2017 Big 10 Football Preview: West Division

Ryan Mayer

College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl teams are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention/the push for a bow bid. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.

Last year, the Badgers won the division and held a 28-7 lead late in the first half of the Big Ten championship game before the Nittany Lions stormed back to take the title. This season, Paul Chryst likely the most experienced team of his tenure and, with an easier schedule, looks to be the class of the West once more.

Contenders

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Alex Hornibrook #12 of the Wisconsin Badgers. Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers have continued their steady play under coach Chryst as they enter this season with 15 straight bowl appearances and three consecutive bowl wins. This year, he’s got a veteran-laden squad that should be squarely in contention for not only the division, but the Big Ten crown.

Last year, true freshman Alex Hornibrook split time with Bart Houston at the QB spot, but this year, it’s his team to command as Houston moves on. Hornibrook was steady last year, and Chryst didn’t ask him to do too much as the Badgers have always been a primarily run-based team. Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale led the team in rushing last year and both depart, but Chryst adds Pitt transfer Chris James, a former three-star recruit, to attempt to offset those losses. The top two receivers return and the only loss on the offensive line is Ryan Ramczyk, who was a first round pick in April’s draft. After averaging 28.4 PPG last year, I’d expect this more experienced group to jump that number up a notch in the second year under this system.

On defense, the Badgers were one of the stingiest teams in the country against the run, allowing opponents just 99 yards per game while allowing just 15.6 PPG. This season, the entire defensive line returns along with the linebacker duo of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, while the front seven also adds Alabama transfer Christian Bell. They do lose star OLB TJ Watt and CB Sojourn Shelton, but the returning talent should be enough to keep this unit just as stingy as it was last season.

The Badgers avoid both Ohio State and Penn State from the East and get Michigan at home, which gives them a solid chance at running the table. Other notable games are on the road at BYU, Nebraska, Indiana and Minnesota and a home date with Northwestern that could decide the West. Over 9.5 wins.

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Quarterback Clayton Thorson #18 of the Northwestern Wildcats passes the ball to running back Justin Jackson #21. Credit: Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Northwestern Wildcats

The Wildcats squeaked into a bowl last year with a 6-6 record as they were breaking in some new starters on both sides of the ball. This season, they have 16 guys back including their starting QB, and they could make a push for the West division crown.

Junior QB Clayton Thorson enters his third year as the starting QB for Pat Fitzgerald and is coming off a very solid sophomore campaign in which he completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 3,182 yards, 22 TDs and 9 INTs. You’d like to see the accuracy improve obviously, but he did progress from 51 percent as a freshman to last year’s 58.6, so that progression should continue. With a veteran offensive line that has four starters back and a solid running game led by senior tailback Justin Jackson, Thorson will have plenty of support. He does lose top receiver Austin Carr and his 90 catches for 1,247 yards and 12 TDs, so he’ll have to find a new top target. Still, after scoring 26 points per game last season, the Wildcats should improve thanks to the veterans.

The defense has been solid each of the last two years allowing 18.6 PPG in 2015 and 22.2 last season. This year, they lose a couple big names in DE Ifeadi Odenigbo and LB Anthony Walker, but they return virtually everyone else. The star is safety Godwin Igwebuike who led with 108 tackles 7 PBU and 2 INTs. DC Mike Hankwitz will have this group once again posting solid numbers as long as they stay healthy.

The Wildcats draw Penn State out of the East but avoid Ohio State and Michigan. The Penn State game is at home as is their game against Michigan State. But, they have to travel to Madison for a date with Wisconsin on September 30th. The Wildcats are capable of pulling the upsets necessary to be in the division race, and I do expect them to beat the Vegas number. Over 8 wins.

Bowl Teams

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Stanley Morgan Jr. #8 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Credit: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Cornhuskers stormed out of the gates last season to a 7-0 start before faltering going 2-4 down the stretch to finish 9-4. This season, Mike Riley has work to do on offense, but, because they host both Wisconsin and Northwestern, there’s a chance they could make their way to the top of the division.

The biggest strength for this year’s offense will be the offensive line, which returns three full-time starters and another guy who started the final four games last season. In addition, No. 2 receiver Stanley Morgan (453 yards 2 TDs) returns. Outside of that, there are some questions. Tommy Armstrong departs which leaves a hole at QB but, ‘Huskers fans are already super excited about Tulane transfer Tanner Lee likely taking over the reigns. Lee was decent in two years with Tulane (54% 3,601 yards 23 TD 22 INT), but it’s his prototypical size (6’4″ 220) and arm strength that has folks excited. The ‘Huskers also need to replace top rusher Terrell Newby and sophomore Tre Bryant and junior Devine Ozigbo will try to do so. If Lee is as good as ‘Huskers fans hope, the offense should beat last year’s 26.5 points and 381 yards per game averages.

On defense, the top three tacklers from last year’s team depart in safety Nathan Gerry and LBs Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey. They do bring back the other three starters in the secondary including safeties Josh Kalu and Aaron Williams who were No. 5 and 6 in tackles last year respectively. The Huskers do switch to a 3-4 under new coordinator Bob Diaco (former UConn head coach) and they should at least match last year’s numbers.

The schedule features an out of conference road trip to Oregon with in-conference home games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Northwestern. They’ll also travel to Penn State and Minnesota. If they can pull the upsets of Wisconsin and Northwestern, they’re in the driver’s seat in this side of the conference. I don’t see that happening with a relatively inexperienced squad. Under 7 wins.

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Rodney Smith #1 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Last season, there was talk coming into the year about the Gophers being sneaky contenders in the Big Ten West and that wasn’t too far off as their four conference losses came by a combined 31 points. QB Mitch Leidner underachieved expectations, but they did still win the bowl game. Head coach Tracy Claeys was let go following some off-field issues and the university brought in Western Michigan coach PJ Fleck and his “Row The Boat” mantra. Fleck could have an interesting first season as the schedule sets up favorably early for the Gophers.

Leidner departs and in his place, sophomore Demry Croft and senior Connor Rhoda will battle for the job. They’ll have the benefit of a deep running back group with the top three rushers from last year returning including 1,000-yard man Rodney Smith. At receiver, top target Drew Wolitarsky is gone, but TE Brandon Lingen returns healthy which should help offset some of the loss. The offensive line is a question mark as they’ve had injuries continuously in that group and had just six healthy linemen in the spring. That group will be one to watch out for, and it’s fair to say with some of the question marks that hitting last year’s averages (29.3 PPG 357 YPG) may prove difficult.

Last year’s defense was stout, allowing just 22.1 PPG. The linebacker corps went through plenty of attrition in terms of injuries themselves and because of that, the group is extremely deep this year. Jonathan Celestin, Cody Poock, and Carter Coughlin all return with experienced backups behind them. The secondary and defensive line are a bit more concerning with a pair of starters gone in the trenches and three out, including draft pick CB Jalen Myrick, in the back end. The line does bring back DT Steven Richardson and DE Tai’yon Devers who combined for 10 sacks last season. The numbers may decline slightly, but this group is still pretty talented.

The schedule is very favorable through the first seven games as the Gophers get in succession: Buffalo at home, Oregon State away, MTSU at home, Maryland at home, Purdue away, Michigan State at home, and Illinois at home. It’s conceivable they could run through that stretch 7-0 before the final five that include road games against Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern with home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin. Fleck’s energy is infectious and if this team has an early win streak, they could be dangerous. I have them at 7-5. Under 7.5 wins.

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Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg #89 of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Credit: Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa Hawkeyes

The Hawkeyes looked to have the perfect path to a Big 10 title game appearance last year as they avoided Ohio State and Michigan and returned starting QB CJ Beathard. Instead, they fell off to 8-5 including being upset at home by FCS power North Dakota State. This season, Beathard departs and the schedule gets tougher, which could mean another drop in wins.

In Beathard’s place, sophomore QB Nathan Stanley looks like the go-to option at the starting QB spot after he played backup to Beathard last season. At 6’5″ 235, he looks like the prototypical QB, but he attempted just nine passes last season, so there will be some bumps and bruises as he adjusts to the starting role. He does have the benefit of an outstanding offensive line returning four starters in front of him, with 1,000-yard back Akrum Wadley alongside him in the backfield. Add in the return of WR Matt VandeBerg, who received a medical redshirt last season, and you’ve got a solid supporting cast for the young QB. The Hawkeyes offense struggled last year, averaging just 24.9 PPG, but they should improve on that this year, even with the new QB.

Defensively, the Hawkeyes return three of their top four tacklers, all LBs in Josey Jewell, Bo Bower and Ben Niemann. Safety Brandon Snyder (No. 3 tackler) tore his ACL in the spring so he’s likely out for the year which drops the secondary even further after they also lost CBs Kevin King (draft) and Greg Mabin (graduation). The front four should be solid with three returning starters, but the secondary has me concerned and expecting a slight drop from last year’s 18.8 PPG allowed.

The schedule got tougher with the addition of Penn State (home), Ohio State (home) and Michigan State (away). The Hawkeyes also have to face Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska on the road. The Hawkeyes will be bowling, but I have them at just six wins. Under 6.5 wins.

Non-Bowl Teams/Rebuilding

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David Blough #11 of the Purdue Boilermakers. Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Purdue Boilermakers

The Boilermakers started off the season 3-2 before dropping their final seven games and imploding on the defensive side of the ball. That led to Darrell Hazell being fired and in comes former WKU coach Jeff Brohm with his high-octane offensive attack. Brohm does have some good pieces to work with and Purdue could surprise a few teams this season.

Junior QB David Blough returns as the starter after throwing for over 3,300 yards with 25 TDs last season. That’s the good. The bad is that Blough led the nation in interceptions with 21 and completed just 57 percent of his passes. Brohm’s QBs are usually near the top of the FBS rankings in efficiency so I would expect better production in the new offense this year. The running back corps is also solid with Markell Jones and Brian Lankford-Johnson being rejoined by DJ Knox, who missed last year with an injury. The question marks are in the receiving corps and offensive line. The top four wide receivers are gone from last year and the line returns just two starters. Brohm’s offenses at WKU never averaged under 40 points per game, so despite the question marks, I’d expect improvement on last year’s 24.6 PPG for the Boilermakers.

The defense struggled mightily last season allowing opponents to averaged 38.3 points and 446 yards per game. The good news for new Co-DCs Nick Holt and Anthony Poindexter is, the unit returns eight starters and add a talented LB in TJ McCollum, who followed Brohm from WKU. There should be improvement on last year’s numbers with more experience.

The schedule however, isn’t exactly kind. Purdue opens with Louisville, then faces conference home games against Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana. They have to take road trips to Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Missouri. I’m not sure they’ll make an improvement in the win column, but they should be the 2.5 number. Over 2.5 wins.

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Kendrick Foster #22 of Illinois. Credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Illinois Fighting Illini

Lovie Smith’s first year at the helm of the Illini was a tough one with his squad going 3-9, with one of those wins coming against FCS school Murray State. This season, the schedule is tough, but they get some key pieces back.

The first thing that Smith will need to figure out in his second year is who will play QB. Wes Lunt departs which leaves a battle between JuCo transfer Dwayne Lawson, junior Chayce Crouch and redshirt sophomore Jeff George Jr. Whoever wins the QB battle will have both of last year’s top rushers and three starting offensive linemen returning to help ease the load. This year, the Illini also hope to have Mike Dudek back at WR after tearing his ACL in each of the past two years. Hopefully Dudek stays healthy, because if he does, he’ll make a nice duo with senior Malik Turner who led the team in receiving last year. The unit averaged just 19.7 PPG last year and should improve this season.

Defense is what Lovie Smith is known for so, it had to be difficult for him to watch his team give up 30+ points per game while getting gashed in the run game (219 YPG 4.6 average). The defensive line is a big question mark as all four starters depart along with a couple of backups. The loss of MLB Hardy Nickerson hurts as well, but Tre Watson and JuCo transfer Del’Shawn Phillips should fill in nicely. The secondary was largely comprised of freshmen and sophomores last year, especially towards the end of the season so, that group should continue to improve now that they’ve gotten more experience.

Smith’s group will have to navigate a tough schedule with Group of 5 powers WKU and USF in the out of conference followed by a conference slate featuring road games at Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State. They get Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Northwestern at home. Under 3.5 wins.

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