Stanley Morgan

Much like Stanley Morgan, above, NU’s chances of moving past Wisconsin seem slim. The Badgers, with their best team since a title-contending 2011 squad and a favorable schedule, are the pick in the division.


LINCOLN — It wasn’t so long ago that Nebraska would have had some reason to sneer a little at Wisconsin.

The Big 12 rocked and rolled in the 2000s. Texas and Oklahoma led the way, but nearly every program had a turn, and even if NU’s decline in the decade stung — and it did — the decline was at least buoyed by a rising tide in the league as a whole. Maybe the SEC, once Nick Saban and Urban Meyer got there, could crow a bit more than the Big 12. The Big Ten? No.

So, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten, it did so with a jaunty step. Confidence. Remember?

A few body blows later, and NU looks up at Wisconsin, the unanimous favorite in the West Division this season. The Badgers are my pick, too, in the annual “how the West was won” breakdown.

Wisconsin wins despite changing coaches, coordinators and quarterbacks with stunning regularity since 2012. Since NU joined the league in 2011, Wisconsin has had:

» Three coaches, while Athletic Director/Badger legend Barry Alvarez twice coached the team in bowl games.

» Seven starting quarterbacks, with Joel Stave the only multi-year starter. And, remember, Stave got the throwing yips at the start of 2014.

» Different defensive coordinators in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Through all that, Wisconsin has averaged 10 wins per season since 2011. Nebraska averaged 8.67, which is pretty good. Not as good as Wisconsin.

The Badgers hold a 5-1 edge in head-to-head matchups. That accounts for the margin between the programs — what happens when they play each other.

Nebraska hosts Wisconsin this season — NU is 1-1 against the Badgers in Memorial Stadium. Maybe that will help the Huskers’ cause in one game, but, given Nebraska’s overall schedule, it will still have a hill to climb to knock Wisconsin from its perch in 2017.

The breakdown focuses on seven categories: overall talent, quarterback, defensive playmakers, coaching track record, returning starters, past performance and schedule.

OVERALL TALENT

1. Wisconsin

2. Nebraska

T3. Iowa

T3. Northwestern

5. Minnesota

Over its last five recruiting classes, Nebraska has an average class rank of 27, according to 247 Sports Composite service. Wisconsin is at 36.4, but the Badgers have developed those recruits better, especially along the offensive and defensive lines.

Nebraska may be in the process of changing that — and definitely has more talent at quarterback — but the Badgers have better running backs, a better No. 1 tight end, and close-to-similar wideouts this season, too.

It adds up to Wisconsin looking, off the bus, like the better football team. Nebraska is a notch ahead of Iowa (53) after the departure of a few key Hawkeye defenders.

Northwestern (51) always lags a little in the talent debate, while Minnesota (58) will be close to a rebuild. The Gophers’ fast-paced offense will expose the defense.

QUARTERBACK

1. Northwestern

2. Nebraska

3. Wisconsin

T4. Iowa

T4. Minnesota

Tanner Lee will make an impression on the Big Ten, and, at times, it’ll probably make an impression on him, too. He’s not at Tulane anymore. That’s why Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson, a talented guy with more mobility and two years’ experience in the Big Ten, gets the slight nod over Lee.

Thorson could be the Big Ten’s best pro quarterback prospect. Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook is a crafty lefty with good touch, but he’s a notch below Lee’s skill set and no more mobile than Lee is.

Iowa and Minnesota are in rebuilding mode at quarterback after long-term starters CJ Beathard and Mitch Leidner graduated.

DEFENSIVE PLAYMAKERS

1. Wisconsin

T2. Iowa

T2. Nebraska

T2. Northwestern

5. Minnesota

Even with the injury to Jack Cichy, Wisconsin is a slight cut above with the entire starting defensive line intact, middle linebacker TJ Edwards and outside linebacker Garret Dooley, who could have a breakout season.

At Nebraska, the defense is one year from a full bloom — the Huskers could be among the nation’s top 10 next season — but Joshua Kalu and Carlos Davis are two names to watch this year.

Iowa lost its top corner (Desmond King) and defensive lineman (Jaleel Johnson) to graduation but returns stalwart middle linebacker Josey Jewell. Freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa might be the Big Ten’s best newcomer.

Northwestern will be better on the defensive line and still has safety Godwin Igwebuike, who led the Wildcats with 108 tackles last season.

Minnesota brings up the rear despite defensive tackle Steven Richardson, whose fire hydrant build is similar to that of NFL star Aaron Donald.

COACHING TRACK RECORD

1. Iowa

T2. Wisconsin

T2. Northwestern

4. Nebraska

5. Minnesota

The Hawkeyes dropped the ball a bit last season in strange losses to Northwestern and North Dakota State, but Kirk Ferentz has built a dependable program that plays physical football and has a sum greater than its parts. He’s the longest-tenured coach in the Big Ten and chose to stay over the years rather than leave for somewhere closer to more talent.

Pat Fitzgerald has stabilized Northwestern and, more importantly, stayed until the Wildcats finally built a lakefront indoor practice facility. I’ve seen what Northwestern used to use. “Fitz” can coach. Better recruits will help.

Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst, long an elite offensive coordinator, proved something with the division title last season.

Nebraska coach Mike Riley’s original Husker staff didn’t show an immediate grasp of how to win in the Big Ten. The hiring of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco indicates Riley could take a big jump in the rankings.

Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck won a lot at Western Michigan. Winning at Minnesota will be a different story, but the dude can recruit. This is a strong group of coaches, closer bunched together than some other lists in the breakdown.

RETURNING STARTERS

1. Wisconsin

2. Northwestern

T3. Iowa

T3. Nebraska

T3. Minnesota

A word on Nebraska: Even if the Huskers get better at quarterback with Lee, a four-year starter and his three-year backup just left the building. So did three of the four top receivers, the top three tight ends and the leading rusher. So did the top sack man on the defensive line, the best overall defender in Nate Gerry, and two seasoned linebackers in Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas. That’s a lot.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, gets a quarterback, its NFL-ready tight end and most of its top-flight offensive line.

Northwestern gets Thorson, Justin Jackson and most of the offensive line. Most of the defensive line returns, too.

Minnesota lost a lot, both in terms of key players who graduated and players who left the program in the wake of a sexual assault investigation.

Iowa has a lot of returning size along the offensive and defensive lines, but quarterback Beathard is gone.

PAST PERFORMANCE

1. Wisconsin

2. Iowa

3. Nebraska

T4. Minnesota

T4. Northwestern

The Badgers cruise to the front of this category, having won 49 games over the last five seasons; Nebraska is next closest at 43. Wisconsin has had three coaches since 2012 and had success with each. Alvarez is the common denominator. The Badgers’ best season was 2016, when, despite facing a brutal schedule, they held serve in the West and won the division.

Iowa ranks second here instead of the Huskers because of the Hawkeyes’ more recent success — 35 wins in the last four years vs. 33 for Nebraska. Iowa has won three of the last four from the Huskers.

Minnesota and Northwestern each have 37 wins in the last five years. It’s important to note the disadvantages in recruiting and facilities Northwestern had to navigate.

SCHEDULE

1. Wisconsin

2. Minnesota

3. Northwestern

4. Nebraska

5. Iowa

The Badgers had the hardest slate by some margin last season, and they successfully navigated it. This year, Iowa gets the nod for toughest schedule. The Hawkeyes have to play at Wisconsin and Nebraska while hosting Penn State and Ohio State in Kinnick Stadium. Iowa’s crossover road game is at Michigan State — no gimme.

Nebraska’s schedule includes Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State at home, but the crossover road game — at Penn State — is a likely loss, while a Friday game at Illinois means Nebraska will have two short-week games this season.

Wisconsin’s schedule is manageable; the game at Nebraska is the hardest road trip. The Badgers draw Michigan a week before the Wolverines play Ohio State and a week after Michigan plays at Maryland. You always want to be the second road game.

Minnesota’s schedule is easy early and tough late, with three of the last five games being on the road, while the two home games are Nebraska and Wisconsin. Northwestern is the opposite; four of its last six are at home.

ADDING IT ALL UP

» Wisconsin wins the Big Ten West. This may be the Badgers’ best overall team since the 2011 squad that was essentially two Hail Mary plays from contending for the national title. This Wisconsin team has a slightly better defense than that squad did.

» Nebraska and Northwestern could very well tie at No. 2. Even if the Huskers beat the Wildcats in Lincoln, it’s no lock for that to happen because the Huskers’ schedule has a double-dose of Big Ten East studs — Penn State and Ohio State — while Northwestern gets a road game at Maryland. Nebraska may be the better team by year’s end but have a similar or worse record because of the opponents.

» Iowa takes a step back. Home games against Penn State and Ohio State look like losses, and the road games (at Wisconsin and at Nebraska) aren’t ideal. Iowa will have some quarterback issues, and perhaps some struggles defending the pass. At least on paper, this Iowa squad is closer to the 6-7 win category for me.

» The final tally, after a full training camp:

1. Wisconsin

T2. Nebraska

T2. Northwestern

4. Iowa

5. Minnesota

Which team will win the Big Ten West?

World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon picked Wisconsin to win the division, with Nebraska and Northwestern close at No. 2. Who do you think will win the Big Ten West?

You voted:

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Reporter - Nebraska athletics

Sam covers Nebraska football, recruiting, women's basketball and more for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @swmckewonOWH. Email: SMcKewon@owh.com

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