By Ryan Mayer
College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, sleepers, and the rest. Can your team truly challenge for conference supremacy? Are they being underrated? Stay tuned.To give you an idea of what each tier means, teams that are marked contenders are considered legitimate division and conference title contenders. Sleepers are teams that if everything breaks their way could pull a few upsets and steal a spot in the conference title game. The rest is teams that likely won’t contend for the division or conference title but are more likely to be fighting for a bowl spot.
Today we look at the Big Ten West, where Kirk Ferentz looks to lead Iowa to a division title for the second straight year.
Preseason Media Poll
1) Iowa Hawkeyes
2) Nebraska Cornhuskers
3) Wisconsin Badgers
4) Northwestern Wildcats
5) Minnesota Golden Gophers
6) Illinois Fighting Illini
7) Purdue Boilermakers
The Hawkeyes were the surprise team of the year last season as they rolled through the weaker of the two Big Ten divisions reaching 12-0 before falling to Michigan State in the conference title game and then getting run by Stanford in the Rose Bowl 45-16. Many dismissed Iowa’s success throughout the year due to the fact that they avoided Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State in the crossover games, but as always, you can only play the games on your schedule and the Hawkeyes won every game put in front of them until the last two of the year. This year’s team doesn’t get as lucky with the schedule though they do still avoid both Ohio State and Michigan State.
The offense brings back five starters from last year and the most important of those is QB CJ Beathard, who returns for his senior season following a breakout year last year in which he completed nearly 62 percent of his passes for 2,809 yards, 17 TDs and 5 INTs while adding 237 yards and 6 TDs with his legs. Beathard loses backfield mate Jordan Canzeri but there are two capable replacements in senior LeShun Daniels (145 carries 645 yards 8 TD) and junior Akrum Wadley (83 carries 509 yards 7 TD) ready to fill his shoes. The top receiving threat in senior Matt VandeBerg is also back so the skill positions are well set for Ferentz. The line will have to answer some questions after losing Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh, two key interior starters to graduation.
On defense there’s plenty of returning experience with eight starters back, including both tackles and their leading tackler, junior linebacker Josey Jewell. They will be looking for a new pass rush after both defensive ends in Drew Ott and Nate Meier (12 sacks combined) moved on. But, this team benefits from a loaded and experience-laden secondary that includes last year’s Thorpe award winner Desmond King (8 INTs) and loses just their free safety from last year’s group.
With a stout defense and good options at the key offensive skill positions, Iowa looks ready to once again contend for the West division title.
Toughest Games: @ Minnesota (10/8), vs Wisconsin (10/22), @ Penn State (11/5), vs Michigan (11/12), vs Nebraska (11/25)
The Cornhuskers made one of the surprise hires of last offseason by bringing in Mike Riley from Oregon State. Despite what looks like a bad record in year one at 6-7, Nebraska was actually much better than that record would indicate last year. Consider this: The Cornhuskers lost five of those seven games in the waning seconds of the game. That means they’re a couple of plays here and there from a 10-win season. Heading into year two of the Riley regime, there’s plenty of talent returning on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong is back for his senior season following a bit of an up and down year. He completed just 55 percent of his passes for 3,030 yards 22 TDs but had 16 INTs. Armstrong is more of a mobile QB (400 yards 7 TDs rushing last year) but he got only 98 rushing attempts on the year. You would expect the team to try to play more to his strengths this year. Armstrong is helped out by top rusher Terrell Newby returning for his senior year. With the top six receivers returning including Armstrong’s favorite target Jordan Westerkamp, the skill positions are stacked. The problem is the offensive line that loses three starters from last year. How quickly that unit coalesces will determine how good this unit can be this season.
Defensively, all of the linebackers from last year are back, which is important considering that they’ll be playing behind a defensive line that lost all four starters from last year. That’s not good news for a team that will be looking to improve against the pass after giving up nearly 300 yards per game through the air and 25 passing touchdowns. If the ‘Huskers can’t get a pass rush that could spell problems for a secondary that loses a couple of starters.
The biggest problem facing Nebraska this year however is their schedule. Though they won’t have to play Michigan or Michigan State, they do have to travel to Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Iowa. That’s a tough slate.
Toughest Games: vs Oregon (9/17), @ Northwestern (9/24), @ Wisconsin (10/29). @ Ohio State (11/5), @ Iowa (11/25)
Paul Chryst’s group was hit by injuries to their top running back Corey Clement and their offensive line, which led to a significant drop off in the running game down to 150 yards per game from the 320 they averaged in 2014. That trend should reverse itself this year as Clement returns presumably to full health and his two back-ups, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal got plenty of experience in his absence. The line benefits from having to start a variety of different combinations last year with nearly everyone returning except for left tackle Tyler Marz. The running game and experience on the line should help offset having to break in a new quarterback after Joel Stave graduated following last season. Bart Houston is the most experienced option at that spot but he could be pushed for the job by redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and true freshman Kare’ Lyles.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda moved down south to take the same role on Les Miles’ staff at LSU. Stepping into the role will be Justin Wilson who comes in from USC. He will have most of the front seven except for defensive end Arthur Goldberg and linebacker Joe Schobert. Last season, the Badgers gave up the fewest points per game at 13.7 and allowed just 95 yards per game on the ground. With a new coordinator, there’s always a question of whether they can replicate that production. One particular area of concern for Wilson is the secondary which loses three starters including both safeties.
The schedule is also a bit of a bear this year for Chryst and company as they face Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the East and have Iowa and Northwestern on the road. Not to mention their season opener is a “neutral” site game against Aranda’s new team LSU (being played in Green Bay). Their end of October through early November stretch is brutal. Home for the Buckeyes, road against Iowa, home for Nebraska and finally back on the road against Northwestern.
Toughest Games: vs LSU (9/3), @ Michigan State (9/24), @ Michigan (10/1), vs Ohio State (10/15), @ Iowa (10/22)
Pat Fitzgerald’s group started off the year brilliantly last season going 5-0 with two shutouts and a 16-6 win over Stanford before they got rolled in back-to-back games against Michigan (38-0) and Iowa (40-10). That said, the Wildcats rebounded nicely by winning their final five games of the year before getting blasted once again in the bowl game by Tennessee, 45-6. This year’s team is arguably more talented than last year and it starts with the QB spot where Clayton Thorson will be in his second year as the starter and because of that, one would expect him to progress as a passer after throwing for just 1,522 yards 7 TDs and 9 INTs last year. A healthier offensive line that returns a bunch of experience and the return of their top running back Justin Jackson should help alleviate any pressure on Thorson. The receiver group is young, with just one of their top five guys back from last year (senior Austin Carr). With a healthier line, dominant running back in Justin Jackson and year two of Thorson, the offense should average more than last year’s paltry 19.5 points per game.
The defense brings back six starters from last year’s team but will be looking for new pass rushers after losing two defensive ends to the NFL in Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson (12.5 sacks). The linebacker group is very strong though with top tackler Anthony Walker (122 tackles 20.5 TFL) returning in the middle, flanked by sophomore Nate Hall and senior Jaylen Prater. That group is the strength of this unit as the secondary also has some question marks after corner Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry moved on. They do bring back corner Matthew Harris who was 3rd team All Big Ten last season.
Schedule wise, their three toughest Big Ten games all come on the road as they travel to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State. They get Nebraska at home and the out of conference schedule is interesting with a tough Western Michigan squad and the perennially overachieving Duke coming to Evanston in September. They start off with four straight home games before that date with Iowa and getting four wins early at home would significantly boost their hopes for contention this season.
Toughest Games: vs Nebraska (9/24), @ Iowa (10/1), @ Michigan State (10/15), @ Ohio State (10/29), vs Wisconsin (11/5)
Minnesota Golden Gophers
The first full year under coach Tracy Claeys sees a pretty experienced Minnesota team with 13 starters back. Claeys, the former defensive coordinator, took over from Jerry Kill after Kill had to resign last October because of health reasons. The new offensive coordinator is Jay Johnson who comes over from Louisiana-Lafayette. He has a senior QB (Mitch Leidner), a sophomore running back combo of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith and four of their top five receivers back, which is plenty to work with at the skill positions but he will need to focus on building a new offensive line after six guys moved on from last year’s team. The Gophers averaged 22.5 points per game last year and if they want to improve that number, getting the line to come together quickly will be key.
With Claeys’ promotion to head coach, former defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator Jay Sawvel takes over the defensive coordinator duties. He inherits a group that has six starters back including three starters along the defensive line. Add in three linebackers with starting experience in Cody Poock (99 tackles 5.5 TFL), Jack Lynn (76 tackles 9.5 TFL) and Jonathan Celestin (43 tackles) and the front seven should be able to at least match last year’s numbers of allowing just 166 yards per game on the ground. The question comes in the secondary where three starters are gone including both corners in Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
The schedule is pretty favorable with the Gophers avoiding Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. They get the expected top team in the division (Iowa) at home, but they do have to travel to both Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Toughest Games: @ Penn State (10/1), vs Iowa (10/8), @ Nebraska (11/12), @ Wisconsin (11/26)
Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini fired embattled coach Tim Beckman just before last year leaving the team and interim coach Bill Cubit in a tough spot. Despite that, the team got off to a 4-1 start before losing six of their last seven. The coach wasn’t the only change made as the administration underwent a bit of an overhaul as well with a new Athletic Director in Josh Whitman who made a splash immediately after his hire in February by announcing that Lovie Smith would be the new head coach for the football team. Smith hasn’t coached in college in 20 years, but certainly brings name recognition to the program. Lovie has some good experience back on offense, but the defense is young. It’s the first year of a new regime which can tend to be rocky, but we’re mainly looking for signs of a direction from a program that has lacked one for some time.
Quarterback Wes Lunt is back for his senior seasons after a year in which he completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,761 yards and a 14-6 touchdown to interception ratio. He’ll have a line in front of him with three returning starters in center Joe Spencer and tackles Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro. Backfield mate Ke’Shawn Vaughn is coming off a good debut season carrying 157 times for 723 yards and 6 TDs. Add in two of the top three receivers returning and there’s a recipe for success under new coordinator Garrick McGee who comes in after two years as the OC at Louisville. A new system always leads to an adjustment period so there could be some struggles early.
On defense there are major questions at linebacker (all three starters gone) and in the secondary where they lose both starting corners and a starting safety from last year’s team. Finding answers in the back seven will be the responsibility of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson and linebackers coach Tim McGarigle/secondary coach Paul Williams. The Illini do add in Hardy Nickerson (Nickerson’s son) as a grad transfer from Cal so he should help solidify the linebacker unit. Up front, the team benefits from bringing back defensive end Dawuane Smoot (eight sacks) and adding Auburn transfer Gimel President. That should help offset the loss of Jihad Ward to the NFL.
The schedule is rough for Illinois as they draw both Michigan schools and play both North Carolina and Western Michigan in the out of conference slate. Having to travel to Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern doesn’t help either.
Toughest Games: vs UNC (9/10), @ Nebraska (10/1), @ Michigan (10/22), vs Michigan State (11/5), @ Wisconsin (11/12), vs Iowa (11/19), @ Northwestern (11/26)
The Boilermakers have had three straight rough seasons going 1-11, 3-9 and 2-10. Head coach Darrell Hazell enters his fourth season at the school looking for his first year with more than three wins. The good news for Hazell is this is possibly his most experienced team returning 16 starters, eight on each side of the ball. They bring back David Blough at the QB spot after he took over from Austin Appleby (transferred to Florida) in the fourth game last season. As a true freshman Blough threw for 1,574 yards 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 57 percent of his passes. Those numbers aren’t eye-popping but you’d expect continued growth as he enters his second year in the job. Blough has the benefit of top rusher and fellow sophomore Markell Jones next to him in the backfield after he ran for 875 yards and 10 TDs averaging 5.2 yards per carry. They also bring back three of the top four receivers and the offensive line loses just two starters. After averaging 25.1 points per game last season, you would expect that number to go up with all of the experience back.
On defense, the front seven loses just two starters and should be a strength for a team that gave up nearly 200 yards per game on the ground last season (196, 4.6 average). The secondary is breaking in two new starters at the corner spots but do have experience at the safety spot in seniors Leroy Clark and Robert Gregory. Overall, the defense should be better than it was last year.
The problem for Hazell is the schedule. Their toughest games all come in a six week stretch starting on October 15th when Iowa comes knocking. Purdue should be improved over last season, but it’s hard to see them climbing more than one or two spots in the West standings.
Toughest Games: vs Iowa (10/15), @ Nebraska (10/22), vs Penn State (10/29), @ Minnesota (11/5), vs Northwestern (11/12), vs Wisconsin (11/19)
Division Winner- Iowa Hawkeyes
The Hawkeyes do have some questions to answer on the offensive side of the ball. Their schedule is more difficult than it was last year. That said, Kirk Ferentz’s squad has a veteran quarterback, experience at the skill positions and a solid defense. They won’t go 12-0 and be undefeated heading to Indy for the title game, but I do still believe they’ll get there. The main reason is that they play their toughest opponents (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern) at home. Meanwhile, the other contenders for the division title have a majority of their most difficult games on the road. Plus, CJ Beathard is the best quarterback on this side of the division. Iowa advances to take on Michigan in the title game.
Unlike last year, these two would have actually met during the regular season. I give Michigan the edge here because of the strength in the trenches on both sides of the ball. While Iowa is replacing its two defensive ends and two key interior offensive linemen, Michigan has two top defensive ends back, two good defensive tackles back from injury and add the nation’s top recruit (Rashan Gary) while on the offensive line they return four out of five starters (one more than Iowa). Despite having to break in a new QB, by this time of the year, that QB will have a season’s worth of experience. The Wolverines win the Big Ten. (Again as I said in the East preview, I already hate this pick and the Buckeyes will likely make me look stupid come December).
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.