Tom Dienhart's early look at the Big Ten West Division in 2017
I’ve taken a look at how I think the Big Ten East may play out in 2017. Now, let’s examine the Big Ten West. Can anyone dethrone Wisconsin? Could Nebraska be a sleeper team? Does Iowa have life without QB C.J. Beathard? Is this the year Northwestern breaks out to the top of the division? How will coaching changes impact Minnesota and Purdue? Will Illinois take a jump in Year Two under Lovie Smith?
1. Wisconsin. The Badgers have become a bellwether of the Big Ten, going 32-9 the last three seasons. Only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Florida State have more wins. The 2017 Badgers will be built around a vintage offensive line. And QB Alex Hornibrook is an emerging talent and Bradrick Shaw is the next great back. The defense? The front seven will be tough.
2. Nebraska. This is an intriguing team that will look differently on offense with QB Tommy Armstrong gone. Now, the Huskers will have a quarterback with a skill set more suited to what Mike Riley wants to do. Who will pull the trigger: Patrick O’Brien or Tanner Lee? This also is certain: The Huskers need better play in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
3. Iowa. The Hawkeyes are a model of consistency. Another year, pencil in another bowl game. But Iowa will have difficulty pushing for the division title unless Nate Stanley can adequately replace C.J. Beathard. And when will the offense develop some big-play bite? The attack got a big boost when RB Akrum Wadley said he was coming back. The defense loses two studs in T Jaleel Johnson and CB Desmond King.
4. Northwestern. Will there be a more exciting and productive Big Ten duo than QB Clayton Thorson and RB Justin Jackson? Nope. Yes, Es Ifeadi Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins and LB Anthony Walker are gone, but the defense should be pretty good once again. Pat Fitzgerald has NU rolling. So, when will the Wildcats win the West?
5. Minnesota. New head coach P.J. Fleck lands a job with a roster that has some talent. The defense has some big holes with guys like Ekpe brothers gone along with LBs Nick Rallis and Jack Lynn. The top issue on offense will be to find a quarterback with venerable Mitch Leidner departed. Is Conor Rhoda really the guy? The RB tandem of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith will work behind a strong line.
6. Purdue. The arrival of Jeff Brohm has injected a mega dose of optimism into the program. The Boilermakers now has an offensive and defensive identity, as well as a strong staff. But it will take a few years to restock a roster that is the most talent-poor in the Big Ten. Still, better days are ahead. Maybe Brohm can steal a few wins with veteran QB David Blough.
7. Illinois. Lovie Smith has his systems firmly entrenched, but he still needs to land a lot of talent. A top priority: Developing the QB spot. And the line seems to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding. Wait, there’s more: There’s lots of work to do at every level of the defense, especially the front seven with two boffo pass rushers gone.
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