2017 Big Ten West Preview

1. Wisconsin Badgers– What a year this group had under Paul Chryst. The schedules weren’t necessarily the most pleasant especially when you open up against a top-five ranked team in LSU, face Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan at the big house and then, Nebraska and Ohio State both come to your house but somehow, they made it through and won this division last season over a heavily favored Iowa Hawkeyes team that stunned us all the year before in 2015. Alex Hornibrook will enter the fall as the full-time starter as the teams quarterback. Wisconsin has had the same formula year in and year out to win football games and that’s having a productive offensive line and a solid running game and I don’t see them getting away from that this year. Corey Clement is now gone, but Chris James, the transfer from Pitt along with Bradrick Shaw and Taiwan Deal are a more than capable trio. The offensive line will look for ways to replace Ryan Ramcyzk. The defense will be without T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, two standout linebackers, but Chris Orr and Jack Cichy both return and this should alleviate the concerns over the losses of both Biegel and Watt.

2. Nebraska Cornhuskers– The order of projecting the next three teams is impossible. You have the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Northwestern Wildcats and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Right now, the edge has to be given to Mike Riley and his Cornhuskers. The advantage we can give Nebraska is that both Iowa and Northwestern travel to Lincoln to face Nebraska. The offense will be without Quarterback, Tommy Armstrong and receiver Jordan Westerkamp. Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien are the intriguing options to replace Armstrong. Until the quarterback gets settled within the offense, the running game will be the bread and butter so expect to see a heavy dose of the running game. The defense will be undergoing a transition and this couldn’t happen at a better time. Bob Diaco will be the new defensive coordinator and will be implementing a 3-4 scheme. Last year, the Cornhuskers struggled to apply any pressure on the quarterback and in three of their final five games, they allowed 38 or more points. Cornerback Chris Jones, linebacker Dedrick Young and end Freedom Akinmoladun are three of the top returning players on defense for Diaco to build around this spring.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes– Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes were unable to take the next step after winning the division title in 2015 and made an appearance in the Rose Bowl. Last season, they finished 8-5 and lost in the Outback Bowl to Florida. Despite the fact they didn’t meet the preseason expectations from a year ago, this football team hasn’t posted a losing record in conference play since 2012 and they’ve been to four straight bowl games. I’m looking forward to seeing Iowa’s offense, especially since running back Akrum Wadley will be back. He’s a very elusive back that can cut on a dime, bounce inside the trenches and outside to get hard-fought yards. Defensively, the loss of dynamic and versatile superstar Desmond King won’t be easy to replace, but Iowa should still have a solid defense in 2017. I also look for Josey Jewell to be a star that everyone will discuss this fall.

4. Northwestern Wildcats– They are a very interesting team to watch and as I stated at the top, the gap between two and four within this division is very tight. Northwestern could emerge as a big threat to Wisconsin in the West, but it will solely depend on if Quarterback Clayton Thorson can continue to develop as a starter after a nice Sophomore year. Running back Justin Jackson has also returned after turning down the chance to play in the NFL. The defense limited opposing offenses to 22.2 points a game in 2016, but there are a couple of glaring losses for this unit. Linebacker Anthony Walker left early for the NFL, while standout edge rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo and defensive end C.J. Robbins expired their eligibility. Northwestern misses Ohio State and Michigan in crossover play but still has to play Penn State and travel to Nebraska and Wisconsin in key conference road tests.

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers– While at Western Michigan, head coach P.J. Fleck elevated their program to new heights and now, he will look to bring that same success to Minneapolis for a Minnesota team that is coming off a nine-win season in 2016. Fleck’s first order of business was the 2017 signing class and all signs point to a fast finish on the recruiting trail. As far as the team returning for Fleck, the biggest question mark for the Golden Gophers will be at quarterback after the departure of Mitch Leidner. Former walk-on Conor Rhoda is the team’s most-experienced option, but incoming freshman Tanner Morgan, junior college recruit Neil McLaurin, sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Mark Williams will factor into the mix. As a defense, they held opponents to 22 points a game in 2016. Tackle Steven Richardson and linebackers Blake Cashman and Jonathan Celestin will be the leaders for new defensive coordinator Robb Smith to build around in 2017.

6. Purdue Boilermakers– They could be an interesting team to watch in 2017. Jeff Brohm has been hired as the new head coach and will bring his high-octane offense to West Lafayette with him. Running back Markell Jones will return and the ground game should still be a very solid part of the offense. Quarterback David Blough can flourish in this new offense, but he needs to cut down on the mistakes. The big concern with the Boilermakers has been their defense. When you give up close to 40 points a game, some things just simply need to be changed. His unit returns are largely intact but tackles Evan Panfil and Jake Replogle along with safety Leroy Clark will be tough to replace. Linebacker Markus Bailey (97 stops) led the team as a freshman in tackles and should be part of the foundation for new coordinator Nick Holt.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini– Lovie Smith was the right hire for this university. He’s had success as a head coach in the NFL and his players love playing for him. However, we weren’t expecting him to have instant success right away, so it’s no shocker the Fighting Illini went 3-9. The offense has been a major issue. They averaged 16 points a game in conference play and Lovie, along with offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, is still searching for the answers. One solution could come via the junior college ranks, as quarterback Dwayne Lawson could win the starting job. Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin form a solid duo at running back. Malik Turner returns after catching 48 passes last season. Lovie’s team is probably another two years away from becoming a bowl team.

Prediction: I like the Wisconsin Badgers to win the Big Ten West once again and get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game. Over their last three seasons, they’ve gone 32-9. Only Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio State have more wins. The formula will be simple: Wisconsin Badger football prides themselves on a dominant offensive line that can beat you up at the line of scrimmage and run the football. Bradrick Shaw looks to continue the tradition of stand out running backs at Wisconsin and Alex Hornibrook will be the full-time starting quarterback. Wisconsin also plays tough defense and they’ll have one of the toughest front seven’s in the country.