, at least one game better anyhow, but a rough schedule that could feature only two winnable games after September puts a lot of pressure to win those early season contests. This feels like another 5-7 season and if they get to 6-6 Bielema should get B10 Coach of the Year votes.
Iowa Hawkeyes (10-4)
Head Coach- Kirk Ferentz (178-110 in 23 seasons, 18 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Xavier Nwankpa – S – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Maybe not a question for 2022 but a question that Ferentz needs to answer for himself and soon. How much longer does he intend to be a head coach? At 67 years old, he has to be approaching the end of his time at Iowa and while we ask the same about other coaches (Nick Saban comes to mind) it feels like people have been questioning Ferentz’s future for the last ten years.
If things go right. . . If the Hawkeyes can get past an early October game with Michigan with a win they may well be riding high for the game @Ohio State Oct 22, I don’t think many people expect them to win that game, but even if they don’t they should be on track for a 10-2/11-1 season and a West division title.
If things go wrong. . . Iowa State and Michigan trip them up early, Ohio State smashes them in Columbus and Wisconsin takes them down for an 8-4 record. It could be worse though if the team gets demoralized and drops a winnable game or starts peeking ahead at the schedule.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . with 16 returning starters (8 on either side of the ball) the Hawkeyes are experienced and are rarely a poorly prepared or coached team, they could finish as high as 11 wins or as low as 7, personally, though, I feel they’re in that 8-9 win range.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-4)
Head Coach – P.J. Fleck (35-23 in 5 seasons, 3 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Trey Bixby – DL – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Will Mohamed Ibrahim (RB-SR) be able to make a full recovery from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in 2021’s season opener? If so he’ll take a lot of heat off of the passing game and senior QB Tanner Morgan.
If things go right. . . the roster only presents a couple of stumbling blocks for the Gophers unless they get overconfident and start looking ahead. If they can avoid trap game losses they could be as good as 8-2/7-3 going into the last two weeks with rivalry games Vs. Iowa and @Wisconsin.
If things go wrong. . . those trap games rise up to bite them Vs. Colorado (the week before @Michigan State) and @Illinois (before @Penn State), if that happens don’t be surprised to see the Gophers scrambling to right the ship before those rivalry games.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . just looking at the games they should win and the games they should lose it feels like an 8-4 season is a real possibility. With that said, Illinois is going to get better and Rutgers will as well (assuming both coaches are given some reasonable slack and not fired prematurely). Northwestern is always a well-coached team and Purdue can light a team up on a given Saturday so there are pitfalls waiting.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-9)
Head Coach – Scott Frost (15-29 in 5 seasons)
Top Recruit – Jaeden Gould – CB – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Will the (almost) complete replacement of the ‘Huskers’ coaches on the offensive side of the ball translate to wins, especially with HC Frost no longer calling his own plays, or will Nebraska continue to slouch into irrelevancy and be searching for a new head coach at the end of the season?
If things go right. . . you’ll see the trend of last year (eight of nine losses were by a single score) reverse and the ‘Huskers will start to win the close games. If they can make that happen and secure a few early-season victories they have a real shot at Nebraska’s first bowl game since 2016. They’ll need to be bowl eligible before November gets to Lincoln as they finish up with @Michigan, Vs. Wisconsin, and @Iowa. Ohio State and Michigan State are off the schedule though, so that should help.
If things go wrong. . . the season starts out with a loss to Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, and, after a couple of cupcakes, old Big 8 rival Oklahoma comes knocking. The next four against Vs. Indiana, @Rutgers, @Purdue, and Vs. Illinois is all potentially winnable, but the month of November starts with Minnesota coming at Lincoln and it gets harder from there. Unless the ‘Huskers completely fall apart, 5-7 should be their floor.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . 6-6 and a bowl game unless the team hits the skids or gets on a roll. HC Frost needs a bowl appearance (and not an embarrassing one either) to keep his job.
Northwestern Wildcats (3-9)
Head Coach – Pat Fitzgerald (109-90 in 17 seasons, 10 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Reggie Fluerima – WR – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Can the Wildcats’ defense improve (101st in
Total Defense, 119th Vs. Rush in 2021) enough so that the offense doesn’t have to put up 30+ points to win? If so, you can look to the transfer portal where HC Fitzgerald brought in defenders from Stanford, Pitt, and Wyoming to shore up a defense that was gashed repeatedly last season.
If things go right. . . the defense is fixed, or at least better than it was, and outside of a rough October (only @Maryland seems winnable at this point) and a Nov 5th matchup Vs. Ohio State, they have eight games that they have a solid shot at taking. With Northwestern’s track record of improving off of a bad (non-bowl) season, they could be as good as 8-4.
If things go wrong. . . the defense isn’t fixed and the offense isn’t any better either (16.6 PPG in 2021). The ‘Huskers drop them in the program’s first international game and after righting the ship in September, games @Penn State and Vs. Wisconsin kills any momentum leading to a couple of questionable losses in November, and a 5-7 record is what you’re left with.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . I feel that the Wildcats will be improved, but when you only won three games the year before, improvement is a big sliding scale. Mark me down for the ‘Cats getting back to a bowl at 6-6.
Purdue Boilermakers (9-4)
Head Coach – Jeff Brohm (28-29 in 6 seasons, 3 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Brady Allen – QB – 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Can the Boilermakers keep the offensive momentum that they found late in 2021 where they scored 30+ points per game in five straight games and averaged 39 PPG?
If things go right. . . HC Brohm and company keep the train rolling and the offense, led by Aidan O’Connell (QB-SR) and Milton Wright (WR-SR) lead the way for a Boilermakers team that puts up a ton of points, by necessity or not, and win all their tossup games finishing with a 9-3 record; if they can surprise Penn State at home in week one, push that to 10-2.
If things go wrong. . . The season opens with a loss Vs. Penn State and the cupcake momentum of September is stopped during a trip to @Minnesota. The following week “good” Maryland shows up instead of “bad” Maryland costing the ‘Makers a game and then with Vs. Nebraska making it three losses in a row. The following week Purdue finds themselves in free fall with a trip to @Wisconsin and a game Vs. Iowa is sandwiched around the bye week. The good news is that November ends with what appear to be three winnable games to finish out the season - @Illinois, Vs. Northwestern, and @Indiana for a 6-6 season.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . 8-4 feels about right here. Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa all feel like losses right now and figure they drop either Minnesota or Northwestern. The schedule lines up well, so a couple of upsets and they could be making a trip to Indianapolis in December.
Wisconsin Badgers (9-4)
Head Coach – Paul Chryst (65-23 in 7 seasons, 7 bowl games)
Top Recruit – Joe Brunner - OT - 4 stars
Biggest question for 2022 – Can Graham Mertz (QB-JR) break through this year after a 2021 season that saw him throw 11 INTs but only 10 TDs or will the Badgers continue to lean (heavily) on their newest future NFL star Braelon Allen (RB-SO) who rushed for 1200+ yards and 12 TDs after taking over RB1 duties in October?
If things go right. . . Mertz makes the strides necessary to help the Badgers become a “pick your poison” offense and Allen ratchets up the stats running the ball (I’m thinking a hair under 1500 yards) and the Badgers are primed for a late September matchup with @Ohio State. Playing well and not getting blown out is almost more important than winning (though a win could lay the groundwork for confidence entering a likely B10 CG rematch). The rest of the schedule is navigable though their two other toughest games are both on the road (@Michigan State and @Iowa).
If things go wrong. . . a blowout loss to Ohio State saps the Badgers’ confidence and games @Northwestern and @Michigan State become losses and home games against Purdue and Maryland become “must win” games. Iowa drops them to excuse Wisconsin from the West division race and Minnesota takes the Paul Bunyan’s Axe Trophy for another year. All this leads to a 6-6 disaster of a season.
Most likely outcome for the season. . . Ohio State is the only game that feels like a “for sure” loss but they have several games that feel like they’ll end up being closer to tossups. I’m going with an 8-4 season that could easily be 7-5 or 9-3 depending on how Mertz plays. The defensive line returns all three starters, but none among the linebackers or secondary.
I'm not necessarily high on any team here in the West, but I feel that Iowa's hot start to 2021 notwithstanding, there could be more competition for a spot in Indy than most people think.
Now, on to the B10 East where the biggest of the big boys lurk (and feast on the Indianas, Rutgers, and the like).