Matt Charboneau breaks down Big Ten West
Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News breaks down the Big Ten West Division, with teams listed in predicted order of finish.
Trending up: The Badgers will once again be the team to beat in the West, but it won't be an easy path back to the conference championship game. Corey Clement will have big shoes to fill replacing Melvin Gordon at running back, but he has shown flashes of the same game-breaking ability behind what should be a solid offensive line. The schedule isn't easy, but the Badgers do avoid crossovers with Ohio State and Michigan State. They open against Alabama and play fellow West contenders Nebraska and Minnesota on the road.
Trending down: While Wisconsin should be solid on the back end of its defense and will again be able to run the ball, moving downfield in the passing game could once again be an issue. Joel Stave has won 21 games at quarterback, but he completed only 53.4 percent of his passes last season and threw 10 interceptions against just nine touchdowns. Finding some sort of consistency through the air will be vital if the Badgers expect to win the West and get back to Indianapolis.
Last season: 11-3, 7-1 Big Ten, beat Auburn 34-31 in Outback Bowl.
Coach: Paul Chryst, first year at Wisconsin, 19-19 overall.
Trending up: Allowing less than 200 yards a game through the air last season, the Gophers should be just as stout against the pass in 2015. Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are one of the most formidable cornerback tandems in the country and will once again be key to the Minnesota defense that also returns end Theiren Cockran and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell. Offensively, the Gophers will be physical again, even with the loss of running back David Cobb as senior Rodrick Williams had a solid spring and appears ready to take over the No. 1 spot in the backfield.
Trending down: The Gophers were downright inept at times last year throwing the ball and they'll need quarterback Mitch Leidner and the entire passing attack to take a significant step forward. They also face a difficult schedule, opening against No. 2 TCU at home while also dealing with a trip to Ohio State in a crossover. Throw in huge games with Nebraska and Wisconsin and there are few breaks for Minnesota.
Last season: 8-5, 5-3 Big Ten, lost to Missouri 33-17 in Citrus Bowl.
Coach: Jerry Kill, 25-26 in four years at Minnesota, 148-96 overall.
Trending up: Junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong enters his third year as the Huskers' starter and is a running threat who also has some weapons at his disposal in the passing game. Even with Kenny Bell gone, Jordan Westerkamp is solid and De'Mornay Pierson-El has shown flashes that he could be a star as a receiver and a return man. The schedule is tough, but the Huskers get both Wisconsin and Michigan State at home.
Trending down: Running back Ameer Abdullah is gone and finding a replacement will be tough, likely putting more pressure on Armstrong to run. The big question for the Huskers is on defense, where the linebacking corps is thin. That will put plenty of pressure on two key returnees – tackle Maliek Collins and safety Nate Gerry, who had 88 tackles and five interceptions last season.
Last season: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten, lost to Southern Cal 45-42 in Holiday Bowl.
Coach: Mike Riley, first year at Nebraska, 93-80 overall.
Trending up: The Hawkeyes had a solid defense last season, ranking in the top 25 in the nation in total defense and return seven starters to that unit this season. Defensive backs Desmond King (three interceptions) and Jordan Lomax (92 tackles) are back, as is senior defensive lineman Drew Ott, who had 7.5 sacks last season.
Trending down: Running the ball was an issue last season, and top back Mark Weisman is gone, as is tackle Brandon Scherff. Senior RB Jordan Canzeri has shown flashes, but the offense will need quarterback C.J. Beathard to produce after the coaching staff went all in with the junior who has started just one game while allowing senior Jake Rudock to transfer to Michigan.
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten, lost to Tennessee 45-28 in TaxSlayer Bowl.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 115-85 in 16 seasons at Iowa, 127-106 overall.
Trending up: Northwestern had some big wins in 2014, including knocking off Notre Dame, Penn State and Wisconsin. And to build off that and try to get back to a bowl game, the Wildcats will rely heavily on sophomore running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns last season as a true freshman. The offensive line also returns three starters and WR Christian Jones is back after missing 2014 with an injury.
Trending down: For the Wildcats to end a two-year bowl drought and become a factor in the West, finding a quarterback will be one of the biggest issues. Trevor Siemian is gone and there is a three-player battle to step into the void. Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson are all in the mix, and getting one to grab hold of the starting spot will be imperative for the Wildcats.
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 Big Ten.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 60-53 in nine seasons at Northwestern.
Trending up: The Illini can score points with just about any team in the Big Ten, and with junior quarterback Wes Lunt at the helm, that should be the case again this season. Senior running back Josh Ferguson returns after gaining 735 yards on the ground and another 427 through the air while accounting for 10 touchdowns. Wide receiver Mike Dudek, who gained 1,038 yards and scored six times as a freshman, should be back midseason after tearing his ACL in the spring.
Trending down: The Illini haven't been able to stop anybody the past two seasons and there's not any indication that will change. They were last in the Big Ten last season in total defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense. Former NFL assistant Mike Phair has joined the staff to try and turn things around.
Last season: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten, lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18 in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
Coach: Tim Beckman, 12-25 in three seasons at Illinois, 33-41 overall.
Trending up: Junior Austin Appleby returns after taking control of the quarterback job last season, and if he manages to hang on to that position – he's being pushed hard by redshirt freshman David Blough while true freshman Elijah Sindelar could be a factor – he'll be able look for senior receiver Danny Anthrop, who caught 38 passes for 616 yards last year.
Trending down: The Boilermakers will be looking for a feature running back among a group of inexperienced players while the defense, while showing signs of heading in the right direction, will have to improve significantly after ranking 12th in the conference in scoring defense (31.7 points). The schedule is no treat either, with a three-game stretch of Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Last season: 3-9, 1-7 Big Ten.
Coach: Darrell Hazell, 4-20 in two seasons at Purdue, 20-30 overall.