2018 Big Ten West Preview

1. Wisconsin Badgers– I really appreciate the makeup of this football team because they aren’t flashy and they just focus on trying to make a stop on defense and move the football down the field in a very efficient manner. When Big Ten play comes around, no team is better than Paul Chryst’s Wisconsin Badgers and in his three years in Madison, they’ve lost only four games. With a majority of their top talent returning, the Wisconsin Badgers will be poised to make another run at the division title and the CFB playoffs. Alex Hornibrook will look to build himself up and get better as he enters his junior year. His receiving core will also remain intact with A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor as all three look to take a step forward in their development. Running back Jonathan Taylor will be one of the favorites to win the Heisman after a strong freshman season in 2017. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has holes to fill. The line loses ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, linebackers Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs and both starting cornerbacks in Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson. Even if the defense does struggle some, the offense will pick them up and carry the load.

2. Northwestern Wildcats– After Wisconsin, it’s a mystery as to who’s the team to challenge them in the division. Some of the experts think it’s Iowa, Nebraska or even these Wildcats of Northwestern. There’s some uncertainty about quarterback Clayton Thorson after suffering a knee injury in the Music City Bowl in December. Outside of Thorson’s status, the Wildcats offense will be without star running back Justin Jackson and two of their top receiving options on the outside. The defense limited opponents to just 20.1 points a game in 2017 and returns two of the Big Ten’s top linebackers in Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall. End Joe Gaziano leads the way up front, while the secondary loses two standout safeties in Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes– They were 8-5 last season and were a few plays away from clinching a double-digit record, but they lost four games by nine points or less. For Kirk Ferentz and his football team to win more than eight games, it will start by replacing key contributors on both sides of the ball. The offense loses standout running back Akrum Wadley, starting linemen Sean Welsh and James Daniels and receiver Matt VandeBerg. The defense will enter the year with a lot of question marks. Star cornerback Josh Jackson is now in the NFL and tackle Nathan Bazata and safety Miles Taylor expired their eligibility. Double-digit wins should be obtainable for the Hawkeyes this year with a manageable schedule. Iowa State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska visit Iowa City next fall which is the tough part of their schedule and they won’t have to see Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State in the Big Ten crossover play.

4. Purdue Boilermakers– The Boilermakers showed marked improvement in coach Jeff Brohm’s first season in West Lafayette. With another offseason to work with this coaching staff, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Purdue jumped to second in the West Division in 2018. Quarterbacks David Blough and Elijah Sindelar are recovering from significant leg injuries and will resume their quarterback battle this offseason. The running game should be strong once again with Markell Jones, D.J. Knox, and Tario Fuller returning. Additionally, the line should take a step forward with four returning starters, and left tackle Grant Hermanns is back in the mix after missing the second half of 2017 due to a knee injury. New playmakers must emerge at receiver after the departure of Anthony Mahoungou and Gregory Phillips. The defense allowed only 20.1 points a game in 2017 but faces a significant rebuilding effort. Coordinator Nick Holt has to replace ends Austin Lark and Gelen Robinson, linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley and cornerbacks Josh Okonye and Da’Wan Hunte. Just three of Purdue’s top 10 tacklers from 2017 will return next fall.

5. Nebraska Cornhuskers– I’m really looking forward to seeing this team play in 2018. They parted ways with Mike Riley after a 4-8 season in 2017 and hit a grand slam with the hire of Scott Frost, the coach who led UCF to an undefeated season and a victory over Auburn in the Peach Bowl. According to many experts, this could be the team that challenges Wisconsin for the division title for years to come and they are spot on with that assessment. The top priority for coach is to figure out who will be his starting quarterback. Tanner Lee left for the NFL and now, redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia, sophomore Patrick O’Brien and incoming freshman Adrian Martinez will battle for the job. The one-two punch of Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman return at wide receiver and running back Tre Bryant will return to the field after missing a majority of the year with a knee injury. The defense must get better in 2018. New defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will take over a defense that allowed 36 points per game in 2017. Their schedule is tough this year and it features some challenging road games that include Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State.

6. Minnesota Golden Gophers– They are headed in the right direction as a program and coach P.J. Fleck will continue to reel in talent. With that being said, this is a team that is one more year away from getting to a bowl game. The offense will look to improve as the new season approaches. Until their passing game can get on track and remain consistent, the offense will be built around running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. They will also need some improvement from their offensive line as well. As a defense, they gave up 22 points a game and this year, they will be without a few key seniors such as lineman Steven Richardson, linebacker Jonathan Celestin, safety Duke McGhee and cornerback Adekunle Ayinde.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini– The Fighting Illini have struggled mightily in coach Lovie Smith’s two years in Champaign. Illinois is just 5-19 overall and 2-16 in Big Ten play in that span. Can this team take a step forward in 2018? In order for Smith’s program to double its win total, finding a spark on offense is a must. The offense averaged only 13.1 points a game in Big Ten contests and struggled to get consistent play at quarterback. The question marks remain under center once again next season, but the skill positions have promising players in place, including running back Mike Epstein, receiver Ricky Smalling and tight end Louis Dorsey. The offense will have a new play-caller after Garrick McGee was let go following the end of the season. While the offense is loaded with concerns, the defense is in better shape. Linebacker Tre Watson, safety Patrick Nelson, and lineman Tito Odenigbo decided to transfer, but this unit doesn’t lose much in the way of seniors. Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips and linemen Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay provide a foundation up front for coordinator Hardy Nickerson. Smith went with a rebuilding effort with youth in 2017 and some improvement should be noticeable in 2018.

Prediction: I like the Badgers of Wisconsin to remain on top of this division and claim the west once again. They are such a strong football team from their offense, their defense, special teams and even their coaching is excellent. With Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor back, this offense will score its points. The defense will still be strong, but not as strong as last year. I expect them to clinch the division, get back to the Big Ten Title game in Indianapolis and be in the running for the CFB Playoffs.