Lilly Donahue | Indiana University
Ahh, the Big Ten West. As the SEC East of the Big Ten, the division is a crapshoot when compared to its Eastern rival. Outside of Wisconsin, none of its members are often seen as Big Ten title contenders, much less national title ones. But every division deserves a preview, and who knows, maybe this will be the West’s year to shine!
I’ll start this preview at the top. Wisconsin is favored by most sports sites to come out on top of the West, and Student Union is no exception. While some teams in the division could challenge the Badgers for the throne, I’d put my money on seeing Wisconsin at Lucas Oil come December. Wisconsin returns starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook with a season under his belt after sharing snaps with the now-departed Bart Houston. They do suffer a loss at RB with the graduation of Corey Clement, but replace him with a solid RB corps in classic Wisconsin fashion. Both Chris James and Bradrick Shaw were named to the Doak Walker watch list, giving the Badgers a potent backfield. The passing game will be greatly aided by star TE Troy Fumagalli, as well as a powerful offensive line. Defensively, Wisconsin lost the second best Watt brother to the NFL draft, but returns a tackling machine in LB Jack Cichy. This team has the classic Wisconsin look of a smash-mouth football team, which should bode well. Their toughest game will be Michigan, but the rest is a breeze. I see a 10+ win season on the horizon.
I’m going to be a bit bold here a put Northwestern in as a strong contender in the West. The Wildcats return talented QB Clayton Thorson and star RB Justin Jackson to create a potent backfield. They do suffer a major loss in LB Anthony Walker, but have an excellent SS in Godwin Igwebuike. The Wildcats have been trending upwards for the past few years under the leadership of Pat Fitzgerald, and are eyeing a run for the division crown. They have a somewhat rocky road due to their schedule, which features tough games like at Wisconsin and Penn State. Whether the Cats can challenge Wisconsin remains to be seen, but I’d be shocked if Northwestern wasn’t bowling this
After Wisconsin, it’s anyone’s guess who will compete in the West. Nebraska had a tough season last year after losing multiple games in the final seconds. However, their record was still an excellent 9-4 despite those close losses. The Huskers’ biggest loss is at QB with the graduation of the always entertaining Tommy Armstong. The guy could run like the wind, and despite his affinity for picks, was a solid player. Replacing him will be the winner of a battle between Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien. I see Lee coming out on top (unlike 1865) and being a solid QB for Nebraska. The Huskers will depend on the skills of star WR Stanley Morgan to help whoever the next QB is in Lincoln. The defense returns a solid amount of starters and should be a source of consistency for Nebraska. The toughest games facing Nebraska are Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State. A win in anyone of those three would be a major coup for the Huskers. Either way, they should be in a good bowl come winter.
IT’S TIME TO ROW THE BOAT IN THE TWIN CITIES, Y’ALL! ARE YOU READY? Minnesota probably is not. While I expect the acquisition of PJ Fleck to lead to a bright future in Minnesota, it will take time to build up the program. The Gophers lose QB Mitch Leidner, but do return a solid back in Rodney Smith who will most likely carry the offense. The defense looks solid, and should be able to help a young offense to succeed. Lucky for the Gophers, their schedule will likely yield them at least six wins. Their season starts with a ton of mediocrity, but finishes with the hellish slate of Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Minnesota will surely be bowl-bound, but what type of bowl is anyone’s guess.
Who thought that losing CJ Beathard could damn you to mediocrity? Beathard was selected by the 49ers, much to my surprise, and will be replaced by Nathan Stanley. But this is Iowa. Who’s running the ball? Luckily for the Hawkeyes, they return a strong back in Akrum Wadley and an experienced offensive line. The defense looks scary with 8 returning starters, including a stud in Josey Jewell. The Hawkeyes could have a shot at the West tile, but I just don’t see it this year. Bowl game, sure, but with a schedule that has Penn State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, a double-digit win season seems out of reach. Sorry Brandon!
Welcome to the Big Ten West basement, hosted by Illinois and Purdue. The Illini have had a bad couple of years, but are slowly improving. Lovie Smith comes into year 2 with a shot to spark something into an Illinois team that hasn’t gone bowling since 2014. The Illini will rely on RB Kendrick Foster and electric WR Mike Dudek, who just returned from injury. The defense has some losses but still returns 6 starters, so there’s at least a chance for success there. Their schedule isn’t awful, but their bowl prospects still don’t look bright. Opponents like Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Ohio State are tough ones, and other games against teams like Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, and, maybe even Rutgers probably won’t go Illinois’ way. This probably isn’t a bowl year in Urbana-Champaign.
Do you smell that? It’s the heaping pile of garbage called West Lafayette, home to a trash football team. Am I showing my bias yet? Look Purdue fans, I feel for you. As a fan of a typically terrible team, I understand what losing year after year is like. But I’m proud of you, Purdue. You finally got rid of Darryl Hazell, and got a solid coach in Jeff Brohm when PJ Fleck probably shot you down. Purdue returns QB David Blough, who beat out IU QB Richard Lagow to lead the NCAA in interceptions with 21 picks. The Boilermakers do have a star in RB Markell Jones, and he will likely carry the offense. The Purdue defense looks solid as well, led by DL Glen Robinson. Will these pieces be enough to end 4 straight years of losing the Old Oaken Bucket game? God I hope not. A bowl game isn’t looking too likely either, with a schedule the includes foes like Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Iowa. Best case scenario, Purdue gets 6 wins if I’m being extremely generous. In reality, I’d predict that it’ll be closer to 3, with the only true gimme being Ohio. Sorry Purdue, but at least you’ve won a natty in basketball! (Not).
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