Iowa won the Big Ten West last year and the Hawkeyes have every intention of doing it again in 2016. Is that realistic? It certainly seems so, and that optimism runs rampant on the Iowa City campus, of course.
But there’s optimism in others places as well throughout the Big Ten West. Here’s a look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the seven teams in the Big Ten West.
To clarify, these spectrum predictions only include the 12-game regular season and Big Ten championship on the first Saturday of December, if applicable.
For the East division’s best/worst-case-scenario projections, click here.
Best-Case Scenario: 12-1 (Big Ten champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 9-3
The senior-laden Hawkeyes, led by QB C.J. Beathard (2,809 yards passing, 23 TDs last year) and eight returning starters on defense, are the prohibitive favorites to repeat in the Big Ten West. And that’s because the Hawkeyes are loaded with talent and have a favorable schedule.
It’s a coin flip on which school has the better secondary — Iowa or Michigan (featuring stud performers Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis)? Senior-to-be Desmond King notched eight interceptions for the Hawkeyes last season, while also taking home the Jim Thorpe Award (nation’s best defensive back).
Fueled by a blah non-conference schedule (Miami of Ohio, Iowa State, North Dakota State) and pedestrian league slate early on, Iowa could easily begin the season at 7-0 in advance of its home showdown with Wisconsin (Oct. 22).
Plus, Iowa garners my vote for the conference’s easiest road schedule in 2016 — with doable trips to Rutgers, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State and Illinois.
The Hawkeyes only have one encounter with the Big Ten’s power trio (Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan) — a Nov. 12 home date with the Wolverines.
Best-Case Scenario: 10-3 (Big Ten West champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 7-5
Northwestern has a wealth of returning starters from last year’s 10-win club, including QB Clayton Thorson, tailback Justin Jackson (1,580 total yards, 5 TDs) and linebacker Anthony Walker (4 sacks, 19 tackles for loss).
The Wildcats should have one of the league’s most formidable front sevens, highlighted by Parker, linebacker Jaylen Prater and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. In 2015, Northwestern enjoyed top-30 national rankings with total defense (13th), rushing defense (21st), passing yards allowed (23rd) and red-zone defense (28th).
During October, Northwestern has three daunting road games with Iowa (Oct. 1), Michigan State (Oct. 15) and Ohio State (Oct. 22), along with one home date against Indiana. This should explain why the Hawkeyes are comfortable favorites in the West.
It’s imperative for Thorson (51-percent passer, 12 total TDs last year) to take a big leap forward from his freshman campaign. If Justin Jackson genuinely wants to flirt with 1,600 yards rushing, the Wildcats’ passing attack must become a respectable complement to that.
Incredibly, Northwestern posted double-digits wins last season with an offense that ranked 114th nationally (19.5 points per game). Let’s not tempt that kind of fate in consecutive years.
Best-Case Scenario: 9-4 (Big Ten West champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 7-5
Tommy Armstrong Jr. stands as the Big Ten’s returning leader in passing yards (3,030) and passing touchdowns (22). Armstrong (6,691 yards passing, 53 passing TDs) is also on the precipice of breaking Taylor Martinez’s school record for career passing TDs (56).
The senior-to-be came up big against formidable foes last year — 319 yards passing, three TDs vs. BYU, 309 yards passing, four TDs against Miami (Fla.) and 320 yards and four TDs against Michigan State.
Tailback Terrell Newby succeeded in his first go-round of the post-Ameer Abdullah era, accounting for 924 total yards and seven touchdowns last season. And if he can match last year’s tally of 5.2 yards per rush — along with a bump of 50 touches — Newby would be a good bet for 1,000 yards rushing.
Nebraska is loaded with senior pass-catchers this fall, highlighted by Jordan Westerkamp (65 catches, 918 yards, 7 TDs in 2015), Alonzo Moore (six TDs last season) and Brandon Reilly (40 catches, 754 yards, 4 TDs).
In other words, the stage has been set for Armstrong to enjoy the finest passing season in Nebraska history.
The Cornhuskers’ schedule has two back-to-back land mines: It’ll be an incredible change of pace, style-wise, for Nebraska to host lightning-fast Oregon on Sept. 17 and then travel to methodical Northwestern the following Saturday.
And later in the fall, the consecutive road trips to Wisconsin and Ohio State could greatly hinder Nebraska’s chances of a Big Ten West title.
Best-Case Scenario: 8-5 (Big Ten West champs)
Worst-Case Scenario: 6-6
Let’s begin with some brutal honesty: It’ll be a minor miracle if Wisconsin drops only four games during the regular season and still competes for the West division crown.
- The opener with LSU (my pick for the national championship) will likely result in a loss.
- From Sept. 24 to Nov. 5, Wisconsin has a murderer’s row stretch of Michigan State (road), Michigan (road), Ohio State (home), Iowa (road), Nebraska (home) and Northwestern (road).
This fall, the Badgers may have the worst quarterbacking situation of any Big Ten program. Senior Bart Houston has attempted only 51 college passes and freshman Alex Hornibrook would be placed into an untenable position as the full-time starter — given the scheduling difficulties.
Tailback Corey Clements (career average: 6.6 yards per carry) must remain healthy throughout the season, if the Badgers are going to flirt with a division title. It’s one thing to have the rushing chops of Michael Bennett, Montee Ball, John Clay, Brian Calhoun, James White or Melvin Gordon, but it’s another to consistently stay on the field and perform.
Wisconsin’s defense (ranked 2nd nationally) was superb last year, allowing an average of 11.9 points in the final 12 games. But will that dominance carry over to the 2016 season, in lieu of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda bolting for LSU?
Best-Case Scenario: 8-4
Worst-Case Scenario: 6-6
With Tracy Claeys now serving as the full-time head coach – replacing the retired Jerry Kill – it’ll be interesting to see how Minnesota approaches the next phase of its development. Luckily, the Golden Gophers have quarterback Mitch Leidner back for what seems like his 18th college season, or something like that.
All kidding aside, Leidner (2,701 yards passing, 20 total TDs) tallied at least one touchdown 12 times last season. He also crossed the 300-yard passing threshold on back-to-back weekends against Nebraska and Michigan.
The Golden Gophers should have one of the Big Ten’s best linebacker groupings (starring Jack Lynn, Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin); and the offensive line (three returning starters) could be a major surprise in 2016, if JUCO transfer Garrison Wright deftly handles the left tackle slot.
Minnesota has a decent shot at going 6-1 with home games this fall, with Iowa serving as the lone defeat. Of equal importance, the Gophers don’t have Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State on the docket.
Best-Case Scenario: 6-6
Worst-Case Scenario: 4-8
My Illinois optimism stems from two major sources — quarterback Wes Lunt (a potential star at the NFL level someday) and head coach Lovie Smith (one of the most successful and respected NFL head coaches of the last decade).
After that, the Fighting Illini are a hit-or-miss operation.
The Illinois defense allowed 30-plus points just twice last season. That’s the good news, along with the graduate-transfer addition of Hardy Nickerson Jr.
On the down side, the Illini return only four defensive starters in 2016, headlined by linemen Dawuane Smoot (7 sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss) and Chunky Clements (11.5 tackles for loss).
Tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn rushed for 723 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman, including a 180-yard, two-TD demolition of Purdue. In that game, Lunt (Big Ten leader in pass completions/pass attempts last season) tallied three TD passes.
On the scheduling front, Illinois could be staring at a 1-4 situation with road games, the result of daunting trips to Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The only 50/50 game of the bunch: At Rutgers on Oct. 15.
If the Illini have any chance of becoming bowl-eligible (six wins), they must sweep the non-conference slate of Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan.
Best-Case Scenario: 5-7
Worst-Case Scenario: 2-10
It doesn’t take a college football insider to know that head coach Darrell Hazell could lose his job later this fall, if Purdue gets stuck on two victories once again. During the Hazell era (6-30 overall), the Boilermakers have a deplorable 2-22 conference mark.
As Hazell approaches Year 4 in West Lafayette, the seeds of his long-term rebuilding project are slowly being sown. The Boilermakers return 16 starters from last season and have a reasonable-upside sophomore at quarterback with David Blough.
Blough, a Texas native similar to former Purdue great Drew Brees, passed for 1,574 yards and 10 TDs amid limited exposure last year.
Two games stand out from the pack: Carving up Bowling Green for 340 yards and three touchdowns and then accounting for 356 total yards and five TDs in the Boilermakers’ wild upset of Nebraska.
Purdue has a chance at four-plus wins, thanks to a favorable schedule: The Boilermakers open with five winnable games (Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada, Maryland, Illinois); and of greater importance, Purdue doesn’t face Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.