Welcome to the division of wacky flux. Since Christmas, the Big Ten West has seen two new head coaches, three new offensive coordinators and four new defensive coordinators — including a pair of high-profile new faces (Bobby Diaco at Nebraska, Jim Leonhard at Wisconsin) at some high-profile places.
But the more things change, the more they kind of stay the same. Wisconsin will be missing breakout stars from its division and Cotton Bowl champions, but the bulk of the starters return. Iowa has to find a starting quarterback, but key pieces such as tailback Akrum Wadley and linebacker Josey Jewell figure to be pulling the sled in the right direction.
Nebraska is doubling down on the #Calibraska movement as Mike Riley’s roster gets younger and faster. With workhorse tailback Justin Jackson back in the fold, Northwestern is tapped by some as a potential division sleeper. Minnesota is perhaps the most mercurial crew, on paper, with two straight bowl wins but a run of off-field chaos that led to coach Tracy Claeys’ ouster.
Lovie Smith is rolling up his sleeves after a sobering first season at Illinois, while new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm might be the best under-the-radar hire of any Power 5 school.
As the Big Ten West teams get preparations for the 2017 season underway, questions abound. Which one is the biggest of the offseason for each of the seven teams? Let’s review them, in order of finish from the 2016 season.
Wisconsin (11-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
Can a retooled secondary take the next step?
A new pair of edge rushers are going to have to be found with T.J. Watt jumping to the NFL and Vince Biegel’s eligibility exhausted, and every half-second counts when the front seven bring the heat. Former coordinator Justin Wilcox’s frenetic 3-4 attack rushed dozens of throws, but it also sometimes left defensive backs on an island: The Badgers led the Big Ten last fall in interceptions (22) but ranked 12th in passing first downs allowed (130) and wound up tied for 10th in passes of 25 yards or more surrendered (26).
It was more feast than famine for then-first-year defensive backs coach Leonhard, who was promoted to Wilcox’s old slot earlier this month, but the new coordinator is going to have to replace not only Watt and Biegel but ball-hawking safety Leo Musso (five interceptions) and speedy corner Sojourn Shelton (four picks). Was the second-half meltdown in the Big Ten title game against Penn State constructive or destructive?
Iowa (8-5, 6-3)
Meet the new boss — same as the old boss?
A dozen years ago, Brian Ferentz was helping to run Ken O’Keefe’s offense in Iowa City as a center and captain. Fast forward to 2017, and Ferentz is now the offensive coordinator and O’Keefe, who was the Hawkeyes’ offensive coordinator from 1999-2011, is back in the fold as quarterbacks coach.
Given that this is the first time Ferentz, Kirk’s son, is pushing the buttons as a collegiate coordinator, adding key veteran voices to the mix would seem to be a prudent move. But it also raises the question of whether Iowa is turning the clock back to the framework of a decade earlier, when O’Keefe built up some of his own detractors and plays were predictable to point of occasionally being called out in advance by beat writers in the press box. Ferentz the younger has promised to stick to the program’s trademarks — zone blocking, power running, tight ends, the play-action game — but it’ll be interesting to see what wrinkles, if any, get worked into the mix. After years of grumbling about Greg Davis among the blogosphere, what’s old is new again. For better or worse.
Nebraska (9-4, 6-3)
Who fills Tommy Armstrong Jr.’s cleats?
Injuries forced No. 4 to limp to the finish, but you don’t replace 44 starts at quarterback and six major Cornhuskers career records overnight. The cupboard isn’t bare for coach Mike Riley in Year 3 — but it is untested.
In the three-man race under center, only Tulane transfer Tanner Lee, a redshirt junior, has prior collegiate experience (19 games with the Green Wave, 23 passing touchdowns, 21 interceptions). But Patrick O’Brien’s redshirt was fiercely protected for a reason, making him one of the most intriguing faces to watch in spring ball. And incoming freshman Tristan Gebbia brings tools, swagger and poise beyond his years to an already crowded party.
Minnesota (9-4, 5-4)
How long before P.J. Fleck hits a wall?
A bundle of electricity and a stark personality contrast to soft-spoken predecessor Claeys, Fleck hit the ground running last month and hasn’t stopped shaking hands, kissing babies and trying to curry favor from a pro-first, skeptical Twin Cities market. The Gophers are also trying to navigate the public-relations fallout from the university investigation that led to Claeys’ dismissal, and it remains to be seen how deeply the collateral damage from two year-long suspensions and four expulsions will be felt.
Before Claeys was elevated from 2015 interim to 2016 head coach, the previous Gophers football hires averaged 2.3 victories in their first seasons at the helm, so perhaps initial expectations need a reality check. It’s hard to imagine a program with pieces such as Steven Richardson and Rodney Smith falling off the table, though, and if the Gophers can ride that honeymoon vibe through to back-to-back road trips to Iowa (Oct. 28) and Michigan (Nov. 4), the first year of Fleck could push the ceiling as well as the envelope.
Northwestern (7-6, 5-4)
Was Clayton Thorson’s 2016 emergence about Thorson — or about Austin Carr?
Perhaps truth lies in the middle, but there’s no understating just how valuable Carr was at wide receiver as a senior, accounting for 32 percent of the Wildcats’ catches, 55 percent of their passing touchdowns and 40 percent of their passing first downs. The partnership proved especially fruitful for Thorson, who after a shaky first three weeks of the season threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns — the latter a single-season school record.
The Wildcats’ passing game had the go-to safety net it badly lacked in 2015, the kind that has proven fruitful in Evanston over the last 15 years or so, from Ross Lane and Eric Peterman to Zeke Markshausen to Jeremy Ebert. A poor man’s Julian Edelman/Wes Welker type is out there somewhere on the Northwestern roster — Flynn Nagel? Andrew Scanlan? — and the sooner he’s found, the better for the young signal-caller at the controls.
Illinois (3-9, 2-7)
How soon will the new faces, the new blood, start to make an impact?
The euphoria over Lovie Smith’s hire faded quickly once it became clear that the roster on hand was still a Tim Beckman roster — with Tim Beckman flaws.
Like a rebuilding Major League Baseball franchise, the focus is on the next generation of kids in the pipeline, including early enrollees Delshawn Phillips at linebacker, a junior-college transfer, and Carmoni Green, a 6-foot-1 wideout out of Miami. Both are candidates to crack the two-deep this summer. With wideouts Dre Brown and Mike Dudek still recovering from knee surgeries, Green and Ricky Smalling, a 3-star receiver out of greater Chicago, figure to get long looks, and Phillips has been ticketed as one of the most likely replacements for departing senior middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
Purdue (3-9, 1-8)
Can Jeff Brohm’s ‘quarterback-whisperer’ mystique turn the corner for David Blough?
While Western Kentucky quarterbacks averaged 46 touchdowns and 8.5 interceptions the last two years at Brohm’s old stomping grounds, Blough has averaged 17.5 touchdowns and 14.5 picks.
The arm is there. The package is there. If Brohm can crack the code and Blough can find another gear, the Boilermakers have the potential to jump from interesting and irrelevant to interesting and downright scary.