We are a month away from the return of Big Ten football, which means it’s prediction season. While their are no real favorites to win the West this season, we are going to take you through each program and why they could finish on top.
No. 7: Northwestern
The Wildcats don’t have a lot going for them. Their run game is good, but not great. Then, they cannot stop the run on the other side of the ball. They are going to be the worst team in the West and maybe in the conference altogether, but they are bringing in a really strong recruiting class in 2023 that could begin the flip back towards the top. For now, expect another 3-9 or so season.
No. 6: Nebraska
This doesn’t make sense. The Cornhuskers continue to be one of the better recruiting teams in the West and earned several transfers who should improve this team. However, they still have failed to make adjustments to an offensive line that has been one of the worst in the country over the last couple seasons.
Scott Frost has been a massive letdown in Lincoln and he hasn’t given any reason to believe this year will be any different.
No. 5: Illinois
I think the top four in this conference have a real shot at representing the West, and the bottom three won’t be close. However, Bret Bielema has a history of winning in this conference, and he has to rebuild a program that has not been successful for a long time.
The way he previously got it done at Wisconsin was with major success running the ball. That will be the strong point for this Illini team with Chase Brown and Josh McCray who tallied more than 1,750 scrimmage yards combined last year. They may be on their way, but it’s not happening this year.
No. 4: Iowa
Kirk Ferentz is one of the best coaches in the country, and he is going to have a tough challenge ahead of him. The offense was anemic for the entire 2021 campaign, and they still got to Indy. Their most productive players on that side of the ball from a season ago, Tyler Goodson and Tyler Linderbaum, are now playing in the NFL. On top of that, a quarterback battle between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla awaits. There are a lot of things to sort out on that side of the ball.
The defense will carry this team, just as it has for the last two decades. Three starters return on the defensive line, and Jack Campbell, one of the best linebackers in the country. This should be one of the best defenses in the country yet again.
My question is if they can repeat their success in forcing turnovers. The Hawkeyes stole 31 possessions from opposing teams a season ago. Stats like that are very difficult to replicate, especially when your schedule consists of teams like Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan.
No. 3: Minnesota
I think P.J. Fleck gets some hype back this season. Tanner Morgan is somehow still the quarterback, even though it feels like he has been there for eight years, and they get running back Mohamed Ibrahim back from last year’s Achilles tear. The Gophers also get back pretty much every receiver and starting offensive lineman from last season. I expect them to put up a bunch of points against weaker opponents to start the year.
But their downfall is they play at Michigan State, at Penn State and at Wisconsin throughout the year. If they can squeeze out a win or two, they are going to be even closer to the top of this list, as long as they can protect their games at home.
No. 2: Purdue
Aidan O’Connell is the best quarterback in the Big Ten West. He finished with 3,712 yards last season, good enough for 11th in the nation. A 28-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio helped their productive offense last season. His return is monumental for the Boilermakers.
If they can play spoiler again in 2022, they could be even higher on this list. The Boilermakers avoid Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State this season. Their toughest Big Ten East opponent is Penn State, who they see in Week 1 at home. Their schedule is rather favorable, as their toughest road games are at Minnesota and at Wisconsin. They also get Nebraska, Iowa and Northwestern at home. If they can come out mostly unscathed, they are going to have a shot at the Big Ten Championship.
No. 1: Wisconsin
If you just look at the history of the divisions in the Big Ten, Wisconsin has dominated just as much as Ohio State, as both programs have six appearances in Indy. The Buckeyes have been much more successful at winning the game, but the success the Badgers have had is nothing to sniff at.
Jim Leonhard, the Badgers’ defensive coordinator, is one of the best in the business. Since he has taken over, the defense has ranked in the top 10 in opposing points per game in four of his five seasons. They lose a ton of talent with Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn heading to the next level, but there is still plenty of talent in Madison.
The questions come offensively where Graham Mertz, the most anticipated quarterback to come to Madison since Russell Wilson, has been a severe let down. His play will be the difference between a good and great team for the Badgers this season. They have arguably the best back in the country with Braelon Allen, so the quarterback play could go a very long way for Wisconsin this year.