2015 Big Ten West Division Preview


Heading into a new season where the National Champion is sitting pretty in your rival division is never the way you’d like to start your campaign, but that’s what the Big Ten West Division as in store for them as they and the rest of the East Division prepare to take down Ohio State, college football’s first-ever Playoff Champions.

While the Big Ten doesn’t get the national recognition that the SEC does in terms of powerhouse football, it annually hosts some of the greatest games, and most polarizing upsets (Appalachian State, anyone?).

Wisconsin has traditionally enjoyed success in the young West Division, playing in three of the four Big Ten Championship games, and again are favorites to win the division this year. However, 2015 could spell a different ending for the Badgers, with teams like Minnesota and Nebraska looking to live up to preseason national hype being ranked in many Top-25 polls.

Let’s take a peek at how the Badgers and their divisional foes look heading into the 2015 campaign.

As mentioned before, Wisconsin is no stranger to Big Ten success, having been in three of the first four conference championship games. Strangely for the Badgers, 2015 is a year of change for the Big Ten Juggernauts.

First-year head coach Paul Chryst chose to return to his roots and leave Pittsburgh after three years to take over for the abruptly departed Gary Andersen (Oregon State). Chryst inherits a program that just lost the 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up, and the school’s third all-time leading rusher Melvin Gordon to the NFL Draft, as well as two of his best blockers, including Rob Havenstein.

While losing Gordon is a huge blow, Junior tailback Corey Clement is more than ready to step in a take over as the team’s bell cow, as you’ll see below.


Defense shouldn’t be a worry for the Badgers, who are expected to return eight starters, including their entire secondary. It’s offensively where the question marks lie, having only one returning offensive lineman and an expected quarterback controversy could be an ugly start to Chryst’s return to Madison.

The season opener against Alabama is going to be an early test, and maybe the toughest of the season for Wisconsin, who hosts five of the next six games following their battle with the Crimson Tide.

No Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State will make for a relieving schedule after their uphill opener.

Nebraska chose to fire former head coach Bo Pelini after four consecutive nine-win seasons, seemingly falling short of the school’s desire to compete for a National Championship. Nebraska was involved in somewhat of a coaching musical chairs that intertwined with Wisconsin, landing Mike Riley from Oregon State, who hired Gary Andersen from Wisconsin.

Outside of losing Pelini, the school is currently coping with the loss of powerhouse tailback Ameer Abdullah, who left for the draft and was ultimately selected by the Detroit Lions.

There’s no questioning that Abdullah’s departure is a big blow offensively for Nebraska, but the team has at least two runners who are capable of handling the load in Imani Cross (5.1 YPC last season), and Terrell Newby.

The Cornhuskers are expected to return six starters offensively, and eight defensively, notably quarterback Tommy Armstrong, and senior David Santos defensively.

Speaking of defense, the Huskers lost star EDGE rusher Randy Gregory to the NFL draft, a loss that’s sure to leave a gaping hole. Luckily, the team returns two stud interior defensive lineman, and leadership in the linebacking corp.

Dec 27, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers defensive back Nate Gerry (25) looks across the line during the first quarter against the USC Trojans in the 2014 Holiday Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

After losing a few leaders in the secondary, a player to keep an eye on is Nate Gerry this season. Gerry should have a huge impact defensively for Nebraska, and could earn himself conference-wide recognition come seasons’ end.

It’s not always who you play, but how you play them, and that’s been the story year after year for Nebraska, but 2015 welcomes them with a very favorable home schedule.

Could this finally be the year Nebraska creeps out of the shadows of a nine-win season and earns themselves a shot at the Big Ten Championship? Only time will tell, but having home games against BYU, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State, and Iowa only helps their cause.

If you’re a Wisconsin fan, you know all too well how close your season came to being an absolute failure thanks to the Golden Gophers.

First things first, replacing standout running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams is not going to be an easy task. Both Rodrick Williams and Berkley Edwards are going to be called upon in traditional “moneyball” fashion as a duo to replace what Cobb produced on the field.

The Gophers are expected to return seven offensive starters, and seven defensive starters including 2014 All-Big Ten defensive back

Sep 13, 2014; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun (29) intercepts a pass against TCU Horned Frogs wide receiver David Porter (14) in the second quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports


Three returning offensive lineman, as well as quarterback Mitch Leidner only increases the chance of returned success for 2015.

If you’re a Gopher fan, you’re probably already biting your fingernails looking at your post-bye week schedule that includes Michigan, followed by consecutive road games against Ohio State and Iowa. Depending on how that stretch of games plays out, the season finale at home against Wisconsin could determine who represents the west division in the 2015 Big Ten Championship.

On paper it doesn’t look all too great for Minnesota to pull the type of magic off that they (nearly) did last season, but the beauty of college football is that the magic is made on the field, not a preseason preview article.

Is there anyone in college football that gets more of a pass for underperforming that Kirk Ferentz? That’s a discussion for another day.

Ferentz’s first order of business heading into the 2015 campaign is deciding who he’s going to have quarterbacking his team. With Jake Rudock headed to Michigan, will CJ Beathard take the reins for the Hawkeyes?

Sep 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback C.J. Beathard (16) hands the ball of against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The Hawkeyes won 24-20. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, it might not matter who’s under center, especially if they’re on the ground the majority of the time they’re on the field. Losing All-American and Top-10 pick Brandon Scherff and his counterpart Andrew Donnal might prove to be one major blow too many. The light at the end of the tunnel in this situation for Iowa is that they are returning the entire interior of their offensive line, something that can’t be said about their defense.

The losses of Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat is only going to make standout defensive end Drew Ott‘s job harder; a player Iowa is heavily relying on to be a stud in 2015.

Outside of Ott, cornerback Desmond King returns to school in hopes of cementing himself as one of the top-tier corners in the country, a mutual feeling shared with the coaching staff, one would assume.

Despite major losses on both sides of the ball, Iowa has a very favorable schedule in 2015, with home games in five of their first eight games, and powerhouses like Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State are absent from the slate.

Major road games against Wisconsin and Nebraska will be marquee tests for the Hawkeyes, a team that’s desperate for a magical season after losing four out of their last five games, and boasting an unimpressive 15-17 record in conference play since the Big Ten expanded and split into divisions four years ago.

Whew. Tim Beckham went through the ringer this offseason by many of his former players and colleagues; not exactly the type of offseason you want when heading into a make-or-break season.

Producing just four wins in conference play since inception in 2011, isn’t exactly something to be proud of. However, Beckham’s Illini teams have improved by two wins each year since his first season in 2010, where they won just two games.

Quarterback Wes Lunt, the former Oklahoma State gunslinger returns after a leg injury shortened his 2014 campaign, and tailback Josh Ferguson returns after nearly amassing 1,200 yards on the ground.

Wide receiver Mike Dudek also returns, posting just over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last season.

Illinois has a rather favorable schedule in 2015, with home games against Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Ohio state, but the Illini do face tough road tasks against North Carolina, Iowa, Penn State, and Minnesota. It’ll be interesting to see if they can take advantage of their home field and sneak out an upset or two, albeit unlikely considering who’s coming to town.

With key returning starters on offense, it’s up to Beckham’s defensive unit to hold their own in the aforementioned home slate against some of the conference’s top teams. It’s no secret that Beckham was on thin ice before late-season upset victories. With a solid in-tact offense that will hopefully feature a healthy Wes Lunt, Illinois could sneak into a late bowl game with a few surprising victories, and maybe Beckham can thicken his job security, too.

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald made a promise when he came back to Northwestern as head coach, that he would have the program annually competitive near the top of the Big Ten. In 2012, it looked as though Fitzgerald was taking the program to new heights after a 10-win season. However, the Wildcats have only won 10 total games since then, with 14 losses.

With dual-threat quarterback Cain Kolter now gone, quarterback now becomes the biggest hole to fill. It’s a race likely between Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti, but redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson could emerge if given the reps in practice to show what he’s capable of.

Defense has always been Fitzgerald’s focus in Northwestern, and despite losing the likes of Chi Chi Ariguzo and safety Ibraheim Campbell, expect the Wildcats to boast a competitive defensive unit.

Nov 22, 2014; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (28) breaks through the line against the Purdue Boilermakers in the first half at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Tailback Justin Jackson returns on offense, coming off a 10 touchdown season where he ran for 1,187 yards.

Northwestern opens up their season at home against a tough Stanford Cardinal team, and most of their featured games are on the road against the likes of Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin. The home schedule does have some chances for upsets against Minnesota and Penn State.

Once considered a top candidate for major coaching openings across the country, Fitzgerald has fizzled out a little bit, and could use 2015 as his marquee year to boost himself back into consideration for some of the nation’s top jobs.

After a dismal one-win campaign under head coach Darrell Hazell, the Boilermakers improved in 2014 by two wins, totaling a 3-9 record, with one in-conference victory.

Quarterback Austin Appelby is expected to remain under center as the starter, but not without competition from both Danny Etling and redshirt freshman David Bough. Offense isn’t exactly the strong point on this overall weak team, considering the leading rusher on the roster had less than 200 total yards on the ground last season, in tailback Keynote Green, who’s expected to take over for the departed Akeem Hunt.

Nov 8, 2014; West Lafayette, IN, USA; Purdue Boilermakers quarterback Austin Appleby (12) checks the scoreboard at Ross Ade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Purdue’s schedule is full of big games, including home games against Virginia Tech, Minnesota, and Nebraska. The real tests for the Boilermakers will be road ventures against Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa. If Purdue can pull at least one upset at home as well on the road against some of those top teams, they could be looking at yet another improving season under the third-year alumni coach.

Be sure to stay tuned as we continue to break down each conference with in-depth roster analysis, schedule predictions, and player highlights, with the Big Ten East Division Preview to follow next.

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