Sports handicapper Ian Cameron provides a look at the Big Ten West Division for the upcoming College Football season. He Goes One by One on all the teams and provides his betting preview on all.
Iowa will look to deliver an encore presentation of their strong 12-2 season last year but narrowly missed out on winning the Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State and followed it up by getting routed by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Iowa was probably overrated and overvalued from what was a light schedule they faced but it was still a quality team and one that has a ton of pieces back this season. C.J. Beathard returns at QB and even though he isn't a prolific passer, he took care of the football as evidenced by a strong 17-5 TD-INT ratio a year ago. Both RB's are back along with 3 key OL starters and for Iowa to have success offensively, they have to be able to run the football effectively and should be able to do that this season.
The team is very thin at WR outside of senior Matt VandeBerg so the passing game might be a bit of a struggle early on. The defense was solid last season and should be again but there are a number of new faces in all three phases and it is likely unrealistic to expect the Hawkeyes to force turnovers at the rate they did last season. The secondary has some depth concerns behind their top two senior corners so staying healthy will remain very important for Iowa in terms of the success of their pass defense. Iowa will be in the mix to emerge as West Division champions once again but they will have a tougher path to get there this season and I'm not exactly looking to bet on Iowa particularly at home where they've really struggled from a point spread perspective in recent years.
After only one season in charge, head coach Mike Riley is already on the hot seat in Lincoln following a very disappointing first season as Huskers head coach with Nebraska only reaching 6 wins and losing a ton of close games. Nebraska has a challenging schedule to deal with including a game from the other division against Ohio State and they have plenty of questions too. QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. returns but he needs to improve his completion rate and lower the turnovers he had last season in order for this offense to get better and complement his ability to make plays with his feet as a dual threat. Nebraska should have one of the top WR corps in the land headlined by Jordan Westerkamp. The RB spot is up for grabs but there is talent there to move forward. The OL is a concern with 4 new starters and the experience along that unit that is returning doesn't have a ton of snaps in game action under their belt.
Nebraska has a boatload of concerns on the defensive side of the football. The Cornhuskers had a very shoddy secondary last season yielding close to 300 passing yards per game and now to complicate things even more, the defensive line may have trouble generating a strong pass rush with four starters gone and their ability to stop the run is likely to be worsened by the losses personnel wise along the DL. I'm not sure I'm buying in on Nebraska improvement and I view this team as more of a ‘bet against' commodity especially with so many question marks defensively.
Wisconsin must overcome an absolutely brutal schedule in the first month and a half of the season as they face LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State as they must face the three toughest teams from the East Division. The offensive line should be strong with plenty of returning faces and as always there is plenty of depth at RB in Madison led by Corey Clement the senior who missed 9 games last season due to injury. The ground attack will once again be the focal point of Wisconsin's offense especially with the Badgers breaking in a new QB as the #1 job will go to either 5th year senior Bart Houston or frosh Alex Hornibrook.
The defense was very strong last season and allowed Wisconsin to be as good as they were in spite of a sometimes stagnant offense but this year the team must replace three of their five leading tacklers from last season and they only have one returning starter in the secondary, however, that pass defense does return plenty of players that have been on the field for meaningful snaps in games so they should have more depth in the defensive backfield than it would appear. Wisconsin should have a solid and competitive team but QB is a question mark and their defense likely will take a step back from last year's group which allowed barely 13 points per game. The schedule does them no favors either.
Pat Fitzgerald who remains one of the most underrated coaches in College Football did it again last year getting Northwestern to a double digit win season and another solid New Years Day bowl appearance. Northwestern didn't have exceptional QB play last season but they rode a solid ground game and defense to a very solid season although one could argue their schedule wasn't exactly the most daunting one. QB Clayton Thorson must improve this season as he had just 81 passing yards per game and a terrible 1-4 TD-INT ratio in their last 5 games last season and had a very subpar 7-9 TD-INT ratio and barely broke 50% completions for the season. He did show in the spring game that he has improved his throwing of the football but he still needs to go out on the field and show it this season. All three of their WR's are gone but the spring game was promising as the new crop of receivers looked solid. The offensive line should be a force with all 5 starters back along the front this season.
On defense, they have some holes to fill but especially along the defensive line but there should be increased depth on the stop unit to adequately fill those roles. Northwestern has their share of challenges once again this season but they have been a monster pointspread team over the years as an underdog and despite a schedule that includes games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa, look for this team to adopt their coaches mentality again of being a tough out in the Big Ten.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
This will be the first full season as head coach of the Gophers for Tracy Claeys he replaced Jerry Kill who had to retire due to health concerns. Claeys has begun putting together his own offensive coaching staff making a few changes including bringing in former UL Lafayette OC Jay Johnson to be the new Minnesota OC and the plan is to run Johnson's pistol based offense that he implemented at UL Lafayette and it may or may not feature elements of uptempo, no huddle offense as well although the Gophers plan on varying the tempo of their offense. QB Mitch Leidner will be back to try and lead this new look offense. He has the ability to make plays with his legs and his arm and he may need to use his scrambling ability in light of the fact there are a lot of new faces along the offensive line. The receiving corps is expected to be deeper according to the head coach.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line should still be a solid group with 3 starters back and a lot of experience at LB too but the secondary was riddled with departures from last year's strong pass defense so there could be some growing pains when trying to slow down opposing passing attacks. Minnesota has a fairly stable situation with an experienced QB, solid in the trenches and even though the secondary is a concern, the Golden Gophers still have what it takes to be competitive especially in the underdog pointspread role where they have been a cash cow for many seasons in Big Ten play.
Illinois Fighting Illini
It's too soon to tab Lovie Smith as a terrific hire as new head coach of this program but it's certainly one that brings a breath of fresh air to things in Champaign. Lovie Smith will be the 5th head coach for Illinois in as many seasons but his NFL pedigree has led many to believe this finally could be the man to turn things around. The team has only 11 starters total back from last year and will need to install new systems on both sides of the football so growing pains and struggles are likely inevitable for this group in Year 1 of the Lovie era but there is definitely hope on the horizon especially with the fact that Lovie Smith will start recruiting better athletes to Illinois than any of his recent predecessors did. The new offense will be run by OC Garrick McGee and it will be a pro-style offense while the defense adopts Lovie Smith's famous Tampa Two with Hardy Nickerson taking the reins as DC. QB Wes Lunt returns to lead the offense and RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn will take over the RB duties but there is concern in terms of depth at WR especially with one of their best Mike Dudek suffering a torn ACL in the spring.
On defense, there are only 4 starters back from last year's stop unit and they lose their top 3 tacklers from a season ago so that combined with learning a completely different defense is likely to result in some struggles for Illinois to shut down opposing offenses at least until they get a better grasp of things. The defensive line has a somewhat cohesive group but beyond that, there will be plenty of new faces and question marks for Illinois defensively. Long-term this program should improve once Lovie gets his recruits in place but for this season, growing pains should abound for the Illini.
We could very well be witnessing the final games for Darrell Hazell on the Purdue sidelines as he enters the new season firmly as a head coach on the hot seat. Purdue is a wretched 6-30 SU in three seasons under Hazell's watch and nothing short of a bowl berth will likely keep him employed past this season with the Boilers. The positive for Hazell is the fact the team is loaded with returning starters and experience but one could easily argue that it's all ‘bad' experience based on how poorly the team has played in recent seasons. David Blough returns to be the projected starting QB after he had a 58% completion rate with 10 TD's and 8 INT's last season but might have to stave off Elijah Sindelar for the spot. There should be solid options at the skill positions including top WR DeAngelo Yancy and RB Markel Jones. Purdue has major holes to fill along the offensive line after losing their starting center and left tackle from last season and making things tougher is they don't have much OL depth so finding enough bodies to keep that unit going strong throughout the season is a concern.
There are 7 starters back from a pitiful defense of a season ago ranking 110th in total defense. Purdue is razor thin up front along the defensive line and in the secondary so this team's defensive woes may just continue despite the greater experience as lack of a pass rush consistently along with suspect coverage down the field against the pass is not the recipe for success. Purdue is the worst team in this conference by not just a slim margin but a very wide one and there hasn't been enough evidence provided to show the gap between Purdue and the rest of the Big Ten can be closed significantly. One thing that likely will be closed either during the season or after it is Darrell Hazell's days as head coach.