LINCOLN — The Big Ten West has an overwhelming favorite this season: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have earned the right after finishing 12-2 last season and winning games at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern. They’ve earned it by returning the division’s most consistent quarterback and enough good pieces on defense.
But just how far ahead is Iowa from the rest of the division? Who could be there to win the West should the Hawkeyes slip up or lose quarterback C.J. Beathard to injury? Is Nebraska really not much of a contender, as the Big Ten Network’s Gerry DiNardo suggests?
In “How the Big Ten West is Won,” we look at seven categories: overall talent, quarterback, coaching track record, defensive playmakers, returning starters, schedule and past performance.
I ranked the five most likely Big Ten West contenders — Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin. I didn’t include Illinois and Purdue, which almost unanimously project to finish in some order of sixth and seventh. Last season, I didn’t rank Iowa or Northwestern, which turned out to be an error, but it’s hard to conceive a scenario where the Illini or Boilermakers play for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis.
Nebraska’s five-year average recruiting class rank is 28.4 according to 247Sports’ composite service, which is much better than Wisconsin (41.6), Northwestern (52), Iowa (53.2) or Minnesota (58.6). But those recruiting rankings don’t tell the whole truth, as many of the players in those classes left the program early. NU has nine former walk-ons currently on scholarship and a big glut of offensive and defensive linemen who haven’t contributed much to the program despite their time in it. Wisconsin and Iowa don’t tend to have as much skill talent as Nebraska — certainly not at wide receiver, and perhaps, in Wisconsin’s case, not at defensive back, either — but the Badgers and Hawkeyes know how to recruit and develop line players and linebackers. Minnesota is a small cut below that top four after losing some excellent defensive players off last season’s team.
With lesser skill talent, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard won six more games than Tommy Armstrong and Mitch Leidner and took much better care of the ball. On their best days, Armstrong and Leidner are more dangerous, better players, but Beathard is steadier. Armstrong and Leidner are a cut below, followed by Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson — who’s reportedly had a good camp, but has to prove that in game play after a rough 2015 — and Bart Houston, who earned the starting nod at Wisconsin.
Coaching track record
Kirk Ferentz has had three peaks in his career — 2002-04, 2008-10 and once again in 2015. That’s impressive, even if he’s had some lulls here and there. Ferentz’s program has a clear identity — boring offense, bend-but-don’t-break defense — that will work in the West. Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald is one of the nation’s better, more underrated coaches. The Wildcats had pretty embarrassing practice facilities until recently, and the academic standards at the school mean Fitzgerald can’t recruit some of the nation’s best players. Both coaches beat Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road last season — with lesser teams and lesser talent — so that, in itself, says quite a bit. Northwestern and Iowa often have impeccable preparation, if not impeccable talent.
Nebraska’s Mike Riley has a long, impressive career at Oregon State — where the resources were just about as meager as they were at Northwestern. But there were also discouraging moments last season when the Huskers let some winnable games slip away. He and his staff aren’t far from Northwestern and Iowa, and they’ll get a chance to prove that this season with road games at both schools.
Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys is a first-time head coach, and he had a mixed track record last season, essentially botching a late-game scenario against Michigan. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst more or less won all the games his elite defense allowed him to last season, but coordinator Dave Aranda left for LSU. Chryst, breaking in a new starter at quarterback and a new defensive coordinator, will get a true test this season with a tough schedule.
It’s tough to decide between the top two, so they tie. Iowa has the Big Ten’s best cornerback in Desmond King, a savvy linebacker in Josey Jewell and a top defensive tackle in Jaleel Johnson. Don’t overlook corner Greg Mabin, either. At Northwestern, the league’s best linebacker, Anthony Walker, patrols the middle, while the Wildcats could have a sneaky good defensive line with Ifeadi Odenigbo, Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson — one of the Big Ten’s top recruits in the 2015 class. Wisconsin and Nebraska — at least for now — are a notch below. The Badgers’ most versatile linebacker, T.J. Edwards, is currently out, but Vince Biegel and Jack Cichy, two elite blitzers, are back. Wisconsin has a good corner, too, in Sojourn Shelton. At Nebraska, Nate Gerry figures to be a big playmaker, as will the linebackers and corner Joshua Kalu. NU doesn’t seem to yet have that top-shelf pass rusher. Minnesota may have very good defensive coaching, but the team’s three best defenders in 2015 graduated.
According to Phil Steele, each team returns between 12 and 13 starters. Wisconsin is the only one that doesn’t return a true starting quarterback. Nebraska returns the best wideouts. Iowa returns the best key defenders. Minnesota returns its quarterback, but loses key defenders and the team’s best (by far) wideout. Northwestern returns a little bit of everything, including the best running back of the bunch, Justin Jackson.
All Big Ten West teams have five road games. The Badgers have the hardest schedule in the Big Ten by some margin, opening with games at Michigan State and Michigan before a bye week and a run of Ohio State, at Iowa, Nebraska and at Northwestern. Ouch! Northwestern’s road schedule — at Iowa, MSU, OSU, Purdue and Minnesota — is pretty stingy. Nebraska’s schedule is pretty manageable — a road game at Indiana isn’t bad, and NU gets Wisconsin at a good time — but that game at Ohio State makes it just a little harder than Iowa, which hosts Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, and Minnesota, which travels to Nebraska and Wisconsin late in the season after both teams could be beaten up a bit. The Gophers do not get a bye week during Big Ten play.
Wisconsin has won 49 games over the last five seasons, followed by Nebraska (43), Iowa (38), Northwestern (36) and Minnesota (31). The Gophers have probably had the hardest schedules over that stretch, with Wisconsin and Iowa having it a little easier. Northwestern’s track record suggests that a dip is coming after the 10-win season. Iowa ties with Nebraska by virtue of most recent success in 2015. Nevertheless, Wisconsin is the most consistent program in the Big Ten West over an extended period of time.
Adding it all up
» The margins in each category are weighed differently. Iowa has only a marginally better quarterback than Minnesota and Nebraska, while Wisconsin, by far, has the hardest schedule in the free world. The Badgers’ slate is so hard and rigorous, in fact, that it’s basically impossible to pick them.
» Iowa wins the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are a confident pick — more confident than either of the last two seasons for me. I picked Iowa in 2014 — the Hawkeyes lost close games to Wisconsin and Nebraska to end the season — and Wisconsin last season. The Badgers’ quarterback play — Joel Stave! — cost them wins over Iowa and Northwestern. This season, Iowa has the best quarterback, a coaching staff that’s gelled and perhaps the best defense it has enjoyed since 2009.
» The pick at No. 2 is tough. Nebraska gets the slight nod there. If Wisconsin’s schedule wasn’t quite as stiff, the Badgers might be the pick. Northwestern should, by all accounts, sustain its success from last season — unless you chew on how many close games the Wildcats won, and the program’s tendency to achieve more in big games on the road than it does at home. This could be Minnesota’s year to make a surge, but the Gophers may not have quite the horses.
» The final tally, after a full training camp: