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Beat writers break down Big Ten West

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
C.J. Beathard

Matt Charboneau talked to beat writers about what to expect this season from the Big Ten West Division teams they cover. Teams are in order of finish predicted by Big Ten media.

1. IOWA

Last season: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)

Coach: Kirk Ferentz (139-108, 20 years; 127-87 at Iowa, 17 years)

Beat writer’s take: “There are a lot of assumptions flying around about the Hawkeyes right now that need a little shaping. One, Iowa’s offensive line has a chance to be very good, but it’s not there yet and it’ll take work to be one of the nation’s best. Iowa might be a victim of its own standard. Quarterback C.J. Beathard is healthy. We’re assuming his sports hernia is all good. Let’s see it and then believe it. And the biggest assumption is that Iowa is best in the Big Ten West. It might be, but so much has to coalesce. This also goes into the ‘see it, believe it’ file.” – From Marc Morehouse (@marcmorehouse), Cedar Rapids Gazette

2. NEBRASKA

Last season: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Coach: Mike Riley (99-87, 15 years; 6-7 at Nebraska, one year)

Beat writer’s take: “Nebraska finished 6-7 last season – one of the worst records in the last half-century for the Huskers – but the silver lining of a solid bowl win leads coaches and players to think they'll do much better in 2016. NU lost its seven games by just 31 total points, so the focus in training camp has been on reducing turnovers and penalties. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong may run with the ball more than he did last year, but the Huskers have a good corps of receivers. The defense should be better with another year in the defensive coordinator's system, and offseason events – the death of punter Sam Foltz and the arrest of wide receivers coach Keith Williams – have brought the team closer in the second year under head coach Mike Riley. Ten wins is possible, but eight or nine seems more likely.” – From Sam McKewon (@swmckewonOWH), Omaha World-Herald

Beat writers break down Big Ten East

3. WISCONSIN

Last season: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Coach: Paul Chryst (29-22, five years; 10-2 at Wisconsin, one year)

Beat writer’s take: “Wisconsin must negotiate significant obstacles in its quest to win the Big Ten West. The most daunting is the schedule. The Badgers’ first four Big Ten games are against teams ranked in the preseason AP poll – at No. 12 Michigan State, at No. 7 Michigan, home against No. 6 Ohio State and at No. 17 Iowa. That won't be easy for a team that must replace three starters in the secondary and still has questions on the offensive line. The Badgers also have to break in a new quarterback, fifth-year senior Bart Houston.” – From Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961), Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Anthony Walker Jr.

4. NORTHWESTERN

Last season: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (70-56, 10 years, overall and at Northwestern)

Beat writer’s take: “With a dozen starters back, including the most productive player on each side of the ball, Northwestern has every reason to feel good about their chances this fall. But an improvement over last season's 10-3 record will be difficult for three reasons: Iowa City, Columbus and East Lansing. The Wildcats have road games against the Hawkeyes, Buckeyes and Spartans in October, and if they can pull out a victory or two in that stretch, they may well be vying for a Big Ten title in December. Offensively, veteran coach Pat Fitzgerald is hoping for improvement from sophomore QB Clayton Thorson in order to lighten RB Justin Jackson's load. Defensively, LB Anthony Walker Jr. figures to be among the best players in the Big Ten.” – From Matt Helfgot (@mhelfgot), Chicago Tribune

5. MINNESOTA

Last season: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Coach: Tracy Claeys (2-4, one year, overall and at Minnesota, interim)

Beat writer’s take: “Coming off a 6-7 season and Quick Lane Bowl win in Detroit, the Gophers believe they have the requisite talent and the favorable schedule to compete for the West title in 2015. Minnesota welcome back fifth-year senior quarterback Mitch Leidner and a deep front seven on defense. Their nine-game conference schedule trades East heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan for Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland.” – From Andy Greder (@andygreder), St. Paul Pioneer Press

6. ILLINOIS

Last season: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Coach: Lovie Smith (92-90 in NFL, first year at Illinois)

Beat writer’s take: “A bowl game would mean progress in Year 1 of the Lovie Smith Era. Illinois stunned the college football world in early March by firing Bill Cubit and hiring Smith in a whirlwind 48-hour window. Smith brings instant name recognition to a program that has struggled for an identity since playing in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Quarterback Wes Lunt is slated to start for his third season, while Ke'Shawn Vaughn is poised to emerge as the Illini's No. 1 running back after rushing for 723 yards last season as a true freshman. Wide receiver Mikey Dudek tore the ACL in his right knee for the second time during spring workouts, so his availability this season is in question. Three starters return on an offensive line that has to improve after last year's Illini finished last in the Big Ten in rushing. Dawuane Smoot, Rob Bain, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips all bring starting experience to the defensive line, with Smoot's name floated out there as a possible first-round draft pick next spring. Illinois received a huge boost this offseason with middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson transferring from California to play for his dad of the same name, who is Smith's defensive coordinator. Taylor Barton leads the secondary with six career interceptions. Illinois faces a difficult schedule, particularly in November when the Illini end the season with Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern. Smith is trying to assert his own stamp on a program that has consistently struggled to win in the last 25 seasons, so anything more than six wins is considered a successful debut.” – From Matt Daniels (@mdaniels_NG), Champaign News-Gazette

7. PURDUE

Last season: 2-10 (1-7 Big Ten)

Coach: Darrell Hazell (22-40, five years; 6-30 at Purdue, three years)

Beat writer’s take: “After six wins in Darrell Hazell’s first three seasons, Purdue is optimistic about a turnaround. The Boilermakers return one of the Big Ten’s best defensive linemen in Jake Replogle, up-and-coming running back Markell Jones and talented depth at wide receiver and linebacker. However, questions linger about the offensive line and the secondary. With new coordinators on offense and defense, can Purdue improve enough to take advantage of a favorable schedule?” – From Nathan Baird (@nbairdjc), Lafayette Journal and Courier