Big Ten breakdown: Who will emerge in wide-open West?
This is the second of a two-part series that takes a comprehensive team-by-team look at Big Ten football for the 2020 season. In the first part we broke down the East Division. Today: West Division.
Offensive star: Michigan State fans remember senior wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe. He recorded 178 yards and two touchdowns in East Lansing last season and will look to improve upon his All-Big Ten honorable mention status.
Defensive star: Linebacker Jake Hansen had 3.5 sacks, one interception and seven forced fumbles while becoming a Butkus Award semifinalist for Illinois in 2019. He earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors after forcing two forced fumbles versus No. 6 Wisconsin in a game Illinois won in a monumental upset.
Top newcomer: Four-star freshman receiver James Frenchie put up 3,204 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns during his career at St. Louis’ Trinity Catholic. Along with catching passes, Frenchie’s explosiveness will be used in the running game and special teams.
Schedule highlights: Other than playing at Wisconsin and hosting Ohio State, there are no guaranteed losses on Illinois’ schedule. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State will not play Illinois unless it’s in the Big Ten championship game.
Bottom line: Illinois will probably lose five Big Ten games in 2020, and might not improve on its fourth-place finish from last season in the Big Ten West. But Coach Lovie Smith will keep his team trending in the right direction with a second straight bowl appearance. Graduated linebacker Dele Harding will be missed, but if Michigan transfer Brandon Peters can stay healthy at quarterback, Smith will get things rolling in Champaign.
Offensive star: Senior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette racked up 722 receiving yards last season and leads one of the best receiver groups Iowa’s ever had. Senior offensive tackle Alaric Jackson from Detroit Renaissance and All-American kicker Keith Duncan also deserve mention.
Defensive star: It will be hard to replace second-team All-American A.J. Epenesa on the line, but redshirt senior Chauncey Golston had 9.5 tackles for loss last season and earned all-conference honorable mention. Golston will have to step up for Iowa to maintain its top-15 defense from last season.
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Top newcomer: Coach Kirk Ferentz jumped all over former Indiana offensive tackle Coy Cronk when Cronk entered the transfer portal. He missed all of last season with an ankle injury but started 40 games at Indiana and will slide into the starting lineup, replacing Tristan Wirfs.
Schedule highlights: Iowa State, Michigan State and Wisconsin travel to Iowa in 2020. Back-to-back road games at Ohio State and at Penn State make for a tough October.
Bottom line: Breaking in a new quarterback after the departure of Nate Stanly, Iowa will probably lose a couple more games than last year’s three. The receiving corps will have to lead the offense, and last season’s reserves will have to blossom into starters on defense. But Iowa will still be a tough out, especially at Kinnick Stadium. Expect at least one upset win and a bowl game.
Offensive star: The offensive line is loaded, and redshirt junior quarterback Tanner Morgan is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but the star of Minnesota’s offense is wide receiver Rashod Bateman. The junior was arguably the best receiver in the conference last season with 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Defensive star: Redshirt senior Coney Durr started all 13 games in 2019 at cornerback with 10 pass breakups. Minnesota lost a lot on defense, and Durr is virtually its only returning full-time starter.
Top newcomer: The second running back spot is wide open and may be filled by one of Minnesota’s top 2020 recruits, Ky Thomas. From Topeka, Kansas, Thomas ran for a hefty 7,703 yards and 95 touchdowns in high school.
Schedule highlights: BYU visits Minnesota in the non-conference schedule. Trips to Michigan State and Wisconsin are on the slate, as well as a home contest against Michigan.
Bottom line: Two or three losses will keep coach PJ Fleck and Minnesota at or near the top of the Big Ten West. The games will be shootouts – Minnesota will be much better on offense than defense – but Fleck is recruiting at a high level and should keep Minnesota relevant for as long he’s there.
Offensive star: If senior wide receiver JD Spielman comes back to the team after a leave of absence, he’ll lead Nebraska’s offense. If not, slot back Wan’Dale Robinson, who proved to be a rushing and receiving threat last season, will receive top billing.
Defensive star: Nebraska’s defense will be young and led by defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt. The junior had four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles last season.
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Top newcomer: Look for Sevion Morrison to lock down the second running back spot. The freshman ran for more than 5,000 yards in high school and chose Nebraska over Wisconsin, among others.
Schedule highlights: Nebraska hosts Cincinnati on Sept. 26. On the road at Ohio State and Wisconsin will be challenging but Michigan and Michigan State are not on the schedule.
Bottom line: Scott Frost’s third season likely will see Nebraska lose about four games and finish in the bunched-up middle of the Big Ten West. The schedule is light, and Frost’s recruiting has him in position to take advantage of it. It will be Nebraska’s first bowl game since 2016 under Mike Riley.
Offensive star: Northwestern struggled on offense last season, and wide receiver Riley Lees is the only quality skill position player back. The senior has 91 career receptions.
Defensive star: Senior linebacker Paddy Fisher turned down the NFL to come back for a final season at Northwestern. Fisher wasn’t as good in 2019 as he was in 2018, when he earned All-Big Ten first-team honors, but he’s still one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten, as long as he’s not asked to do too much.
Top newcomer: Transferring in from Indiana is quarterback Peyton Ramsey, who played well in the final seven games of 2019 after replacing the injured Michael Penix. The senior had a 66-percent completion percentage, 6,581 yards, 42 touchdowns and 23 interceptions during his career at Indiana.
Schedule highlights: Northwestern travels to Michigan State and Penn State in September and Minnesota in November. Michigan and Ohio State aren’t on the schedule, and Wisconsin will visit Evanston.
Bottom line: Better than the three-win team from last season but worse than the Big Ten West-winning team in 2018, Northwestern will finish on the cusp of a bowl game. A lot will ride on new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who takes over for longtime signal-caller Nick McCall. Bajakian has good experience from Boston College and Central Michigan, but can he and Ramsey rescue Northwestern’s chronically bad offense?
Offensive star: Electrifying receiver Rondale Moore will be back in 2020 after an injury-shortened 2019. In 2018, Moore had 1,258 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns to go along with 213 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.
Defensive star: After starting all 12 games in 2019 as a freshman, defensive end George Karlaftis will terrorize opposing quarterbacks in 2020. With 7.5 sacks in his rookie campaign, the sky's the limit for Karlaftis as a sophomore.
Top newcomer: Former Oak Park pass-catcher Maliq Carr headlined Purdue’s 2020 recruiting class. At 6-foot-4, Carr has good size, and whether he’s listed as a tight end or wide receiver, he’ll provide a good counterbalance to Purdue’s smaller, faster receivers.
Schedule highlights: Purdue’s schedule heats up in October with a trip to Ann Arbor and two weeks later Minneapolis. Wisconsin travels to Purdue and Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State aren’t on the schedule.
Bottom line: The range of possible scenarios for coach Jeff Brohm’s fourth season is massive. A return to 2017 and 2018 bowl-worthiness seems possible with Moore. Brohm’s win totals at Purdue have gone steadily down, making 2020 somewhat of a make-or-break season.
Offensive star: Even though he’s being pushed by redshirt freshman Graham Mertz, senior quarterback Jack Coan is expected to lead Wisconsin’s offense. Last season Coan was good, completing about 70 percent of his passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Defensive star: Senior defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk is huge at 6-foot-7 and 293 pounds. In defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 3-4 scheme, Loudermilk is mainly asked to be stout in run-coverage, but he has shown the ability to get to the quarterback, as well.
Top newcomer: Is four-star freshman running back Jalen Berger the successor to one of Wisconsin’s greatest ball carriers ever, Jonathan Taylor? The speedy back has all the tools and showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in high school.
Schedule highlights: Wisconsin travels to Michigan but gets Notre Dame and Minnesota at home. Ohio State and Michigan State aren’t on the schedule.
Bottom line: After a Rose Bowl season in 2019, Wisconsin loses its top four offensive players and will be breaking in several new starters in 2020 but probably not at the crucial quarterback spot. Since starting at Wisconsin in 2015, coach Paul Chryst has finished first or second in the Big Ten West standings every season. But with so much production to replace on both sides of the ball, it seems likely Wisconsin will fall just short of the Big Ten championship game.