The BIG Questions for the Big Ten West Division
I asked the BIG questions for the Big Ten East last week, so it seems only fair not to neglect the other schools and ask the BIG questions for the Big Ten West this week, so here goes, coming in my predicted order of finish.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
1-Wisconsin-The Badgers surprised many last year by winning the West and going 11-3 with a young team. They did it with one of the best defenses in the nation-only Ohio State and Penn State scored more than 20 points against Wisconsin last year. With 19 starters back this season and a favorable schedule that only features Michigan (at home) from the East Division’s big 3, the Badgers are poised for a repeat trip to the title game.
Wisconsin continues to win “old-school,” with a strong defense and running game, and they are ranked #10 in this week’s Coaches Poll (a tad high, I believe). The Big question for the Badgers is-will their old school game be enough to break through in the BIG Championship Game almost certainly against one of the Big 3? I doubt it, but they stayed within 7 points of Ohio State and Penn State last year-that’s not a lot of ground to make up with the benefit of another year of experience.
2-Northwestern-What? Seriously? Yes, seriously. They have all the key ingredients to win at the major college level-a strong defense and outstanding playmakers. They shook off a dismal 1-3 start last season to finish 7-6 and gave the vaunted Buckeyes quite a scare, falling 24-20 at the Horseshoe in Columbus. They have built a strong defense around a deep secondary and an athletic line. Their playmakers, QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson, are two of the best players you’ve never heard of.
Their BIG questions is-can they break through early? After a very manageable non-conference schedule, their first two conference games are at Wisconsin and at home vs. Penn State. If they win either one of those, especially the Wisconsin game, they are in position to be serious contenders for the West division. If they lose both, they are playing and may still achieve a second-place finish but no more. Circle the Northwestern-Wisconsin game on your calendar, said no one ever until, perhaps, this season.
3-Nebraska-These are strange days indeed picking Northwestern ahead of the (once) mighty Cornhuskers. I actually think they have a better chance of finishing lower in the division than higher. Nebraska is in a rut. Granted, a rut many schools would take in a heartbeat, but Cornrhusker fans are not used to losing 4 games 8 of the last 9 seasons (in the other one, 2015, they lost 7). Remember the good old days when they fired Frank Solich after a 9-3 season in 2003? Solich was only two years removed from a 3-year stretch going 33-5, and that 9-3 record stands as Nebraska’s best since then.
There are rumblings that Nebraska’s amazing sellout streak, now at 354 games dating back to November 3, 1962, could be in jeopardy of being snapped this year. The BIG question for the Huskers is-can they hold the home field (and the fans) this year? They have three key home conference games that will likely determine their fate, with Wisconsin and Ohio State back to back weeks in October, then Northwestern in November. Their road slate, with the exception of a trip to Penn State, looks quite manageable, so sweeping those home games would likely ensure their best season in at least 14 years, and could get them into the conference championship game. Being swept, however, could lock in yet another four-loss season, or worse.
4-Minnesota-The Gophers had a good season last year, finishing 9-4, which could have been even better had they pulled out an overtime loss at Penn State or 7-point losses to Iowa and at Nebraska. After the mess of a threatened player boycott that coach Tracy Claeys supported, he was replaced by P. J. Fleck the hot young coach that somehow got Western Michigan to row their boat to the Cotton Bowl with a 12-0 record. This could turn out making lemonade out of lemons and be an upgrade for the program.
The BIG question for the Gophers is depth. Their roster endured a staggering 22 surgeries during the off-season. Maybe their mascot Goldy should wear a red cross this season-they could run out on the field to the theme from M*A*S*H*, then everybody would probably go home. They have concerns on both the offensive and defensive lines, not to mention quarterback. They could be favored in their first 8 games, but then in none of their last four-looks like a middle-of-the-pack team to me.
5-Iowa-The Hawkeyes are another old-school team, mostly out of necessity. Their offensive line was named the best in the nation last year, but in a passing era, Iowa managed their fewest passing yards since 1982. They were good enough to beat the teams they could just run over, and lose to the teams they couldn’t. Look for more of the same this year.
Iowa’s BIG question is-can they develop an effective passing game? They face one of the tougher conference schedules, so if they don’t, I don’t see them matching last year’s 8-4 regular season record.
6-Purdue-The Boilermakers could be an interesting, fun, team to watch this year. They were neither last year, which opened the door for another hot young coach, Jeff Brohm, to bring his high-octane offense from Western Kentucky to West Lafayette. He’s got a good quarterback to work with. David Blough led the Big 10 in passing yards last year, but when your defense gives up 38 points or more 7 times in 12 games, you’re going to be putting the ball in the air a lot.
They have many questions in Brohm’s first rebuilding year, but the BIGgest one is whether the juco transfers he’s brought in to plug the defense can keep them in games against any conference teams besides Illinois. Even the Terps wiped them out 50-7 last year. Purdue was 3-9 last year, and I don’t see that improving much if any right away, but there is at least hope for the Boilermakers down the road.
7-Illinois-The Illini are in a similar position to Purdue, but without a proven passer and, quite frankly, without much hope. Their defense, which gave up over 30 points 8 times last year, might actually regress this year because of losing starters. They have a good receiving corps, but it’s uncertain if they have a QB to get them the ball or the line to keep him upright and open holes for the running backs.
Their BIG question is about head coach Lovie Smith’s future. It seemed a good idea when the Illini hired a former NFL Super Bowl coach, but If Illinois doesn’t improve on last season’s 3-9 record, which I doubt they will do, what does that mean for his future? Will he try to jump back to the NFL? With the administration give up on him? They host Rutgers on October 14-the loser will likely own the title of the worst team in the Big 10.
There’s my West division predictions and BIG questions. This division is not at top-heavy as the East, but it could be nearly as competitive if Northwestern and Nebraska play up to their potential.
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I love asking questions, and I’ll keep it up next week, but this time I’ll have answers to some of the oddities of the BIG 10 conference, like, what’s up with Urbana-Champaign, the home of the University of Illinois. Is the campus in two towns? Is that something like the Twin Cities, where the University of Minnesota is? That and more moderately interesting questions will be presented. Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone.