NCAA Football will be here soon enough and as we inch toward the season more and more previews & predictions will be coming your way.
In full disclosure, I’m not diving deep into all of the rest of the Big Ten West today. Knowing the intricacies of half of the Big Ten’s rosters is more than I care to bite off today...you’ve been warned. I can look at who end of season depth charts, who was drafted and make reasonable assumptions about returning players. But if I missed a transfer or an injured starter who’ll be back in 2019...my apologies. This is meant to be directionally correct.
But with that caveat, here are my random thoughts on the rest of the Big Ten West.
Group 1 - The Hype Machine Churneth
Here are two teams that the media is going salivate over this offseason. Purdue beat Ohio State last year and Nebraska has Scott Frost in year 2. But here is a slightly closer look.
Second in the league in total offense a year ago but 12th in total defense. Offensively the Skers are going to return a dynamic young quarterback but lose their top returning receiver and rusher. This team will still be rather good offensively but it is the other side of the ball that will hold this team back.
Losing both starting safeties and two linebackers for a unit that was much worse against the run than the pass is concerning. Five of their top 6 tacklers from last year are gone. They will likely put up around 30 points per game again but holding teams to under 30 is going to be a challenge.
Nebraska will have a big jump in wins and their schedule allows them to get Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern at home while getting Maryland and Indiana as part of their East crossover games. Their game at Minnesota will be a huge swing game for both programs in 2019.
OMG this team has Rondale Moore and they beat Ohio State midseason last year. Nevermind that this team losed 4/5 of their offensive line, their starting quarterback and leading rusher. Nevermind that they also finished the season 2-4 getting blown out by Minnesota and Auburn with one of those wins against Indiana. Offensively they are replacing most of their OL and breaking in a new quarterback. The good news is that they return one of last year’s most exciting freshmen position players in the Big Ten in Rondale Moore.
Much like Nebraska, this program was great on offense a year ago and terrible defensively. Unlike Nebraska, they’ll at least bring the entire defense back. Defensively this unit returns 10 starters with a back-to-back recruiting classes to bolster this unit with some young talent.
Should be an interesting year for Purdue. Typically in years when there are expectations, they stumble and years when nobody expects much, they outperform. I believe there are expectations on them this year and we will see how Jeff Brohm does in year three with this program.
Group 2 - The Previous Contenders
Northwestern rose above the rest of the West last year and had their trip to Indy booked before the final week of the regular season. Wisconsin had won the division 3 of the prior 4 years and are perennial favorites.
Say what you want about Alex Hornibrook, but the Badgers will be breaking in a new quarterback after he transferred to Florida State this offseason. Up next will either be Jack Coan or Graham Mertz, the true freshman. Whoever is the starting quarterback, they’ll be handing the ball off to Jonothan Taylor an awful lot. The best rushing attack in the Big Ten returns a Heisman candidate in Taylor, which obviously helps the offense. Taylor is one of two 1st team All Big Ten offensive selections returning for the Badgers.
Defensively? I don’t know, can’t be that good cause Minnesota put up 37 on them in Camp Randall. :) Honestly, it will be interesting to see what this defense looks like next year. Of the four guys lost, all were post season award winners as 2nd or 3rd team All Big Ten selections. Not a lot of spots to fill, but they are all big shoes.
So, what do we make of Wisconsin this year? Personally I think they return to the middle of the pack defensively and struggle to break in a new quarterback. The running game is great, but teams will be able to key on it until the quarterback and beat them otherwise.
As much as I want to dismiss Northwestern, they have won 15 of their last 16 Big Ten games (not including the Big Ten Championship game). Last year they lost to Michigan after leading for all by less than 5 minutes of that game. This program has gotten to the point where they execute and do not make mistakes. They just let you make mistakes and find ways to win.
Now, they are losing 10 starters from last year’s division champs. Will the 2019 version be as steady and able to execute a 60 minute game plan?
They certainly return some talented assets but this year’s schedule is a bit tougher, new quarterback and I suspect that Northwestern will be off the leader’s pace this year. Their program consistency will allow them to be right in the mix, but I don’t think they’ll be representing the West in Indy this year.
Group 3 - Under the Radar
These are the two teams that most people won’t talk about but if you look closely you’ll see that they really might be the two contenders in the West.
Iowa lost only 6 total starters due to graduation and then they lost 4 more as early entrants to the NFL Draft. Their starting TEs on offense and then a Safety and DE on defense.
The good for Iowa is that they are returning 3/5 of their offensive line, leading rusher and their starting quarterback. Nate Stanley is one of the top returning QBs in the league but it will be interesting to see what happens with their passing game after two elite tight ends were both taken in the 1st round of the Draft.
The biggest question mark for Iowa will be replacing their entire defensive line. Figure that out and this team could be pretty good.
We’ve been through this process of a new coach enough to know that when the rebuild is done properly, it is year 3 when you see a jump. Glen Mason saw a 3-win jump in year 3 while Jerry Kill improved by 2 wins, both getting to 8 wins in year 3. This is Fleck’s third season, he is returning 17 starters and gets a very favorable schedule.
This week ESPN released their Football Power Index and game by game predictions, which stated that the Gophers would be favorite to win in 10 games this fall.
Finally some returning experience at quarterback, possibly the best WR duo in the conference, some elite talent groomed along the offensive line and two 1,000 yard rushers returning on offense.
Defensively this unit regrouped after Robb Smith was fired mid-season last year and they return a ton of talent and depth. Defensive tackle is the biggest hole to fill, along with secondary depth. But this team is poised to make some noise in the West.
Group 4 - Illinois
I just made those numbers up. It doesn’t matter. I could be very wrong about Illinois and maybe they’ll surprise everyone in the Big Ten. But I’m not sure they can be a team capable of making noise near the top of the standings this year.
I’m not making any predictions here, though I’m very high on the Gophers this year.
Athlon Sports has the Gophers with a 7-5 (4-5) record and finishing 5th in the West. But their three writers universally called out Minnesota as a potential sleeper team this year.
ESPN’s Football Power Index is much Rosier and they predict the Gophers to be favored in 10 games this year (as stated earlier in this post). 10 wins? I’ll take it.
Personally I think 12-0 is pretty likely, it probably isn’t too early to book your Pasadena hotels.