Here we are, mere days away from the start of the 2015 college football season and the tension is palatable. Expectations are getting unreasonably high for Minnesota, and for once it's easy to understand why. Wholesale changes across the West have no fewer than 5 teams thinking "Well, if we get a break here and catch that team there this is our year to win the division!" But who has a legitimate shot to get trampled by the Buckeyes (or the Spartans, if something weird happens) in Indianapolis?
The Defending Champions: Wisconsin
Yup. The defending champions go here. While I'm loath to just put last year's top team right back at the top due to the amount of turnover in college football, this is their spot until the contenders can prove that the Badgers can be beaten. They lose a very talented Melvin Gordon to the NFL where he will get paid very well to be the next Wisconsin bust in the league, and they lose Gary Andersen to Oregon State (please pause here to chuckle) and replace him with Paul "19-19 at Pitt" Chryst. Those two things should be enough to make their hold on top tenuous, but their schedule is so creamy and soft (No tOSU/MSU/PSU/Harbaughs crossover) that anything less than 10-2 should raise eyebrows.
The Top Contenders: Minnesota and Nebraska
Here we go again. The pretenders to the throne are poised and waiting, but there are some big questions for both of these teams to answer before they can claim their rightful place as #1 team in the west. The key question on the field for both is related to offense, as both need to replace a very good receiver (Maxx Williams/Kenny Bell) and a productive back (David Cobb/Ameer Abdullah), and both should have, at a minimum, outstanding defenses. Additionally, both have a huge question that needs to be addressed (Can Mitch Leidner/Mike Riley be better than mediocre?) and both have an ugly crossover game that's almost certainly a loss when you look at it right now (@ tOSU, vs. MSU). But it should not really surprise anyone if either of these teams are able to jump Wisconsin and earn their title.
The Mediocre Middle: Iowa and Northwestern
Raise your hand if your coach has been there a long time and hasn't really done anything the past few seasons. Both of you? Ok, raise your hand if you've got questions up and down the roster. Both still, huh? Well raise your hand if you had unexpected wins and head-scratching losses in 2014. STOP THAT! Is there any difference between these two programs? Next you'll say you're both going to go 2-2 in non conference, aren't you? Outside of Northwewstern playing Michigan and Penn State in crossover while Iowa has Maryland and Indiana, what we have here is a pair of teams that'll be praying for upsets and scraping for a bowl game while the seats under their coaches continue to heat up. While some people in the fanbases may see an opportunity, the truth is that right now they appear to be closer to the bottom than title contention.
Seriously. Nope. Not going to happen. Purdue will have a coaching search before they have a divisional title. At least one.
So there you have it. All the football teams of the Big Ten West broken down by what we have for tiers as we head into the season. We'll be back next week to discuss how everyone looks after Week 1 (spoiler alert: more than 3 wins will be a huge success for the division!) and see if everyone can avoid injuries and regression and depth chart controversy.