Dugan: Big Ten West Preview

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Photo: John Autey | Pioneer Press

In case you missed our Big Ten East preview, catch up right here. Here’s a preview of what could unfold in the ever-mysterious Big Ten West, highlighted by a potential Cinderella and exciting new coach.

Wisconsin

The Badgers have the pieces and the schedule to run the table. Anything short of a 10-win season should be considered a disappointment. They face a tough environment in Provo, Utah when they travel to face BYU in September, along with an always raucous crowd in Lincoln, but that’s about it for road games.

Defensively, Wisconsin should have another elite unit, at least within the realm of the Big Ten. Offensively, there is a ton of potential with limited evidence indicating a breakout performance. Bradrick Shaw is a well-built running back who was heavily recruited, but has just 88 carries as a collegiate back. Alex Hornibrook is back under center after a roller coaster year, and he has Jazz Peavy to rely on as a receiver.

All in all, this could be the year the Badgers break into the playoff. After coming so close last season, going undefeated would surely cement their spot as one of the top four teams.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: September 16-30–@BYU, vs Northwestern, @Nebraska

TRAP GAME: @BYU

BEST CASE: 12-0

PROJECTED RECORD: 11-1

Northwestern

With Justin Jackson back for his senior campaign and fresh off an impressive Pinstripe Bowl victory, expectations are high once again for Northwestern. They haven’t handled expectations particularly well in recent years, but perhaps this year could be different. They haven’t had a running back with Jackson’s track record under Fitz, Clayton Thorson is back for his third straight season as a starter and Godwin Igwebuike will lead the talented secondary in a year where the division could be up for grabs.

Yes, Wisconsin’s schedule isn’t tough, but Northwestern opens Big Ten play against the Badgers, a team they have played well against over the past handful of seasons. A win there would put them in front of the division early and give them the edge in a potential tie with the Badgers for the division crown come season’s end. Northwestern avoids any marquee non-conference opponents, as well as FCS teams, which will give fans a sigh of relief after last season’s first two weeks.

The unit that could surprise people for this team is the secondary. Guys like Montrae Hartage and Kyle Queiro will turn heads soon enough with their playmaking abilities. The loss of Austin Carr as a receiver certainly hurts, but look for Flynn Nagel to step up in a big way this season.

If there were ever a season for Northwestern to make it to Indy, it just might be this one. If they stay healthy, the battle against Wisconsin will likely determine its Big Ten fate.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: September 30-October 14–@Wisconsin, vs PSU, @Maryland

TRAP GAME: November 18: vs Minnesota

BEST CASE: 10-2

PROJECTED RECORD: 9-3

Iowa

Replacing C.J. Beathard is a tall task for Kirk Ferentz, the longest tenured coach in college football. To help ease the potential road bumps, he promoted in his son Brian to offensive coordinator after serving as the team’s offensive line coach for a half-decade. The Hawkeyes also added grad transfer James Butler from Nevada, a 1,000-yard rusher to complement Akrum Wadley. Already a powerful and run heavy team, Iowa has a backfield that will give opponents nightmares.

Defensively, it’s Josey Jewell back for his final season. A former walk-on, Jewell is widely considered one of the top linebackers in the entire conference. After a strong finish to last season, he will look to lead his unit back to Indianapolis.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 28- November 11—vs MINN, vs OSU, @WISC

TRAP GAME: October 21: @Northwestern

BEST CASE: 9-3

PROJECTED RECORD: 8-4

Nebraska

The Huskers will have to face a reality they have feared for years: life after Tommy Armstrong. After a year under Mike Riley’s system, Tanner Lee will step into his role as starter. Last season, Lee was named Nebraska’s scout team offensive MVP. He had good playing time in his two seasons at Tulane, starting in 19 games and throwing for over 1,600 yards.

The Husker schedule, however, will not be easy. They face Oregon week two and both Ohio State and Penn State in the back half of their schedule. There will be a lot of new faces for Nebraska this season and Mike Riley faces a prove-it type of season in 2017.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: October 7-14—vs Wisconsin, vs Ohio State

TRAP GAME: November 11, @Minnesota

BEST CASE: 9-3

PROJECTED RECORD: 8-4

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Tanner Lee will face a lot of pressure in filling the shoes of Tommy Armstrong.

Photo: BRENDAN SULLIVAN | THE WORLD-HERALD

Purdue

Talk about a tough first day on the job. Jeff Brohm will face Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville in week one as Purdue’s head coach, giving him a shot immediately to win over the Boiler fan base. It doesn’t get any easier, as they face Michigan just three weeks later and Wisconsin two weeks after that.

One thing Purdue fans should look forward to is what to expect from quarterback David Blough. Brohm has coached good quarterbacks and elite offenses in his days at Western Kentucky, including some of the country’s top scoring units in his three seasons there. If Purdue is going to steal a game or two this season, it will be behind the talented Blough and his quarterback whisperer of a coach.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: September 23-October 14—vs Mich, vs Minn, @Wisconsin

TRAP GAME: September 8, vs Ohio

BEST CASE: 6-6

PROJECTED RECORD: 5-7

Minnesota

With PJ Fleck now rowing the boat into Minneapolis, the Gophers are undergoing a major culture change from the days of Tracy Claeys and Jerry Kill. Aside from his can’t-miss antics and loud personality, Fleck knows the game of football as well as anyone. He has enforced the fact that he wants his players to be able to lead the team on their own, and the Gophers have enough talent to make the west division interesting this season.

Rodney Smith is back at running back, and will look to continue Minnesota’s trend of capable runners over the past decade. The big question, however, is who will play quarterback and replace Mitch Leidner? Coach Fleck doesn’t have the answer to that yet, and we will have to wait and see which direction he wants to take his program in year one.

People forget this was a nine-win team last season. With Fleck at the helm, this year’s team could repeat last year’s win total with good quarterback play and a couple lucky breaks with a tough schedule down the stretch.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: Final 5 weeks (@Iowa, @Mich, vs Nebraska, @Northwestern, vs Wisconsin)

TRAP GAME: September 30, vs Maryland

BEST CASE: 9-3

PROJECTED RECORD: 8-4

Illinois

Lovie Smith struggled in his first year in charge of the Illini and will have to coach his second season without the leadership of quarterback Wes Lunt. Most people expected him to finish better than last year’s 3-9 record so this season will weigh heavily on the trajectory of the program.

Last season, Illinois turned offensive drives into three-and-outs almost 30% of the time, which was good for bottom 10 in the entire country. Without Lunt under center, Lovie will be forced to find a quarterback who can make plays and create something out of nothing.

They avoid any marquee non-conference opponents and play some of their toughest games at home this season, which should set them up for an improvement on last year’s record.

TOUGHEST STRETCH: November 18-November 25—@OSU, vs Northwestern

TRAP GAME: November 4, @Purdue

BEST CASE: 5-7

PROJECTED RECORD: 4-8

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