The West division has been the less competitive division in the Big Ten for as long as there have been divisions in the Big Ten. The gap appears to be closing now based on 2016. Nebraska is showing signs of life under Mike Riley, Minnesota had its best season since 2003, while Northwestern and Iowa remain in the hands of capable staffs that will keep them in contention once or twice per recruiting cycle. Meanwhile Jeff Brohm and Lovie Smith give perennial cellar dwellers Purdue and Illinois reason to be optimistic moving forward.
Top Draft Prospects
1: Steven Richardson, Minnesota
2: Josey Jewell, Iowa
3: Jack Cichy, Wisconsin
4: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern
5: Carlos Davis, Nebraska
Order Of Finish
1: Wisconsin The Badgers have been so much stronger than the other teams in the West recently that they have made four of the six total Big Ten Conference Championship Games and are the only West team with more than 1 appearance, and have the most total appearances. Players like TJ Watt, Ryan Ramczyk, and Corey Clement are no longer in Madison but the Badgers never have problems replacing former stars that make the leap to the NFL. With 8 overall starters, including 4 offensive linemen, returning to the offense Paul Chryst figures to be able to pick up where he left off last year. Pitt transfer Chris James is the player to watch on offense as he should have no trouble fitting into the Badgers rushing attack. Defensively the team will be lead by linebacker Jack Cichy who figures to push for All American honors. With 7 returning starters the Badgers will be fine, although they might lack for overall leadership early. Wisconsin has a very kind schedule and could find themselves undefeated in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game. I would think their floor would be 11 wins.
2: Northwestern Given the academic requirements of the university, strict even for the Big Ten, a winning record in football every 4 years would be impressive. Pat Fitzgerald has done a remarkable job of keeping the Wildcats in contention once every 4 years for his entire tenure. He does so by developing players slowly so that his teams typically have more returning starters than their opponents for 3 out of every 4 years. This will be the last year of that cycle as the Wildcats return 16 starters, split evenly, 10 of whom are seniors. Justin Jackson will be the player to watch for Northwestern on offense. The senior running back will be looking for his 4th 1000 yard season. He should be another Big Ten Western division player to contend for All American honors behind an offensive line that returns 4 starters. Defensively the team was terrible in 2016 but looks to be stronger this season. With 3 starters along the defensive line and the entire secondary returning pass defense should be much improved for the Wildcats. Godwin Igwebuike, Montre Hartage, and Keith Watkins should all contend for All Conference honors and the team should improve on last season’s 108th ranked passing defense demonstrably. I expect Northwestern to win 10 games, and possibly be able to upset either Penn State or Wisconsin.
3: Minnesota Head Coach Tracy Claeys was fired for showing some empathy towards his players. Problems in the program led to the situation, which probably played a large role in Claeys firing, especially if any board members or administrators had buyers remorse after the full investigation. New coach PJ Fleck will bring an exciting offense to Minneapolis and he inherits a team with veteran skill position players. Rodney Smith will be the best player on the offense and will need to set the tone early for the Gophers. Defensively the team returns only 5 starters and will probably take a step back. The secondary has been quietly solid for the last few seasons and should continue to be a strength of the team this season led by sophomore safety Antoine Winfield. <Minnesota should start the season with a 7 game win streak. After that things get dicey. I would expect them to win 1 or 2 of their last 5 games, which are brutal as a stretch. 8 or 9 wins this year.
4: Iowa As tough as it is to predict Iowa falling this far for a second season this year does not appear to be the year of the Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes have a number of returning players, 14 total, including a strong offensive line group led by guard Sean Welsh, and a defensive unit led by linebackers Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann and Bo Bower - each of whom should contend for All Conference honors. Returning starter Akrum Wadley should have a second consecutive 1000 yard season. He’ll need to as the talent at quarterback and receiver is unproven. With the veteran offensive line and the experience throughout the defensive unit I expect Iowa to have a low floor of 6 games. I simply don’t think they have the offensive firepower to score consistently. I think they’re good enough to beat Nebraska, however, which will be enough for them to win 7 games.
5: Nebraska The biggest issue I have with Nebraska, aside from the lack of elite talent on their roster, is their inexperience heading into 2017. The team only returns ten starters and other than Stanley Morgan don’t have a lot of offensive talent to be excited about. Defensively Nebraska is in better shape but they still lack the talent they’ll need to keep pace with the better teams in the Big Ten. Carlos Davis is the player to watch up front for the Blackshirts while both Chris jones and Joshua Kalu should stabilize the secondary. Mike Riley should be able to get Nebraska back to prominence but it is going to take time. The team is heading in the right direction though their on field record will likely not show that improvement. The Iowa Nebraska game will determine this spot as one team will win 7 games and one will win 6. I think it will be Iowa.
6: Purdue Jeff Brohm’s decision to take the Purdue job was met with a great degree of skepticism throughout college football as Brohm almost certainly could have landed a better job with another year of success. Brohm decided to jump, however, and the Boilermakers have reason to be excited for the future. Purdue has little talent returning but Brohm is a savvy and creative enough offensive mind to compensate partially. Defensively the team returns 8 starters and should be able to improve over last year’s numbers. Co-defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter is an assistant on the rise who could surprise folks with this experienced defensive unit. I think Purdue will be improved, but their OOC schedule is brutal. 3 wins.
7: Illinois The Illini are in good hands if they stay out of Lovie Smith’s way. They might not be able to do that, however, because the rebuilding job at Illinois might take a full recruiting cycle. For now the best hope for the Illini is that the team shows some improvement within the systems that Smith and his coaching staff have put into place. Their OOC schedule is difficult, but not impossible. I think they’ll win 3 games but hopefully without getting blown out as frequently.