Big 10 Season Predictions: The West

By Zachary Lutz @zachlutz6

Wisconsin

After entering the 2018 season as the #4 ranked team in the country, to say the Badgers season was a disappointment would be an understatement. 

It was the first time in the Paul Chryst era where the Badgers failed to reach 10 wins. Furthermore, the Badgers hurt themselves all year long with turnovers, poor special teams play and too many big plays allowed on defense. All of these are uncharacteristic of the Chryst-led program. 

Luckily, these areas are easy to fine tune in the offseason and the Badgers are back in 2019 with high expectations.

Jonathan Taylor is back for what will likely be his final season in a Badger uniform. Taylor eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards last year after finishing 23 yards shy of that feat in 2017. A true workhorse and elite talent, Taylor may be the Big Ten’s best offensive player. Regarded as one of the top running backs in the country, Taylor is certainly in the Heisman conversation.

He needs to make strides in his ball control and receiving out of the backfield to be truly complete, but he proved just how incredible he is in 2018 when he managed to run all over Big Ten opponents despite an abysmal passing game. 

Hornibrook is gone now, however, and Jack Coan has stepped in to take care of the ball and manage games for Wisconsin at QB. He will need to throw and complete a few passes downfield to balance the offense, but Badger football is all about ball security and tempo. 

After dismantling a respectable American program in South Florida in week one, the Badger appear to be back on track in 2019. The QB play, the defense and Taylor were all light out as Wisconsin won 42-0. This was nice for Badgers fans to see as Wisconsin has hardly blown any opponent out over the past few seasons.

The receiving core has a lot of experience and some solid talent in the form of A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis, the newly reinstated Quintez Cephus, Kendric Pryor and Jake Ferguson but they all need to become more consistent in their route-running and catching ability. 

The offensive line lost many key pieces, but as always the Badgers have some sturdy replacements ready for the task. 

As mentioned above, the Badger defense looked revamped in week one, but to silence the doubters, the Badgers will need to continue to defend at a high level, proving that their young talent is here and emerging. 

The Big Ten West is as stiff as ever with three teams in the back end of the top 25 and highly capable Northwestern team sitting just outside the rankings. 

There should be a lot of back and forth in this division and despite having both Ohio State and Michigan on the docket this season, the Badgers have a stretch of five straight home games and have a reasonable shot at reaching the Big Ten title game.

Final Verdict: 9-3 or maayybbee 10-2

Iowa

Despite losing two major impact players at tight end in T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, Iowa has plenty of star returners to compete for a Big Ten West title in 2019.

Nate Stanley and his rocket arm are back for one final season in the black and yellow Hawkeye uniform. Though he is missing his top two pass-catchers from the past two seasons, there are enough options in the Iowa receiving core for Stanley to stay effective through the air. His receivers will certainly need to take a big step though.

Stanley will be aided by a trio of quality running backs, though none of them are expected to set the world on fire individually, Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young and Tyler Goodson should be quite effective working together to eat up yards and drive the ball downfield.

Similar to Wisconsin, Iowa has a few positions to replace on the offensive line, but like Wisconsin, all of these replacements are expected to perform at a high level right away. Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs are the returners on the offensive line and they are true stars.

On defense, A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston leads the front line in what could be one of the scariest defensive end tandems in college football. 

There are no real stars in the middle or secondary of this Hawkeye defense, but a lot of experience and enough depth and talent to be effective. 

Unfortunately for Iowa, they have a real tough schedule in 2019 with four road games against ranked teams and one more against Northwestern. Iowa is good enough to win a tough rad game, but how many tough road games they can win will determine their chances to win the Big Ten West.

Final Verdict: 8-4

Nebraska

The Cornhuskers are not only one of the most intriguing teams in the Big Ten in 2019, but one of the most intriguing teams in the country, with plenty of upside.

QB Adrian Martinez is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign, despite the team finishing 4-8 last season, and his performance has landed him as a Heisman dark horse in 2019. 

Aside from Martinez, there are some question marks in every other area of the offense, but with JUCO transfer Dedrick Mills coming in to be the lead running back and all-purpose player Wandale Robinson flying around the field taking snaps wherever he can, Nebraska should once again have a prolific offense under the brilliant Scott Frost. 

Nebraska has the offense to hang with the best of them but their defense will need severe improvement if they expect to hold a top 25 ranking and climb the polls. The defense allowed more than 30 points a game last season, but to much surprise, it was the defense who bailed Martinez and the Cornhuskers out in their week one home win over South Alabama. 

While Martinez failed to score a touchdown in week one, the defense scored three. In all honesty, this might have been more relieving for Nebraska fans who can count on Martinez and the offense to bounce back. 

Nebraska needs to avoid a week two trip-up against Colorado to build their confidence heading into a favorable conference schedule. 

The only high-powered team Nebraska faces out of the east is Ohio State at home. Furthermore, their toughest divisional games against Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern also come at home. 

There is a lot to learn still about this 2019 Nebraska team but they are certainly in the mix for a Big Ten West title. 

Final Verdict: 8-4 or 9-3

Northwestern

It might have been surprising to some to see Northwestern absent from the preseason polls, but after a tough week one loss to Stanford, we realize it was probably appropriate. 

There has been a lot of hype around former five-star recruit and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson taking the QB reigns and leading Northwestern to a second straight conference championship game.  

On paper, Johnson’s talent and big arm should lead Northwestern out of its offensive inefficiencies and big play woes the Wildcats have experienced over the past few seasons.

Isaiah Bowser proved a capable back after the retirement of Jeremy Larkin last season and the receiving core is reliable with Ben Skowronek and Riley Lees. 

The offense’ success will depend highly on their new QB, however, and considering Johnson’s poor performance in week one at Stanford leading to a feeble seven points and now the season-ending injury to backup QB T.J. Green, he will need to turn his performance around quickly if Northwestern expects to accomplish their big goals for 2019.

The Wildcat defense looks to be one of the best in the Big Ten again and is led by two of the best in the business in Paddy Fisher at linebacker and Joe Gaziano up front. 

Its not as complete or talented as Michigan State’s but it is very good and it kept Northwestern in the game at Stanford. 

Northwestern has struggled to start well in each of their past two seasons, a demon they are trying to elude this year. Sadly, after their week two bye and cupcake game against UNLV, Northwestern opens conference with five straight ranked opponents.

It could be another second half resurgence for Northwestern, but this year they could be fighting for a winning record late in the season.

Put your faith in Hunter Johnson and Coach Fitzgerald to fight back in the second half of the season.

Final Verdict: 7-5 

Minnesota

Following a pleasantly surprising end to the Gophers 2018 season in which they won three of their final four games to reach and win a bowl game, expectations are at their peak of the Coach Fleck era. 

This year Minnesota returns nine starters on offense, the most of any team in the conference, as well as six defensive players. With a young team so many returners who understand what it takes to win, the future of Golden Gopher football is looking up.

While Minnesota’s week one win was vastly underwhelming, they still managed to take the victory and now they can move onto bigger fish with the understanding of which areas they need to clean up. 

Sophomore Tanner Morgan leads the way on offense at QB with plenty of support around him, thanks to a massive offensive line, healthy running backs and two explosive receivers

Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith ended up missing a majority of the season last year due to ACL injuries but are back for one final ride trying to make their mark in the backfield. They are joined by sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim, coming off of a breakout freshman season

Senior Tyler Johnson and sophomore Rashard Bateman will look to have monster seasons as pass-catchers. 

Under a new defensive scheme, Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin will look to have big seasons as they lead the front seven on defense and Antoine Winfield Jr. guides an inexperienced secondary. 

Minnesota arguably has the easiest schedule for a Big Ten team in 2019, making them a dark horse in the Big Ten West.

Final Verdict: 7-5 or 8-4

Purdue

With an excellent coach in Jeff Brohm bringing the Boilermakers to back-to-back bowl games and a lot of young talent both coming in and returning, there is a lot to be excited about, however, a tough Big Ten will limit Purdue’s success in 2019.

Purdue’s offense will look almost entirely different in 2019, not because of a new scheme but because an almost entirely new set of players. 

With David Blough gone, Elijah Sindelar and his big arm look to carry on the pass heavy Purdue attack. 

Sindelar will look to connect with senior tight end Brycen Hopkins as well as a core of four freshman receivers who will look to make a name early in their Purdue careers. 

Most importantly, Sindelar needs to make sure Rondale Moore gets more than enough touches.

Moore might be the best and most electric player in the Big Ten you have never heard of. As a true freshman last year he compiled 2,215 all-purpose yards and was easily a freshman All-American. 

The biggest question offense sprout from a weak offensive line and an uncertain running game.

Purdue’s defense has not been exceptional over the past few seasons but this year they return almost everyone while welcoming in some young, promising newcomers. Purdue’s defense could make big strides this year but it was clearly a let down in week one when the Boilermakers were upset in heartbreaking fashion by Nevada. 

It has proven difficult to bounce back from weak non-conference losses when you play in a conference like the Big Ten. Even though the program continues to trend upwards, and an upset or two is in the cards, the overall record and results might not be there for Purdue in 2019.

Final Verdict: 5-7

Illinois

Lovie Smith and the Illini are working on making the program relevant again and it appears they are trending in the right direction after a four win season in 2018. 

The biggest boost for the Illini in 2019 comes from Michigan transfer QB Brandon Peters. A former four-star recruit, Peters experienced some playing time in Ann Arbor and his talent can go a long way for an Illinois team who had major questions at the position prior to his arrival. 

Peters works behind one of the strengths of this Illini squad, the offensive line. The line is experienced and features an Alabama transfer this year, Richie, Petitbon. 

While it’s unclear who exactly will emerge as Peters top receiving target, junior wideout Ricky Smalling may be the best bet after catching 33 passes last year and hauling in four catches for 54 yards in the Illini 2019 opener against Akron. 

Senior running back Reggie Corbin is coming off a big 1,000 yard season and will try to balance Peters passing game in 2019. 

The Illini defense can only go up from their horrendous performance in 2018, and with Lovie also claiming the defensive coordinator position, the defensive-minded coach will take matter completely into his own hands. 

Though it was Akron, it’s a good sign the Illini surrendered just three points at home in week one.

Illinois is steadily bringing in better recruits and Lovie has been stealing players from other top programs via transfer. Give it a couple more years Illini fans because soon enough you will be in a bowl game.

Final verdict: 4-8

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