Dienhart: Big Ten West offensive backfield unit rankings

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: Big Ten West offensive backfield unit rankings

This time last year, few could have envisioned the historic season Iowa was about to enjoy. The Hawkeyes started the season 12-0, a first, and went to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1990 season after playing in their first Big Ten title game. This season shapes up well, too, beginning with a loaded backfield.

[ MORE: West offensive lines | West pass-catchers | 2016 Big Ten West predictions ]

Here’s my ranking of the offensive backfields in the Big Ten West.

1. Iowa. Things are looking good with QB C.J. Beathard back. The senior is coming off a big season that saw him lead the Hawkeyes to 12 wins and the Rose Bowl. Could Beathard be a Heisman contender? Yes, Jordan Canzeri is gone, but Iowa has quality RBs in senior LeShun Daniels and junior Akrum Wadley. Daniels needs to stay healthy.

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2. Nebraska. Senior Tommy Armstrong needs to improve his decision making and accuracy. He tossed 16 picks last year. But, his experience is invaluable. Sophomore Devine Ozigbo finished 2015 strong. He’s part of a good collection of backs that also includes senior Terrell Newby, who could be the star in an offense that may lean on the running back this fall.

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3. Minnesota. It’s good to have a senior starter like Mitch Leidner back under center, but he has something to prove coming off a foot injury with a new coordinator in Jay Johnson, who is looking to bring more balance to this often-plodding attack. There is no shortage of quality backs with sophomores Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith back after strong debuts. They could be one of the Big Ten’s top 1-2 punches.

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4. Northwestern. Clayton Thorson had a nice debut in 2015, but the sophomore signal-caller must do more as a passer. Just being a game manager won’t be enough if this offense wants to evolve. Last year, Thorson had just seven TD passes and nine picks and hit just 50 percent of his passes. Is junior Matt Alviti a legit alternative? Junior Justin Jackson is one of the most promising young backs in the Big Ten. And, he’s a workhorse. Senior Warren Long also is in tow.

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5. Wisconsin. The good news: Senior Corey Clement is back after injury ruined his 2015 season. He may be the top back in the Big Ten working behind an improved line. Senior Dare Ogunbowale is a good backup. The bad news: A QB is needed. Senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook are competing to replace steady-if-unspectacular Joel Stave.

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6. Illinois. A new staff has a veteran QB in senior Wes Lunt to work with. But he hasn’t lived up to his potential yet. Will he finish with a bang? Sophomore Chayce Crouch is in the wings. Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn is coming off a big freshman season and must shine with versatile Josh Ferguson gone. But depth is lacking as Dre Brown is out with a knee injury.

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7. Purdue. The musical chairs at quarterback have to end. Is sophomore David Blough really the answer? Hyped redshirt freshman Elijah Sindelar is torqued and ready in the bullpen. Running back Markell Jones proved to be a blue-collar banger as a freshman. But a team that needs good news got a mega dose of bad news in the spring when junior D.J. Knox was lost for the season with a knee injury. Backup options aren’t appetizing for what is a S-L-O-W group of ballcarriers.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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