Missed the first part of Joey Ellis’s Big Ten capsules? The East can be found here.
Wisconsin Badgers (2017 record: 13-1, 9-0 Big Ten)
In 2017 the Badgers rolled untouched through the Big Ten West before falling to Ohio State in Indianapolis in the Big Ten Championship game. Wisconsin was able to cap off the year on a positive note with an encouraging 34-24 Orange Bowl victory over a solid Miami squad.
Aside from losing several players to the NFL, the Badgers will return the bulk of their starters this season, including their Big Ten-leading rusher sophomore Jonathan Taylor. All five starting offensive lineman will be back in Madison, of which three were named All-Americans last year. That line could be the best in the nation. New quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr is hoping for even more production from redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook. Hornibrook will have a surplus of weapons to throw to, with the Badgers’ top four statistical contributors returning, most notably Quintez Cephus, who finished last year as an all-conference honorable mention. Defensively, the Badgers need to replace eight starters, but should be solid right up the gut with Olive Sagapolu, inside backers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly, and safety D’Cota Dixon all returning. In his second season as defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard will have to find viable production at the outside linebacker position. With the graduation of Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, Leonhard will turn to his senior backer Andrew Van Ginkel. In his final two games of the postseason in 2017, Van Ginkel had two interceptions, including a pick-six against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, and a momentum-shifting interception against Miami in the Orange Bowl.
Paul Chryst’s team will have an early divisional road test when they travel to Iowa City in Week 4, as well as two tough road games, playing in Ann Arbor and Happy Valley. Schedule aside, the Badgers will be the favorites to make it back to Indianapolis from the West and are very real College Football Playoff contenders.
Northwestern Wildcats (2017 record: 10-3, 7-2 Big Ten)
Northwestern was quite possibly the best 10-win team that no one paid much attention to last season, largely in part to Wisconsin steamrolling through the Big Ten West, taking the Wildcats out of any chance they had to win the division. While NU saw its all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson depart to the NFL, they do bring back senior quarterback Clayton Thorson, who ranked fourth amongst Big Ten quarterbacks in terms of total passing yards (2,844). Pat Fitzgerald’s defense should be a group that has plenty of All-Big Ten talent at all three levels. Joe Graziano and Samdup Miller both return, forming one of the youngest and most productive edge-rushing duos in the Big Ten, combining for 14.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries in 2017. Linebacker depth may be a concern, but Third Team All-Big Ten backer Paddy Fisher returns alongside Nate Hall to be one of the league’s top units. Junior cornerback Montre Hartage returns as a rising prospect on many NFL team’s boards, recording 10 plays on the ball a season ago, which is most among returning Big Ten corners, per Pro Football Focus.
With a bizarre season opener at Purdue and Notre Dame in early November, and trips to Iowa and Michigan State, the Wildcats’ schedule will definitely test them if they want to try to find their first conference title since 2000.
Purdue Boilermakers (2017 record: 7-6, 4-5 Big Ten)
Year 1 for Jeff Brohm in West Lafayette was a total success, as he resurrected the Boilermakers from a 3-9 mark in 2016 to a 7-6 finish in 2017, including an impressive Foster Farms Bowl win over Arizona. Season ticket sales are already on the upswing for Brohm’s Boilermakers as the fanbase has a rejuvenated excitement heading into the 2018 season.
Quarterback David Blough accounted for 1,103 yards and nine touchdowns and four interceptions in nine games, but is recovering from ankle surgery. Elijah Sindelar stepped in nicely for the injured Blough in 2017, who is expected to be back and ready to go come Purdue’s season opener Aug. 30 against Northwestern. The defense, which allowed 375.5 yards per play and ranked 52nd nationally, returns just 41 percent of its production from a season ago. Notable linebacker Markus Bailey and defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal form a solid returning nucleus, but PU will be without seven of its top ten tacklers from last year. Purdue will have lots of work to do on its defensive front, but the secondary should be solid, with redshirt freshman cornerbacks Kenneth Major and Dedrick Mackey looking to take the next step.
With plenty of uncertainty outside of Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, the Boilermakers have a solid home schedule, with games against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa that should give them ample opportunities to piece together an impressive résumé.
Iowa Hawkeyes (2017 record: 8-5, 4-5 Big Ten)
This Iowa team was one of the more puzzling teams in the country in 2017. Most notably speaking to the inconsistencies on the offensive side of the ball. The Hawkeyes were able to hang 55 and 56 points up on Ohio State and Nebraska, but then were stifled to 10, 14 and 15 points to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Purdue.
Offensively, Iowa needs to replace four starting lineman, a new bellcow with Akrum Wadley gone and most importantly, some offensive consistency. The one saving grace for the Hawkeyes in 2018 is that their fringe-NFL quarterback Nate Stanley is back under center. Stanley is coming off a solid sophomore campaign in which he threw 25 touchdown passes to just six interceptions. His 25 TD’s were third-best in the entire conference.
The Hawkeyes lost the heart and soul of their defense when linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann moved on, but keep an eye on Nick Niemann, Amani Jones and Jack Hockaday to step up in their absence. The secondary isn’t as much of a concern, with junior safety Armani Hooker showing he could be the next Hawkeye DB drafted, having shown flashes of an elite ballhawk last season. The Hawkeyes return four of their top five defensive ends, including former five-star A.J. Epenesa, who tallied 15 tackles. 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble as a true freshman last season.
Iowa has a favorable home schedule in terms of divisional play, with Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska all coming to Kinnick Stadium. They avoid cross-divisional games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, but they do travel to Happy Valley to battle Penn State. With Wisconsin seeming like the team to beat in the Big Ten West, a second-place finish in the division at the very worst is more than attainable for the Hawkeyes.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (2017 record: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten)
Nebraska finally has the coach it’s been long seeking in Scott Frost. Frost took UCF to an undefeated 13-0 “National Championship” season in 2017 and Huskers fans are hoping Frost can have the quick success he had at UCF in Lincoln.
Quarterback Tanner Lee left maybe prematurely to the NFL this past year, but early enrollee Adrian Martinez, one of the first marquee recruits signed under Frost, showed encouraging signs in their spring game that he could be the starter under center come Sept. 1. Nebraska could pose potentially the best (and most under-the-radar) wide receiver duo in the Big Ten in Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman. Morgan, who’s back for his senior year, led the conference with 89.6 receiving yards per game last year and his 10 touchdown receptions were second-best in the league. Spielman burst onto the scene last year in his freshman campaign, racking up 830 yards in 11 games.
After producing a conference-low 14 sacks last season, the defense, especially up front, will have to be much better to hang with high-powered offenses. The Cornhuskers won’t have an easy path, with their schedule being ranked as the nation’s toughest, according to some schedule rankings. The buzz is surely back in Lincoln with Frost returning to his alma mater, but just how quickly can he steer the Cornhuskers back to prominence among the nation’s top programs? The schedule is daunting, but I see no reason as to why Nebraska can’t finish the year 6-6 at the bare minimum.
Minnesota Golden Gophers (2017 record: 5-7, 2-7 Big Ten)
P.J. Fleck saw his former team Western Michigan improve its win total by seven games from his first year to his second year. That level of success seems unlikely for Fleck’s Golden Gophers, but a significant improvement is almost guaranteed.
Much of this team’s success will lie on quarterback play – a position that threw just seven touchdowns in league play last year. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan could be the guy to take strides under center, but that position isn’t the only unit that needs to see improvement in 2018. Tyler Johnson and Rodney Smith solidified themselves as legitimate offensive threats, but more playmakers need to emerge to compliment the playmaking abilities that Johnson and Smith provide.
Minnesota boasted the No. 37 defense in the country last season, and will lean on the formidable trio of Carter Coughlin, who led the team in sacks last year, Thomas Barber and junior safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who missed most of 2017 with a hamstring injury.
Like last year, the Golden Gophers will probably enter November battling for bowl eligibility. Fleck’s squad last year, a team that finished just 2-7 in Big Ten play, lacked depth and talent from top to bottom. 2018’s team should have much more talent to work with, but they’d really surprise people if they finish much better than 5-7.
Illinois Fighting Illini (2017 record: 2-10, 0-9 Big Ten)
Illinois had high hopes when they hired Lovie Smith two years ago, but after going just 5-19 in his first two seasons in Champaign, Year 3 for Smith could be his biggest yet. Smith’s spent the past two seasons with an incredibly young group, looking to develop some talent and find some pieces to build around.
With this plan comes major growing pains, but towards the end of last year’s 2-10 season, nearly 20 underclassmen were legitimate contributors in the starting rotation. After having the worst offense in the Big Ten last season, Smith is going to need his offensive line to grow up real quickly in 2018. Adding Virginia Tech graduate transfer quarterback AJ Bush will be a nice short-term option until star 2019 recruit Isaiah Williams gets on campus. True freshman Cam Thomas struggled mightily last season, throwing five interceptions and no touchdowns in four games. Thomas needs to show he’s an improved passer or else the starting job will be there for Bush to take. Most importantly, Smith is going to need great production from the quarterback position, a unit that combined to throw just eight touchdowns last season. Garrick McGee is out as offensive coordinator, and in comes former Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who’ll surely ratchet up the spread attack for a group that returns eight starters on the offensive side of the ball. Illinois hasn’t had a 1,00-yard rusher since 2010 (Mikel Leshoure), and the four returning backs from 2017 all combined for less than 800 last season.
Defensively, Isaiah Gay and Bobby Roundtree saw solid time at the end of the season as true freshman, and Tymir Oliver, coming off a 33-tackle sophomore year, should be a consistent contributor on the interior. After leading the team with 85 tackles last season, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is hoping for a huge senior season from his playmaking linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips. Having missed all of last season with an ACL injury, redshirt sophomore Jake Hansen should be back for the opener to offer some production at the linebacker spot. Picking off teams just nine times last season, Nickerson would love to see that number spike in 2018. As a true freshman, safety Bennett Williams led the team with three picks in 2017, and will be paired opposite of Stanley Green, another legit ballhawk in the Illini secondary.
Considering Smith inked a six-year deal, the program is willing to be patient with his plan, but fans are begging to see some significant improvement in his third season. The schedule won’t be easy, with an early home test against South Florida, and visits from Penn State and Iowa, and then a couple tough road games at Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern. If Smith can continue to work his magic with quarterbacks, and all the youngsters take a huge leap forward, this team should be a whole lot more competitive. I still don’t see more than four wins on their schedule.