The 2018 season was fairly unique for the Big Ten West, and not just because Northwestern won it despite finishing fifth in S&P+ in the division.
Wisconsin has been the class of the West since the division was established in 2014. The Badgers have finished with the highest S&P+ margin every season and won the West three times, with their defeats coming in 2018 and 2015, when they similarly lost to Iowa by four points and Northwestern by six. In other words, when Wisconsin gets things right, they tend to dominate the West.
However, if you survey the Vegas odds, the West is regarded as pretty open in 2019. Gauging by the odds on winning the B1G title, the West shakes out as:
Tier 1: Nebraska and Wisconsin at +1600
Tier 2: Iowa at +2000, Northwestern at +2200, and Purdue at +2500
Tier 3: Minnesota at +6600 … and Illinois at +8000
There are several reasons why the B1G West should be much more entertaining this season than in prior years.
The draft took a pair of linebackers and two OL, graduation took another All-B1G OL the NFL didn’t draft, and the transfer portal took two-year starting QB Alex Hornibrook. It seems Hornibrook also saw the writing on the wall, with the spring enrollment of blue-chip QB prospect Graham Mertz.
If Mertz is the man, he’ll still have a big, all-Wisconsin OL, several experienced receivers and tight end Jake Ferguson, and 2,000-yard RB Jonathan Taylor. But for a program that’s dominated the division by running the ball and playing defense, handing the keys to a freshman signal caller would certainly be a departure.
The defense also slipped in 2018, which was the reason the Badgers didn’t repeat as division champs. Things are promising there, as the DL is healthier, the LB corps will feature Zack Braun and Alabama transfer Christian Bell, and the secondary has been retooled with new players.
Nebraska is 1-7 against Wisconsin since joining the Big Ten, with some real stinging defeats in there.
But Scott Frost has invigorated the program, and the Huskers looked feisty enough in 2018 to generate a good bit of excitement. There are Heisman odds available for sophomore QB Adrian Martinez, who threw for 2,617 yards and ran for 629 more last year, and everyone remembers how Frost turned UCF from a 6-7 team to 13-0 “national champions” in year two.
It might be a bit early to crown the Huskers. Their OL will be devoid of seniors, and that breakthrough UCF team had four players selected in the following draft, including first-round CB Mike Hughes. The Nebraska defense was 55th in the country last year and is still looking for a star.
Still, there’s no doubting Frost’s offensive acumen, and there’s reason for the buzz about what a second-year Frost offense with a dynamic Martinez might look like.
Northwestern’s formula in 2018 was a bend-don’t-break defense, a four-year starting QB in Clayton Thorson, and finding ways to win all the games they had to win. When the Wildcats played the class of the Midwest (Notre Dame, Michigan, and Ohio State) they went down, but they beat all their West rivals and Michigan State by narrow margins.
The major loss is Thorson, but they’ve already planned ahead. Former five-star QB Hunter Johnson is waiting in line after he fled the Clemson competition when Trevor Lawrence arrived. The rest of the Northwestern offense figures to be at least as good as in 2018, particularly with RB Isaiah Bowser back after taking over as a true freshman.
For Northwestern, the return of seven or eight defensive starters (depending on how you count) is the stronger point. Star DL Joe Gaziano is back after 12.5 TFL and 7.5 sacks, but the real concern for opponents is the middle of the backfield, where Blake Gallagher (127 tackles), Paddy Fisher(116 tackles), J.R. Pace (82 tackles), and Travis Whillock (57 tackles) return at safety and linebacker.
Northwestern employs an Iowa-like approach on defense, typically playing off at cornerback (unless blitzing and wanting to deny easy release throws), but then playing one or both safeties shallow enough to disrupt slot receivers and get tacklers to the run. It makes for a unit that is tough to move the ball against consistently, unless you can hurt them outside in the passing game. That’s not a common attribute in this division.
Purdue has some punching power that hasn’t been seen since Drew Brees was in West Lafayette.
The Boilermakers have arguably the best player in the division (conference? country?) in WR Rondale Moore, who had 135 total touches for 1,471 yards and 14 TDs last season as a true freshman.
Fleck’s Minnesota quietly put something together over the course of 2018. Fleck hit the jackpot when Minnesota native and IMG attendee Zach Annexstad passed up scholarship offers from G5 programs to not only walk on and play QB for the Gophers, but to recruit two of his blue-chip teammates from IMG to do the same. Those two OL, Daniel Faalele (6-9, 400) and Curtis Dunlap (6-5, 350), give Minnesota the biggest right side in college football.
Behind those behemoths and a TE, Fleck will find it easy to build his RPO schemes that force teams to defend a downhill run.
The overall firepower across the West is considerably increased by the additions of spread offensive coaches like Fleck, Brohm, and Frost.
Wisconsin’s ability to run the division with a ground-and-pound offense and top defense will be seriously tested this year, now that UW’s opponents won’t all just try to line up and outmuscle the Badgers.