Ranking the West
7. Purdue — The Boilermakers bottomed out in 2013, their only win coming by less than a touchdown against FCS Indiana State. The following weekend, they nearly upset Notre Dame at home but dropped the first in what has become a 10-game losing streak. Obviously Darrell Hazell still has his work cut out for him in West Lafayette, but this team returns a fair amount of experienced talent that on paper should be competitive at least against the middle tier of Big Ten competition. Early games against Western Michigan and Central Michigan afford the opportunity to get up to speed ahead of a trip to South Bend, and FCS Southern Illinois will visit Ross-Ade Stadium before Purdue has to start Big Ten play. Bowling is out of the question, but there should be at least double the victories this year.
6. Illinois — The Illini opened 2013 by going 3-1 through the first month of the season, their only loss coming to a very good Washington team. They then imploded, dropping seven of their last eight games in Big Ten play (with their only win coming in a squeaker at Purdue). They have to travel to Seattle for the return game against the Huskies, but other than that they could ostensibly begin Big Ten play at 3-1 yet again. The schedule did them no favors, dealing Ohio State and Penn State as their cross-divisional opponents in conference play, and the battle to stay out of the West basement could come down to the October 4 showdown with the Boilermakers.
5. Northwestern — Northwestern is the perennial Big Ten enigma. The team went 4-0 last September and nearly knocked off Ohio State with Gameday in town, which started a seven-game losing streak that was only stemmed with a win over Illinois on the last Saturday of November. Gone is Kain Colter, leader both of the Wildcat offense and the move to unionize student athletes, though replacement quarterback Trevor Siemann has plenty of experience under center and nine returning starters to ease the transition to full-time work. The Wildcat defense was far more consistent than the offense in 2013, which bodes well for their chances in the West given the return of eight defensive starters. A bowl isn’t out of the question for Pat Fitzgerald’s crew.
4. Minnesota — Despite Jerry Kill’s ongoing struggle with seizures, Minnesota still managed to win eight games and reach a bowl for the second straight season. Seven starters return on each side of the ball, and a trip to Texas to face TCU will likely be their toughest test of the non-conference slate. Working against them, though, is the fact that they have to play at Michigan and host Ohio State in interdivisional play, and their final two games of the season are at Nebraska and at Wisconsin. This means that the Gophers will have to be vigilant in winning the games against the lower teams in the West; dropping even one of them could put Minnesota at risk of missing out on bowl eligibility.
3. Nebraska — Bo Pelini is back for another season in Lincoln, sporting an ostensibly more likable persona. That doesn’t mean that the Cornhuskers are any more likely to get that elusive 10th win or lose fewer than four games during the season. Their three biggest conference tests all come on the road — at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, and at Iowa. They travel to Fresno State and host the Miami Hurricanes in non-conference play. And they’ll head into the new 14-team alignment without Taylor Martinez or his backup Ron Kellogg III. Bowl eligibility won’t be in question, but a spot in one of the prestigious bowls is precarious at best.
2. Iowa — Everything is aligning for this to be one of the best Hawkeyes seasons in years. Luck was against Iowa last year as they played a tough schedule; a few turns in the other direction and Kirk Ferentz could have had another 11-win team. This year the schedule looks even more manageable… which means that they are likely to drop at least one against FCS Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State, or Pittsburgh. Working in Iowa’s favor is that their two main rivals for the West, Wisconsin and Nebraska, must both visit Kinnick Stadium on the final two weekends of the season. With Maryland and Indiana in interdivisional play, Iowa could ostensibly be a top-five undefeated team when the Badgers come to Iowa City on November 22.
1. Wisconsin — The Badgers might have been the biggest beneficiaries of the divisional realignment. The schedule was especially kind, as Wisconsin avoids Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan from the East. The running game will be as stout as ever, with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement returning to the backfield. Questions abound on defense, though, where the entire starting front seven has departed. The pass coverage should remain solid, with three returning members of the secondary, and we’ll get a good early gauge of the quality of the replacements in the defensive line and linebacking corps when they face LSU in the season opener. A loss in that contest could damage CFP dreams for the Badgers, who otherwise play a schedule light on challenges.