Matt Charboneau's Big Ten West breakdown
Matt Charboneau of The Detroit News provides a 2020 season outlook on the Big Ten West Division. Teams are listed in predicted order of finish.
Last season: 11-2, 7-2.
Coach: P.J. Fleck, 53-37 in seven years overall, 23-15 in three years at Minnesota.
Outlook: Fleck’s third season leading the Golden Gophers was a big one as Minnesota won its first nine games before a loss to Wisconsin in the final week of the regular season gave the West title to the Badgers. Still, the Gophers bounced back to beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl and head into 2020 with hopes of batting for the division once again. Getting WR Rashod Bateman back after he first said he would opt out is critical but the Gophers will need to replace seven starters on defense.
Last season: 10-4, 7-3.
Coach: Paul Chryst, 71-35 in eight years overall, 52-16 in five years at Wisconsin.
Outlook: The Badgers will have plenty of holes to fill on offense, none bigger than trying to replace running back Jonathan Taylor, the two-time Doak Walker Award winner. Also gone are All-American center Tyler Biadasz and receiver Quintez Cephus while quarterback Jack Coan underwent surgery on his right foot and is out indefinitely. The Badgers still expect to compete for the West title though, as the defense should be good again. Last season, Wisconsin was fourth nationally in yards allowed per game (287.1).
Last season: 10-3, 6-3.
Coach: Kirk Ferentz, 162-104 in 21 years overall and at Iowa.
Outlook: The Hawkeyes are replacing three-year starter Nate Stanley at quarterback, but sophomore Spencer Petras has plenty of experience surrounding him, including tackle Alaric Jackson, who opted to return for his final season as Iowa is coming off a 10-win season with designs on getting back to the conference championship game. It was a difficult offseason around Iowa City. With the country dealing with racial tensions most of the summer, former Iowa players spoke about a culture in which they said Black players were treated unfairly by some members of the coaching staff. Ferentz has formed and advisory committee of former players and vowed to create a better environment.
Last season: 6-7, 4-5.
Coach: Lovie Smith, 15-34 in four years overall and at Illinois.
Outlook: The Fighting Illini ended a four-year bowl-less streak last season and are continuing to build momentum with plenty back on offense. Former Michigan transfer Brandon Peters is back at quarterback after throwing for 18 touchdowns last season, and he’ll have plenty of weapons at his disposal, led by receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe, Danny Navarro and Daniel Barker, who combined for 78 receptions in 2019. Tight end Luke Ford, a Georgia transfer, is expected to play a major role in the passing game as well.
Last season: 4-8, 3-6.
Coach: Jeff Brohm, 47-31 in six years overall, 17-21 in three years at Purdue.
Outlook: The best news the Boilermakers received was when wide receiver Rondale Moore shifted and decided to return for his third season after originally opting out with the intention of heading to the NFL Draft next spring. Moore is a difference-maker, becoming the first true freshman in Big Ten history to earn consensus All-American status after catching 114 passes for 1,258 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018 while rushing 21 times for 213 yards and two more TDs. He played just four games in 2019 before an injury knocked him out, and the Boilermakers hope a healthy Moore means a shot at contending.
Last season: 5-7, 3-6.
Coach: Scott Frost, 28-22 in four years overall, 9-15 in two years at Nebraska.
Outlook: Maybe the hype is starting to fade in Lincoln as Frost enters his third season. The Cornhuskers were a popular pick to win the West last season, only to falter once again. A middle-of-the-pack finish seems likely as a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in yards and points allowed must replace three starters on the line, including two NFL Draft picks. Offensively, quarterback Adrian Martinez has battled injuries the last two seasons and might not have a secure hold on a starting spot at this point.
Last season: 3-9, 1-8
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald, 99-79 in 14 years overall and at Northwestern
Outlook: It was a wild two-year stretch for the Wildcats as they went from playing in the conference championship game in 2018 to finishing last in the West in 2019, chalking up just one Big Ten victory. While Northwestern’s defense held its own last season, the offense struggled. The quarterbacks did not play well and that position has drawn most of the attention since. Former Indiana quarterback Peyton Ramsey is a graduate transfer who will likely get the call in the opener, but the Wildcats also get T.J. Green back for a sixth year after he broke his foot in last season’s opener against Stanford. Hunter Johnson, the highly touted Clemson transfer, gets another shot, as well, after struggling last season.