Big Ten West preview: Taylor, Wisconsin poised to run wild
Teams listed in predicted order of finish.
Last season: 13-1 overall, 9-0 Big Ten; beat Miami, 34-24, in Orange Bowl
Coach: Paul Chryst, 34-7 in three seasons at Wisconsin, 53-26 overall
Outlook: The Badgers will look familiar in 2018 with a physical offensive line leading the way for a dominant running back. Jonathan Taylor ran for nearly 2,000 yards as a true freshman last season, and again will be the focal point of the offense after the Badgers were unbeaten in the 2017 regular season. The next step for Wisconsin is getting over the hump in the Big Ten championship game, the final hurdle before reaching the playoffs.
Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-5 Big Ten; beat Boston College, 27-20, in Pinstripe Bowl
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 143-97 in 19 seasons at Iowa, 155-118 overall
Outlook: The Hawkeyes are in good shape at quarterback as Nate Stanley returns after a solid 2017. He’ll need to be more consistent, but has the luxury of throwing to Noah Fant, arguably the top tight end in the conference. From there, the Hawkeyes have plenty to replace, including running back and the bulk of the offensive line, while over on defense, linebacker Josey Jewell and cornerback Josh Jackson are gone, meaning some new faces will have to make big jumps for the Hawkeyes to threaten Wisconsin.
Last season: 10-3 overall, 7-2 Big Ten; beat Kentucky, 24-23, in Music City Bowl
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 87-65 in 12 seasons at Northwestern
Outlook: The Wildcats will be challenged to build off 10 wins and a bowl victory, but have the luxury of avoiding Penn State and Ohio State from the East. Quarterback Clayton Thorson should be back after getting hurt in the bowl game, but the ’Cats must replace RB Justin Jackson. The defense also must take a big step after struggling against the pass last season, and must do so replacing a handful of starters.
Last season: 7-6 overall, 4-5 Big Ten; beat Arizona, 38-35, in Foster Farms Bowl
Coach: Jeff Brohm, 7-6 in one season at Purdue, 37-16 overall
Outlook: In the biggest surprise of the conference last season, Brohm got the Boilermakers to a bowl game after four miserable seasons under Darrell Hazell. They were able to do so by finally playing some defense, something that will be tougher this season with a host of starters to replace. Getting back to a bowl game will be a challenge as Purdue travels to Michigan State while hosting Ohio State and Wisconsin along with a trip to Nebraska.
Last season: 4-8 overall, 3-6 Big Ten
Coach: Scott Frost, first season at Nebraska, 19-7 overall
Outlook: After plummeting to four wins in Mike Riley’s final season, Cornhuskers fans are in the clouds with the arrival of Scott Frost. The former national champion at Nebraska led UCF to an unbeaten season in 2017 and is now charged with returning the ’Huskers to glory. It won’t happen overnight as Frost will need to ramp up the recruiting, but he should at least get Nebraska back to a bowl game.
Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-7 Big Ten
Coach: P.J. Fleck, 5-7 in one season at Minnesota, 35-29 overall
Outlook: A five-year run of reaching a bowl game ended in P.J. Fleck’s first season with the Gophers as the former Western Michigan coach committed to a young lineup. It meant a step back in the short term, but the hope in Minneapolis is that Fleck will work the same magic he did in Kalamazoo. He’ll have to do so with a freshman walk-on quarterback after Zack Annexstad beat out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan for the starting job.
Last season: 2-10 overall, 0-9 Big Ten
Coach: Lovie Smith, 5-19 in two seasons at Illinois
Outlook: Smith has to be on the hot seat, or at least, a warm seat after winning just five games his first two seasons. There are some signs the recruiting is picking up, but for now getting out of the West basement will be a challenge. The Illini will start the season with fifth-year grad transfer A.J. Bush at QB to try and jump-start an offense that finished last in the Big Ten last season. On defense, the Illini will need to improve a unit that gave up a conference-worst 218.5 yards a game.