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Beat writers covering Big Ten West schools break down their teams for The Detroit News. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

ILLINOIS

Last season: 3-9, 2-7 Big Ten

Coach: Lovie Smith (3-9 at Illinois, one year)

Beat writer’s take: Year 2 of the Lovie Smith experience. There can't be a younger team in the country with just nine seniors on the roster. The biggest news is the healthy return of receiver Mikey Dudek, who has missed two years with torn ACLs. If he is close to 2014 form, the offense will be better. Quarterback Chayce Crouch is back after midseason shoulder surgery. He will be asked to run more than Wes Lunt. The defense lost a lot of talent up front. Linebacker is a strength and the secondary has injury concerns. No Michigan or Penn State on the schedule, but Ohio State and Wisconsin have dominated Illinois in recent years. If the team wins more than last year (three) most fans will consider it a success. – Bob Asmussen, Champaign News-Gazette, @BobAsmussen

More: Beat writers break down Big Ten East

IOWA

Last season: 8-5, 6-3 Big Ten

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (135-92 at Iowa, 18 years)

Beat writer’s take: Iowa’s schedule is tougher in 2017. Brian Ferentz, the 34-year-old son of head coach Kirk Ferentz, is the new offensive coordinator. This is his first time calling plays. Iowa hasn’t named a quarterback. Still, talented offensive line and potential on the front seven of the defense should keep the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten West conversation. – Marc Morehouse, Cedar Rapids Gazette, @marcmorehouse

MINNESOTA

Last season: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten

Coach: P.J. Fleck (30-22, four years; first year at Minnesota)

Beat writer’s take: A new era of Gophers football begins with head coach P.J. Fleck, who instilled his unique, high-energy culture at Western Michigan and took the Broncos from the depths of the Mid-American Conference to the Cotton Bowl in four seasons. Fleck has shared aspirations of returning the Gophers to their heyday of Big Ten and national titles prior to the 1970s, but he will have challenges in his first season at the helm. First and foremost: quarterback. Both Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda will start the season as "co-starters," due to their mutual lack of experience and tight competition in camp. They will rely on running back duo of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith to shoulder the offensive load. Minnesota is loaded at linebacker, while thin in the secondary and along the defensive line. – Andy Greder, St. Paul Pioneer Press, @andygreder

NEBRASKA

Last season: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten

Coach: Mike Riley (108-91, 14 years; 15-11 at Nebraska, two years)

Beat writer’s take: Nebraska has its youngest, most inexperienced – but perhaps most talented – team in several years. The offense, led by Tulane transfer quarterback Tanner Lee, has a seasoned offensive line, fast receivers and an under-the-radar tight end in Tyler Hoppes. Lee can throw all the passes – and throw them accurately – but he'll need good pass protection from the line. On defense, Nebraska has a new defensive coordinator in Bob Diaco, who's been a change agent within the program. He's brought a new 3-4 scheme, but, more importantly, he's brought energy and attitude. Players are buying in, and the middle of the defense – from nose tackle all the way back to the safeties – will be strong. – Sam McKewon, Omaha World-Herald, @swmckewonOWH

NORTHWESTERN

Last season: 7-6, 5-4 Big Ten

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (77-62 at Northwestern, 11 years)

Beat writer’s take: Northwestern is strong on paper – and in leadership. Emerging NFL talent Clayton Thorson returns for his third season at quarterback, Justin Jackson will vie for his fourth straight 1,000-yard season and safety Godwin Igwebuike leads a standout secondary. The key questions: Will the offensive line hold up? And can the Wildcats avoid the kind of dreadful start that nearly wrecked their 2016 season? – Teddy Greenstein, Chicago Tribune, @TeddyGreenstein

PURDUE

Last season: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten

Coach: Jeff Brohm (30-10, three years; first year at Purdue)

Beat writer’s take: Jeff Brohm fits what Purdue’s program should be about. The “Cradle of Quarterbacks” legacy resides in West Lafayette and Brohm, who won 30 games the last three seasons at Western Kentucky, played the position at Louisville and the NFL. However, the roster Brohm inherits is short on talent and depth, but the addition of five graduate transfers give this year's team a chance to earn some wins. – Mike Carmin, Lafayette Journal and Courier, @carmin_jc

WISCONSIN

Last season: 11-3, 7-2 Big Ten

Coach: Paul Chryst (40-25, five years; 21-6 at Wisconsin, two years)

Beat writer’s take: Wisconsin enters the season, its third under Paul Chryst, a consensus top-10 team after an 11-3 finish in 2016. The last time the Badgers opened in the top 10 was 2007, when they were No. 7 in both major polls. That team finished 5-3 in the Big Ten and 9-4 overall. This UW team has already lost linebackers Jack Cichy and Zack Baun to season-ending injuries but the players remain confident. They see an improved offense, a stout defense despite having a first-year coordinator in Jim Leonhard and more productive special teams. They believe UW is good enough to challenge for a spot in the playoff. – Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, @jaypo1961

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