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The BIG10 West is looking to show its stripes this upcoming season. After sending Wisconsin to the BIG10 title game against Ohio State in 2019 and watching Minnesota explode with a 9-0 start, it’s clear that the West packs some serious heat.
This year multiple programs, including Nebraska, Iowa, and Northwestern, have brought in transfers, restocking their offensive weapons and defensive staples. With 4 teams in the top 30 of the college football preseason rankings, the West has a wealth of talent and tenacity to propel a few teams to the top of the BIG10.
Wisconsin is looking to topple the West again and raise a divisional and conference trophy by the end of the fall—maybe even make a run at a CFB championship.
On their tails is an offensive platoon led by PJ Fleck and the Minnesota Gophers, who are eager to earn their spot as the top team in the West.
The division then gets interesting when you look at the remaining five teams. Northwestern is coming off their worst season in over a decade and Nebraska needs Heisman contender, Adrian Martinez, to shine big time this fall. Meanwhile, Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois have brought in transfers and 2020 recruits to solidify the foundations for their programs.
The BIG10 West will prove to be a dogfight of a division this fall, with a possible CFB playoff team coming out of it. But, before anyone gets their FanPants in a twist, let’s look at who will steal the West this fall.
The badgers are eager to get back to the top of the West, after taking losses in the BIG10 title game and the Rose Bowl last year. With the departure of a 3-year veteran running back, Jonathan Taylor, the badgers are looking to senior quarterback Jack Coan to lead them into battle on Saturdays. Supporting him is a cast of underclassmen, including wide receiver Kendrick Pryor and tight end Jake Ferguson.
As the badgers embark on their journey to the BIG10 title game, they will be looking for their defense to hold it down with a majority of starters returning to the roster this fall. With all those elements in place, there isn’t much stopping them from landing at the top of the division when it’s said and done.
PJ Fleck has the gophers smelling blood after last year’s 9-0 start—the best start since 1904. As the captain of the ship, Fleck brought his talents to Minnesota in 2017, along with his famous and now trademarked saying, “row the boat”. And the gophers sure as hell did that, winning the Outback Bowl over Auburn.
This year they’re looking far beyond that, with their eyes set on the West title and a BIG10 championship. Most of the offensive pieces are there with All-Big Ten quarterback, Tanner Morgan, coming back, as well as Big10 Receiver of the Year, Rashod Bateman.
Minnesota might see some trouble on the defensive side of the ball, after losing a majority of their seniors and a few to the NFL draft. The gophers have some tough games on their schedule, but nothing foreboding enough prevent them from bringing home a division title—except for an October standoff against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Nobody saw a fall from grace quite like the Wildcats in 2019. After winning the BIG10 West in 2018, they dropped to a sad 1-8, only winning one divisional game. Pat Fitzgerald took it upon himself and brought in Mike Bajakian, who’s coaching history includes NFL standouts Travis Kelce and Antonio Brown.
Bajakian was blessed with a transfer QB in Peyton Ramsey, the arm that led Indiana with 2,400 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Fitzgerald will be counting on this duo and his defense to reclaim a top 3 spot in the division when the fall concludes, which is more likely if they avoid injury.
Nebraska felt the pressure last fall after Heisman discussions started to rise about their talented gun-slinger Adrian Martinez. After a short time in the spotlight, they fell to a mediocre 5-7 in Scott Frost’s second season at his alma mater. Martinez looks to make a run again at the Heisman this fall but will need some serious help from his wide receiver core, including Wan’Dale Robinson.
On the flip side of the ball, the Cornhuskers will be starting from ground zero as they have to replace their entire defensive line. But on a sweeter note, they have the 20th ranked recruiting class in 2020, which will hopefully propel the program forward. With a bully of schedule, including their last five games against BIG10 juggernauts, it looks like they’re in for another 50/50 season which puts them at number 4.
Coach Ferentz is going into the last season of his extended contract at Iowa, where he’s been coaching for 21 seasons. Yes, that's the longest current tenure for a coach in the FBS. With Ferentz’s two decades under the belt and Spencer Petras under snap, the Hawkeyes are hoping to stack up some wins this year to improve from their 6-3 division record in 2019.
Where the hawkeyes will struggle is finding someone with the grit and badassery of EJ Epenesa, who led the BIG10 in tackles last season. To top it off, they flaunt one of the hardest schedules in the BIG10 facing off against Ohio State and Penn State in back-to-back battles. For this reason, they are going to hold our number 5 spot.
Nobody knew that boilermakers could get so many injuries on the job, or at least that’s what coach Jeff Brohm thought. After watching a chunk of his 2019 starting lineup fall victim to injury, he was forced to field 33 different redshirt freshmen and true freshmen last year. With 13 of them returning as starters, there’s a shot Brohm will finally hit the stride he’s been looking for since 2017.
All American receiver Rondale Moore is back from injury and ready to start snagging TDs–which could prove to be a vital asset for redshirt sophomore quarterback, Jack Plummer. And, true freshman Michael Alaimo, a four-star signee, will also join the competition this fall, along with No. 5 tight end in the 2020 class, Malik Carr.
Look for some changes on defense as they also brought in Bob Diaco to head up their defensive department, after he led Louisiana Tech to a 10-win season last year. If they can pull off a few upsets against big teams, you might see them in the top 3 of the division—but don’t get your hopes up too much.
The Fighting Illini finished dead middle in the division last season. After stunning Wisconsin with a final-second field goal, they started to find their grounding under transfer quarterback Brandon Peters.
As Lovie Smith heads into his 4th year as head coach, he’s found favor in the transfer portal. First and foremost with Peters, the junior quarterback who transferred from Michigan and racked up 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns. On the receiving end of the ball, Smith secured Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney last year—both of which will see serious time this fall.
Illinois is still on a mission to solidify their defense as they’ve brought in a completely new freshman defensive line that looks promising but is still very young. Knowing Lovie Smith and his success with the transfer portal, don't be surprised when he adds a few more players after the coronavirus passes and he can recruit hard.
The fight for the BIG10 West is going to be a tough one—especially in the second half of the season. With some critical matchups happening in the latter weeks of the fall, don’t be surprised if you see a number three or four-team slide into the first or second place position. No matter the outcome, we are guaranteed to see some games that will keep every college football fan on their feet.
If you’ve read all of this and think you have a better prediction, we want to hear it. Shoot us a message on Instagram @thefanpants and prepare your prediction for next week when we cover the ACC Coastal division.