Big Ten West Shrouded in Uncertainty

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Ohio State’s 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in December’s conference championship game summarized the current dynamic between the Big Ten East and Big Ten West.

The Big Ten East returns the first College Football Playoff champion in Ohio State, a viable title contender in Michigan State, the most talked-about new head coach in Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, and a Penn State team with growing buzz around James Franklin.

The Big Ten West…uh…

Most (all?) focus on the Big Ten is focused squarely on its East division. The Big Ten West enters 2015 shrouded in uncertainty. FoxSports.com’s “The Audible” podcast may have captured the essence of the division best by hypothesizing Nebraska could be both 7-5 AND Big Ten West champion.

That isn’t a testament to parity in the Big Ten West, either. Well, it is, but not in the sense of the SEC West or Pac-12 South, two divisions stocked with potential Top 25 teams. At the outset of the 2015 season, the Big Ten appears to be a division mired in mediocrity.

The Cliffs Notes version:

Illinois: The perennial underachieving Illini’s offseason was noteworthy for allegations of abusive behavior by head coach Tim Beckman and members of his staff.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes lost quarterback Jake Rudock to transfer within conference (he’s now at Michigan). Otherwise, the bulk of focus on Iowa is squarely on Kirk Ferentz’s buyout.

Minnesota: Jerry Kill may quietly have the sleeper of the Big Ten West. The Golden Gophers have exceeded expectations throughout Kill’s tenure, spending some of last November in the Top 25 and actually factoring into the College Football Playoff race by virtue of their nonconference encounter with TCU. Replacing running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams means Minnesota is looking at an entirely new offensive plan of attack, however.

Nebraska: Bizarro Bo Pelini Mike Riley doesn’t just bring a new attitude to Lincoln: Riley is installing an entirely new system, which can take some time for adjustment. Given Riley just turned 62 years old, and Nebraska faithful are antsy for a return to national prominence, he may not have long for that adjustment to take effect.

Northwestern: After seemingly turning the corner in 2012, Northwestern flounded each of the last two seasons under alum Pat Fitzgerald. It’s tough to get a beat on the Wildcats because of the number of injuries that they sustained last season.

Purdue: The Boilers made tangible progress in Darrell Hazell’s second season, though the improvement was from 1-11 to 3-9. Purdue returns one of the most veteran lineups in the Big Ten, but the next step for the Boilermakers is probably no more than sneaking into bowl eligibility.

Wisconsin: Ostensibly the team to beat in the Big Ten West, Wisconsin has been a stalwart atop the conference for almost two decades. The Badgers will continue to do what the Badgers do: Play a physical style up front with a star running back (Corey Clement) setting the pace. But shaky quarterback play and the underachievement of first-year head coach Paul Chryst in his previous stop (Pittsburgh) present concerns about the Badgers.

The biggest red flag is the adjustment each of the two favorites — Nebraska and Wisconsin — face with first-year coaches. The good news for the Cornhuskers is that Riley’s Oregon State teams were typically at their best when they were overlooked heading into the year.

Another cause for optimism at Nebraska: Riley’s teams often featured the best wide receiver in the Pac-10/12 at a given time. From Mike Hass to James Rodgers to Markus Wheaton to Brandin Cooks, the pro-set Riley favored made use of talented wide-outs more effectively than any other scheme out West.

Nebraska has two candidates to be Big Ten pace-setters in De’Mornay Pierson-El, a speedster in the Cooks mold, and Jordan Westerkamp, whose shown his ability to be a playmaker before.

The Cornhuskers must make the most of their Oct. 10 date with Wisconsin, however. While I have my doubts about this particular Badger team, starting with the quarterback, Wisconsin’s schedule gets considerably easier after playing Alabama Week 1.

Wisconsin drew Maryland and Rutgers as its two divisional crossovers, and the Badgers get Iowa and Northwestern at home. The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Ax on Thanksgiving weekend and that trip to Lincoln are the two most notable landmines on an otherwise favorable path back to Indianapolis.

There in Indianapolis, we’ll get to see how much of a gap there is between the Big Ten West and Big Ten East. It would be difficult to be more pronounced than 59-0 — and yet, on the cusp of a new season, it kinda looks that way.