Big 10 West is as open as it's ever been.
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
With our previews coming to a close we present to you our Big 10 West preview. The land of ‘Huskers, Boilermakers, and others awaits, so, without further ado…
1. Purdue – 6-7 (5-4) – If there’s one program that has made strides in the Big 10 the last two years, It’s Purdue. When Jeff Brohm made his appearance in West Lafayette following the 2016 season the ‘Makers were coming off of four consecutive years of 3 or fewer wins. Brohm wasted no time taking a team that was 3-9 the year before and getting them to a bowl game (that they won!) and signing (debatably) the most important player in the program’s history – 4-star recruit Rondale Moore (soph, WR).
With Moore back in the fold for at least two more years the Boilermakers offense will be scary regardless of who else returns. That’s good as only three other starters from last season are back on offense. Senior QB Elijah Sindelar, who started eight games in 2017, is back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility. The rest of the offense is young (13 of 22 players on the offense two-deep are underclassmen) but talented and the Brohm brothers (Brian Brohm is the OC) are working them into the rotation post haste. It will also get younger as expected starting RB Tario Fuller has been lost indefinitely to a fractured jaw suffered last week in practice. On defense, true freshman George Karlaftis was the crown jewel of this class and may be the difference maker on defense that Moore was on offense. There’s also more experience coming back on “D” as nine starters from last year’s squad return including last year’s leading tackler and sacker senior LB Marcus Bailey.
If everything goes right – Purdue will be undefeated going into the game @Penn State, after that, they should be favored against their next three opponents before Nebraska comes to town on Nov 2. That game should decide the division.
If everything goes wrong – Things play out as above, but Purdue loses to Nebraska and that puts them into a tailspin that they can’t recover from, dropping their next three including the Old Oaken Bucket game to in-state rival Indiana.
Prediction – I really on see one “for certain” loss on the schedule (Penn State), but there are several “possible losses” and November brings three with Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. With all that said, Purdue should manage an 8-9 win season with 10 a real possibility.
2. Nebraska – 4-8 (3-6) – Saying that Scott Frost’s first year as head coach at Nebraska did not turn out like many thought it would is a bit of an understatement. Despite the disappointment that last season’s record brought, the recruiting has certainly picked up with Frost landing a Top 25 class (2018) and a Top 20 class (2019). That bodes well for a program that still attracted highly ranked recruits, but rarely enough to change the team’s fortunes. Sophomore QB Adrian Martinez, a member of that 2018 class, has moved to the forefront as a QB mentioned in the same breath as “Heisman” (currently at 10/1 odds) and looks like someone who could lead the ‘Huskers back to the Promised Land. With six other starters back, including three linemen and two receivers, freshman RB Wan’Dale Robinson will be used creatively both in the backfield and split wide ala Marshall Faulk. On defense there’s a bit more building to be done with only 5 starters back from last season. The good news is that senior DT Carlos Davis is one of them and should pair nicely with Ben Stille (Jr, DT) on the ‘Husker line. Senior ILB Mohammed Barry is the leading returning tackler (112TT/11TFL) and should help turn around the ‘Huskers fortunes in games decided by 5 points or less (1-5 in 2018).
If everything goes right – The ‘Huskers will be riding into West Lafayette for the Nov 2 showdown with Purdue only beaten by Ohio State, that’s OK as I expect the ’Makers to have a loss of their own (Penn State). Win that game and they have control of the West.
If everything goes wrong – The Ohio State loss is actually more of a mugging and that leads to the 'Huskers dropping a game (or two) that they might not otherwise give up. Three losses later the West is out of reach and you’re wondering if it’ll be Memphis or Boca for bowl season.
Prediction – I’ve picked Purdue to win the west, but Nebraska could win it just as easily. They won’t as they’ll stub their toe in Evanston or Madison costing them the West.
3. Wisconsin – 8-5 (5-4) – With last year’s starter Alex Hornibrook now in Tallahassee wearing the garnet and gold of Florida State the Badgers have turned to junior Jack Coan for this season. Coan threw less than a 100 passes last season but managed a completion rate of just over 60%. Even with Coan as starter, he gets the benefit of Jonathan Taylor (Jr, RB) toting the ball for the offense and relieving the pass rush pressure as well as having the ball snapped to them by junior center Tyler Biadasz who should be one of the first centers off the board in next year’s draft. The downside is that Biadasz is the only returning lineman from last season when Taylor led the nation in rushing.
The defense returns both ends and the secondary returns all but one starter from last season. With depth behind starting cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose the Badgers should be in a good position against teams that want to spread the field.
If everything goes right – The Badgers can upset either Michigan or Ohio State and still be in contention for the West title going into the last weeks of the season.
If everything goes wrong – Wiscy will drop games to Michigan and Ohio State as well as at least one other game, eliminating them for B10 West contention before the month of October is over.
Prediction – I don’t think I’m in the minority here, but the Michigan and tOSU games will be losses. The upside is that if Wisconsin can take down Nebraska and Purdue, they should still be in contention going into the last week.
4. Northwestern 9-5 (3-4) - Northwestern winning the Big 10 West last season may not have been the biggest shock in college football last season, but it was likely in the top 10. When you dig a bit though, it wasn’t that surprising, not really. In 2018 the Wildcats were just a team that didn’t beat themselves; they were the least penalized team in FBS and were 11th nationally in turnovers forced. This season though, the Wildcats are looking to replace three-year starter Clayton Thorson with sophomore Hunter Johnson. The rest of the offense is a bit of a rebuild too, with three linemen needing to be replaced as well as the TE and a receiver. The good news is that sophomore RB Isaiah Bowser and receivers Kyric McGowen and Bennett Skowronek return from last season’s offense. The defense, which was solid last season, returns it’s top 5 tacklers from last season as well as its leading sacker, Joe Gaziano. Look for Paddy Fisher (junior, LB) to really blossom this year and become a leader on defense.
If everything goes right – The Wildcats could find themselves undefeated going into the Oct 18 game Vs Ohio State. If that happens, the back half of October and November soften considerable in relation to the ‘Cats schedule.
If everything goes wrong – The Wildcats are out of contention after the first weekend in October with losses to Michigan St, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
Prediction – The first month of the schedule is not kind (only UNLV looks to be a sure win) but if the Wildcats can channel last season and get things done, they could leave the first 5 weeks of the season with hopes of repeating as division champs.
5. Iowa – 9-4 (5-4) – looking back on a surprising season for Iowa, it would have been easy to pick them much higher than fifth, yes, they lost talent to the NFL (two TEs in the first round? Wow!) but they return senior Nate Stanley for his third season under center in Iowa City. Couple that with returning starters at RB, WR, and three line positions the Hawkeyes offense looks ready to reprise 2018 and make a run at the division title. The defense though, ugh. With only one returning starter in the front seven (soph, LB Djimon Colbert) the defense will lean heavily on a secondary that returns three of four starters to keep being boat raced this season. A.J. Espenesa will be the player on the front four you should keep an eye on, he wil be special.
If everything goes right – The Hawkeyes can get through a brutal October schedule with a 3-1 record and still be “in the game” for a division title.
If everything goes wrong – We could see Iowa needing to get three wins in November to be bowl eligible.
Prediction – Iowa seems like one of those teams that performs best when not much is expected of them, with that said, they’ll need to upset a few teams to reach last year’s win total.
6. Minnesota – 7-6 (3-6) – For a guy that seems to rub a lot of people the wrong way, P.J. Fleck sure can coach football. Since being hired away from Central Michigan following the 2016 season, Fleck has managed to bring in recruiting classes with a good amount of talent the last two years as well as give that talent playing time. Tanner Morgan will start at QB after a foot injury sidelined last season’s starter Zach Annexstad early in fall camp. Morgan also took over for Annexstad last season when Annexstad was injured in the Nebraska game. With eight other starters on the offense, the Gophers could be primed to make a leap this season. The defense is the flip side, they return only five starters, but senior DE Winston DeLattiboudere should provide experience and the entire line backing corps returns to bolster a defense that gave up 30+ points 6 times.
If everything goes right – The Gophers can get out of the non-conference schedule with no losses. The schedule isn’t brutal until November, but they’ll need to make hay where they can before then.
If everything goes wrong – Minnesota could be 1-2 going into the Purdue game the last Saturday in September, spiraling their season out of control before it even gets going.
Prediction – If the Gophers can catch a team or two napping, they should be able to get back to a bowl game, but if not? It could be a long season.
7.Illinois – 4-8 (2-7) – With the hottest seat in the Big 10 and maybe in college football, Lovie Smith needs to win, and win now, at Illinois before they decide to go another direction. Having said that, the 2019 recruiting class might have been Smith’s best yet, headlined by a trio of 4-stars. The bad thing is that the class, as talented as it was, only had 13 players in it. The offense returns eight starters and four of them are linemen. That’s good news for Michigan transfer Brandon Peters who will start at QB. He’ll also benefit from the return Reggie Corbin at RB and a pair of returning WRs. On defense, the Illini need improvement FAST after finishing last in the Big 10, allowing 39.4 Pts/gm. There should be some, but will it be enough? The Illini middle should be solid, returning DTs Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan; in addition to LB Jake Hansen. They also return their entire secondary which will be a benefit as they are adding more talent on top of the experience they already have.
If everything goes right – The Illini will be undefeated going into conference play, if they can find 3 more wins among the Big 10 foes they’re back to bowling which could save Lovie’s job.
If everything goes wrong – Illinois goes into November with a new coach after Lovie starts the season 0-7 with no hope in sight.
Prediction – Lovie won’t make it through the season. He won’t go out winless, but back-to-back beatings from Michigan and Wisconsin will cause the Illinois Athletics Department to throw in the towel on the Lovie Smith era.