Big Ten West Division Projections

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SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 31: The Northwestern Wildcats pray after defeating the Utah Utes 31-20 in The San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl at SDCCU Stadium on December 31, 2018 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Wondering who is going to win the Big Ten West division in 2019? Look no further! The Big Ten West is one of the most intriguing divisions in college football. Since its inception in 2011, the B1G title game has featured 7/14 B1G teams. Wisconsin leads the entire conference in appearances (5, 2-3), while Ohio State leads in wins (4, 3-1). Honestly, six of the seven teams in this division can win it. Who will represent the Big Ten West in Indianapolis on December 7th?

Big Ten West Division Projections

Illinois Fighting Illini (4-8)(1-8)

Wins: Akron (week 1), UCONN (week 2), Eastern Michigan (week 3), Rutgers (week 10)

Losses: Nebraska (week 4), Minnesota (week 6), Michigan (week 7), Wisconsin (week 8), at Purdue (week 9), at Michigan State (week 11), at Iowa (week 13), Northwestern (week 14)

Byes: Week 5, Week 12

When Illinois hired Lovie Smith in 2017 to turn the Illini program around, I thought it was a good hire. Two years later, all Smith has to his name is two B1G victories. Illinois used to be a mediocre team that could upset a top-tier opponent every now and then. Now, opponents feel like they are blessed with a third bye week. Perhaps it is due to his NFL experience that Smith has a longer leash, but Illinois is going to need to win and win now.

Despite being the doormat of the Big Ten West, Illinois is trying to get better. This past offseason, the Illini have welcomed in six transfers from larger programs. Transfers from Alabama, USC, Washington, Georgia, and Michigan will provide immediate support. The quarterback position should be anchored by Michigan transfer Dylan Peters. Peters was considered to be the next man up in Ann Arbor until Shea Patterson transferred in. Hopefully for Illinois, their offense will be good enough to outscore their opponents because their defense will be awful again. Perhaps they can adopt a Big XII mindset and throw the ball 70 times per game and attempt to score 50. It’s probably unlikely, but this could be the only way Illinois even become bowl-eligible, let along compete for a championship.

Thanks to the fact that the Big Ten West is probably the strongest that it’s been, Illinois will have a tough time winning this season. They can get three easier wins against two MAC teams and an AAC team. Although, they had better not overestimate the Zips of Akron. After Rutgers, who could the Illini possibly beat? If Nebraska gets off to another slow start, then maybe? Honestly, 2019 could be a good year for Illinois to just play young guys for experience and hope for a better draw next year.

Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-6)(3-6)

Wins: South Dakota State (FCS)(week 1), at Fresno State (week 2), Georgia Southern (week 3), Illinois (week 6), at Rutgers (week 8), Maryland (week 9)

Losses: at Purdue (week 5), Nebraska (week 7), Penn State (week 11), at Iowa (week 12), at Northwestern (week 13), Wisconsin (week 14)

Byes: Week 4, Week 10

Last year, Minnesota was the quintessential tale of two teams. The Gophers destroyed Purdue, Wisconsin, and Georgia Tech. They also beat the eventual Mountain West champion Fresno State. That same team lost to Maryland, Illinois, and an under-performing Nebraska team. P.J. Fleck is a great head coach, but he will need some consistency in 2019 to compete. It is due to this inconsistency that I have them winning only six games.

Offensively, the Gophers could be set. Last year, they alternated between two freshman quarterbacks and two freshman running backs. Now, if Tanner Morgan is going to be a solid quarterback, they could have something going. Sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim will be a solid back-up to the established veteran running back Rodney Smith. Smith will be the x-factor in the Gophers’ offense since he can make plays running the ball as well as in the passing game. When you hire a new coach, he is going to play his guys. That is why Minnesota played so many freshmen in 2018. The wide receiver corps is in the same boat. The Golden Gophers have the talent to compete, but perhaps that year is not this year. I’ll be more willing to project them to win the division next year when Fleck has three recruiting classes of his own. If you can go undefeated at Western Michigan, you can succeed at a B1G program.

South Dakota State and Fresno State will not be easy wins for Minnesota. The SDSU Jack Rabbits are ranked fourth in the preseason FCS poll and have beaten FCS juggernaut North Dakota State twice in the last five years. Playing at Fresno State will also be difficult. Minnesota is one of the six programs in the Big Ten West division that can win. If they can take games against Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa, perhaps they could find themselves in Indianapolis come December 7th.

Purdue Boilermakers (7-5)(5-4)

Wins: at Nevada (week 1), Vanderbilt (week 2), Minnesota (week 5), Maryland (week 7), Illinois (week 9), Nebraska (week 10), Indiana (week 14)

Losses: TCU (week 3), at Penn State (week 6), at Iowa (week 8), at Northwestern (week 11), at Wisconsin (week 13)

Byes: Week 4, Week 12

Last year, Purdue played for the late Tyler Trent. In the two seasons since hiring head coach Jeff Brohm, Purdue has gone 13-13. At a larger program, this would have the coach on the hot seat. At Purdue, they might be finalizing plans for a statue. Jokes aside, Brohm has turned the Boilermakers around. In year three, Purdue is in uncharted waters. Purdue could win the Big Ten West.

“So, if Purdue could win the Big Ten West, why do you have them going 7-5 and finishing fifth?” Great question! Purdue returns explosive wide receiver Rondale Moore…and that’s it. Their quarterback should be Elijah Sindelar, but he was benched in favor of David Blough last year. They will be replacing their top running backs, other top receivers, and most of the offensive line. If Brohm was able to recruit well enough, then there should not be much of a problem, but that’s the big offensive question mark. Defensively, the Boilermakers should be fine. Purdue returns 12 of its 14 top tacklers but loses corner Antonio Blackmon. If the defense can be good enough to hold opponents down, Purdue could find itself in a good situation.

Projecting this season was difficult. TCU should be good, as per usual, though I expect their match-up to be an exciting one. The first one to 60 wins! Their crossover game against Penn State will be a fun one to watch, but where the Boilermakers will decide their season will be when they play Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Take two out of three and Purdue will be in good shape. Purdue will be fun to watch this year. Sophomore Rondale Moore will continue to be a household name and should be a unanimous all-American and will compete for the Biletnikoff Award.

Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4)(5-4)

Wins: Miami (OH)(week 1), Rutgers (week 2), at Iowa State (week 3), Middle Tennessee State (week 5), Penn State (week 7), Purdue (week 8), Minnesota (week 12), Illinois (week 13)

Losses: at Michigan (week 6), at Northwestern (week 9), at Wisconsin (week 11), at Nebraska (week 14)

Byes: Week 4, Week 10

The next team to embarrass Ohio State in the last two years is the Iowa Hawkeyes. The tale of the tape in the last two decades has been consistency and the ability to win close games. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has been the leader in Iowa City for 20 years. In today’s college football, that longevity is unheard of. His 20 years at one school is the longest active tenure in all of college football. The second-longest is coach Gary Patterson at TCU with 19 years. Even in 2019, Iowa plays the stereotypical B1G football. They are physical, run the ball, play good defense, and control the clock.

The Hawkeyes return quarterback Nate Stanley. Stanley, in his career, has been one of the most prolific passers in the program’s history. They did lose two first-round tight ends in Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, so replacing their production will be difficult. While last year was a struggle to run the ball, Iowa will return three junior running backs. Each of them has improved yearly and should be able to contribute in big ways. None of them will get household recognition like other Big Ten West backs, but they will grind down defenses. On the defensive side of the ball, Iowa will be talented. A.J. Espenesa and Chauncey Golston will anchor an experienced defensive line. Almost all top linebackers will return for Iowa, but the secondary took a hit. Losing Amani Hooker hurts, but guys like Geno Stone will be able to pick up the slack.

Iowa has the potential to be really good…..or really bad. Their schedule is brutal. Iowa State will be a fierce battle, as it is every year. Not to mention the fact that the Hawkeyes will face three of the top four teams in the B1G East! Playing at Iowa State, at Northwestern, at Michigan, and at Wisconsin? Yikes. However, if Iowa can pull a few upsets, they will make 2019 a very exciting season in the Big Ten West.

Wisconsin Badgers (8-4)(5-4)

Wins: at South Florida (week 1), Central Michigan (week 2), Kent State (week 6), Michigan State (week 7), at Illinois (week 8), Iowa (week 11), Purdue (week 13), at Minnesota (week 14)

Losses: Michigan (week 4), Northwestern (week 5), at Ohio State (week 9), at Nebraska (week 12)

Byes: Week 3, Week 10

Wisconsin will finish third in the Big Ten West?? Okay, Okay relax. Head coach Paul Cryst has led the Badgers to a couple of solid seasons. In 2017, if you remember, Wisconsin was 12-0 heading into Indianapolis for a match-up with Ohio State and a chance for the College Football Playoff. They fell to the Buckeyes 27-21 but rebounded to beat Miami (FL) in the Orange Bowl to finish 13-1. In the two previous years, Wisconsin won 10 and 11 games, respectively, winning the division in 2016. The Badgers are riding a five-game bowl winning streak. Despite not having a B1G title since 2012 (when they won back-to-back), Wisconsin has been fairly successful.

Wisconsin is going to be Wisconsin. They will play elite, physical defense, run the ball, and wear their opposition down. Jonathan Taylor is one of the top running backs in the nation. Taylor is an elite runner with breakaway speed, but it is thanks to his offensive line that he gets the majority of his yards. Wisconsin has good wide receivers, led by A.J. Taylor and Springfield, Ohio native Danny Davis III. Unfortunately, both have been limited with lower-body injuries in camp. The question will be whether or not the quarterback play will be good enough to get the Badgers to the promised land. The Badgers will be led by their defense once again. Let’s see if it will be enough in 2019, or else they will have another disappointing year like 2018.

The good thing for the Badgers is that they won’t have to worry about falling to a non-conference foe in 2019. However, playing Michigan, Michigan State, and at Ohio State will be rough. This is especially so if they remain to be a one-dimensional team and can’t throw the ball. If they can’t defeat their B1G East rivals, then they have to take care of business against their Big Ten West opponents. Two losses were good enough to take this division in the past. The same will not be said for 2019.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-3)(6-3)

Wins: South Alabama (week 1), at Colorado (week 2), Northern Illinois (week 3), at Illinois (week 4), at Minnesota (week 7), Indiana (week 9), Wisconsin (week 12), at Maryland (week 13), Iowa (week 14)

Losses: Ohio State (week 5), Northwestern (week 6), at Purdue (week 10)

Byes: Week 8, Week 11

In 2018, Nebraska was the most exciting 4-8 team in college football. This year, most Big Ten West projections have Nebraska at the top. This is natural, considering the way that they finished last year, winning four of their last six games. Head coach Scott Frost is the epitome of the hometown hero coming home. Frost was the quarterback who led the Huskers to their 1997 National Championship (okay, it was half of a championship, but they were easily the best team in the nation that year). Scott Frost won a National Championship* at Central Florida, so the expectations are very high in Nebraska.

Sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez comes into the season with plenty of hype. Despite taking the reigns as a true freshman, Martinez led his Huskers to nearly upset Ohio State and Iowa. That takes plenty of talent, regardless of the situation. When betting opened in Vegas, Nebraska had 30-1 odds to win the National Title. Within the B1G, they were only behind perennial title favorites Ohio State and Michigan. Just like with Minnesota, the new coach plays his guys. The wide receivers are young and talented, led by Maurice Washington and Jaylin Bradley. Oh, and let’s not forget JD Spielman, a consistent play-maker.

Nebraska has a very favorable schedule. Colorado could be a tough non-conference foe, but I think that the Huskers have enough talent to overcome that obstacle. They have to travel to Purdue and Minnesota, but that’s nothing compared to what they could have had. They get Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa all at home. Flip the script and Nebraska may not get nine wins, but they are ready to serve up some home cooking. Scott Frost inherited a winless UCF team and won* a National Title in year two. Nebraska was a mess when Frost came in. What can the Huskers do in year two?

Northwestern Wildcats (11-1)(8-1)

Wins: at Stanford (week 1), UNLV (week 3), at Wisconsin (week 5), at Nebraska (week 6), Ohio State (week 8), Iowa (week 9), at Indiana (week 10), Purdue (week 11), UMASS (week 12), Minnesota (week 13), at Illinois (week 14)

Losses: Michigan State (week 4)

Byes: Week 2, Week 7

The Northwestern University Wildcats out of Evanston, Illinois will be your 2019 Big Ten West champion. Yes, you read that right. The Wildcats are the returning Big Ten West champion and were a couple of possessions away from beating Ohio State. Coach Pat Fitzgerald, like Scott Frost, is a home-grown coach. In the past, Northwestern has been pretty awful, but Fitzgerald has turned the program around, which is impressive considering the fact that Northwestern is an upper-tier academic institution. Unfortunately for them, they lost Clayton Thorson, but just wait and see who replaces him.

In 2018, the Wildcats finished 9-5. Those 5 losses could have easily been won if they could have just finished the game. Naturally, losing to Akron does not help the situation. So, what is changing that elevates Northwestern from 9 wins to at least 11? Enter: Clemson transfer quarterback and former five-star recruit, Hunter Johnson. Johnson left Clemson once it was obvious that Trevor Lawrence was going to be taking over. Honestly, Lawrence could probably win the quarterback battle at any school, so I don’t blame him. Northwestern loves to run the ball, so John Moten IV will return from injury and sophomore Isaiah Bowser will build on his experience from last year. The Wildcats will continue to be great defensively. Paddy Fisher and Samdup Miller should continue to dominate and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Northwestern is going to get started strong by winning the 2019 Nerd Bowl against Stanford. They do have to travel to Wisconsin and Purdue, but Ohio State, Michigan State, and Iowa have to travel to Evanston. Win or lose, Northwestern plays each of these teams tough at home. I do have them losing a close battle against the Spartans, but they will upset the Buckeyes on Friday night. These ain’t your daddy’s Northwestern Wildcats. This team is about to be really good.

Rubber Match In Indy

Last year, Northwestern fell to Ohio State in the B1G title game 45-24. The score does not do this game justice. It was much closer than the 21 point spread. The Cats will get their revenge during week 8 when the Buckeyes come to town en route to a Big Ten West title. Can the Wildcats take down the Buckeyes twice in the same year and stake their claim into the College Football Playoff conversation? Personally, I do not think so. However, 11-2 (after the B1G title game) should be good enough for a New Years’ Six Bowl Game. Who knows? If the Buckeyes get into the College Football Playoff, Northwestern may find themselves playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995.

 

*UCF was the people’s champion, going 13-0 in 2017; the only undefeated FBS team.

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