Iowa Leads Early Big Ten West Division Rankings
There’s a long, long time standing between now and the start of summer workouts, but at least we’ve got some sort of understanding of how each team stands heading into the painful part of the offseason.
Michigan State stands atop my early Big Ten East Division rankings, so who will come out of the West? Let’s debate:
1. Iowa Hawkeyes
It’s a rarity for Kirk Ferentz, but his offense might be the team’s strength moving into summer camp. Incumbent QB Jake Rudock progressed nicely over the course of his sophomore season and is the undisputed leader, seemingly having a firm grasp on the system. He has plenty of talent and depth at receiver, with more room to grow for some skilled underclassmen. However, while the defensive line should be vicious, the back seven could present some potential issues – the Hawkeyes are very young at both the linebacker and corner position, albeit capable.
2. Wisconsin Badgers
It has a Gary Andersen touch to it, but this team still has a Wisconsin feel. The offensive line will be strong, and running back Melvin Gordon is arguably the best in the Big Ten. But the downside is that quarterback is still an issue, with the job still up in the air – the competition between Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy will go into the fall. Wide receiver is a concern after the departure of Jared Abbrederis, and the Badgers have to replace some key playmakers on defense, including the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Chris Borland.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Despite losing 6-foot-6, 310-pound Ra’Shede Hageman at defensive tackle, Minnesota will be able to rely on an impressive defensive front that will again be strong against the run. If quarterback Mitch Leidner has improved his accuracy and can get production from his wideouts (or this monster of a tight end), the Gophers could see themselves in the running for the West.
4. Northwestern Wildcats
There’s not much explanation for what happened to Northwestern following its close loss to Ohio State last season, as it went on to lose another six straight games and was left out of postseason festivities. You could blame it on the massive amount of injuries, but there’s no doubting that there was enough talent to win at least seven games. That should be the case in 2014, with Trevor Siemian in a more comfortable pass-first offensive system, a healthy Venric Mark, and four returning starters in what was a stable secondary.
5. Nebraska Cornhuskers
To many Husker fans’ disliking, Bo Pelini is back to lead a team that could be total hit-or-miss. It’s quite obvious that the Big Ten East is a much more competitive division compared to the West, meaning this could be a job-saving year for Pelini if Nebraska wins 10 games and makes a conference title game appearance. But to do that, he’ll have to continue the development of sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. and limit the big plays on defense that killed his team in 2013.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini
No, Illinois isn’t ready to vie for a division title – and most likely isn’t even ready to make a bowl run – but there was significant improvement from 2012 on to 2013, and that looks to continue carrying over into the fall of 2014. There was obvious progress on offense last season, but now that Nathan Scheelhaase is gone, can another Illini QB step up and grab the momentum? Also: If the secondary doesn’t stiffen up and start putting pressure on opposing wide receivers, nothing else will matter – anything good Illinois did last year was negated by poor pass defense, and the result was a 1-7 conference record.
7. Purdue Boilermakers
Let’s not sugarcoat it; Purdue is a hot mess. While the offense should be somewhat improved (as long as the offensive line can open some holes for track star Raheem Mostert), the defense will once again be a disaster. If somehow the Boilermakers can pull off a win in the Big Ten, the season should be considered a success.
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