We stay in the Midwest as this division features a team that was very close to a berth in the College Football Playoff last season, one team that could surprise, one that hopes to take the next step and another now being led by a former NFL head coach. This is the Big Ten West.
First stop, Iowa City, where the Hawkeyes surprised many going 12-2 last season. Quarterback C.J. Beathard must stay healthy if he wants to match last season’s performance, throwing for just over 2,800 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Hawkeyes’ stellar rushing attack is led by LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley, who combined for over 1,100 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Receiver Matt VandeBerg, who led the team in catches and receiving yards last season is also back.
Eight starters return on a terrific defense led by preseason All-American cornerback Desmond King, who was number two in the nation in interceptions last year. Defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson is a rising star. Second-team All-Big Ten linebacker Josey Jewell led the team in tackles.
They host Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, and Nebraska. They go on the road and face Minnesota and Penn State.
Off to Lincoln, as the Cornhuskers’ 6-7 record last season was a bit deceiving, considering six of those losses were by eight points or less. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw for over 3,000 yards but had 16 interceptions. He’ll have a stacked group of receivers to throw to including Jordan Westerkamp, Alonzo Morro, and Brandon Reilly. The backfield is led by Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo. Lineman Jerald Foster is out for the year with a torn knee ligament.
The defense is led by linebackers Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey. The Huskers must reload up front. They also ranked near the bottom nationally in passing yards allowed.
Tragedy struck the Huskers as punter Sam Foltz was killed in a tragic car accident in late July.
They play Oregon and Minnesota. They face Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa on the road.
Madison is our next stop, where Badgers head coach Paul Chryst will have to replace quarterback Joel Stave. They also must replace top receiver Alex Erickson. Preseason All-Big Ten running back Corey Clement must stay healthy if the Badgers want to compete in the division.
As for the defense, they led the nation in scoring defense and were number two in the nation in total defense. Coordinator Dave Aranda left for LSU and Justin Wilcox takes over. Although some key pieces are gone, linebacker Vince Beigel and cornerback Derrick Trindal lead a talented and experienced group.
The Badgers have one of the toughest schedules in the country starting the season by going on the road to face LSU. They also play Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern on the road. They host Ohio State, Nebraska and Minnesota.
The Rest of the Big Ten West
In Evanston, the Northwestern Wildcats impressed with a ten-win season last year. Their defense led the nation with the fewest touchdowns allowed. The core of that defense is back, led by preseason All-American linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., as well as cornerback Matthew Harris and safety Godwin Igwebuike. Preseason all-Big Ten running back Justin Jackson leads a solid rushing attack. Quarterback Clayton Thorston should be more comfortable under center, but he needs to depend on his receivers, who had the case of the dropsies last season.
In Minneapolis, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys takes over as head coach full-time. He has a lot of talent coming back on offense, and the experience should help, considering they were next to last in the conference in points scored last season. The running back tandem of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith combined for over 1,300 yards last year. Claeys wants the receiving corps to step up to help carry the load. Linebacker Jack Lynn and cornerback Jalen Myrick lead a veteran defense. Gophers’ fans feel that they could be a sleeper in the division.
In Champaign, veteran NFL head coach Lovie Smith brings respectability and more importantly stability to the Illinois Fighting Illini program. He’ll have a veteran squad this year, as quarterback Wes Lunt is back. He only threw nine interceptions last year. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn could become a breakout star in the conference. Receivers Desmond Cain and Malik Turner must step up as Mike Dubek tore his right ACL during spring practice, the same injury he suffered last season. Defensive end Dawuane Smoot, safety Taylor Barton and graduate transfer linebacker Hardy Nickerson lead a defense that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
And in West Lafayette, the Purdue Boilermakers won just two games last season, one of the worst records among power 5 teams. Head coach Darrell Hazell is on the hot seat. The Boilermakers do return 16 starters and fans are trying to be optimistic. Running back Markell Jones leads the backfield. DeAngelo Yancey and Cameron Posey are part of a veteran receiving corps. Tackle Jake Replogle and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley lead a defense that was ranked near the bottom of the conference in many categories.
That’s it for the Big Ten, next we go to the ACC Atlantic division.