Dienhart: An extremely early look at the 2018 Big Ten West

Dienhart: An extremely early look at the 2018 Big Ten West

Yesterday, I took an early, early, early sneak peek at how the Big Ten East could shape up in 2018. Here is an early, early, early look at the 2018 Big Ten West.

1. Wisconsin
Good: The default pick until proven otherwise. The Badgers are a well-oiled machine that welcomes back a load of talent on offense led by a collection of promising wideouts, RB Jonathan Taylor and QB Alex Hornibrook. The defense is always underrated … and always good.
Bad: The defense bids adieu to some top talent, including E Alec James, LB Garrett Dooley, S Natrell Jamerson, CBs Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson. Can the Badgers stay motivated in a division they have dominated? Will QB Alex Hornibrook become elite?

2. Northwestern
Good: Clayton Thorson will be one of the top signal-callers in the Big Ten if he’s healthy. Led by LB Paddy Fisher and E Joe Gaziano, the front seven on defense will be boffo. Pat Fitzgerald has this program humming coming off a 10-win season. Confidence and swagger are high.
Bad: All-time leading rusher and NU icon Justin Jackson is gone. Who fills his massive production at running back? Will QB Clayton Thorson be OK after suffering a knee injury in the bowl game? The offensive line always can stand to improve in Evanston. The secondary will miss safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.

3. Iowa
Good: Slow and steady wins the race. And no program is slower and steadier. QB Nate Stanley looks poised to take the proverbial next step. The defensive line should be strong with the likes of Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa back. Few staffs can match the stability of this one.
Bad: All-time great RB Akrum Wadley is gone. The defense loses key cogs in LBs Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, CB Josh Jackson and E Nathan Bazata. Will the passing game have more down-field juice? The search for difference-making wideouts never ends. Seeing C James Daniels turn pro was a big blow and makes the o-line a concern.

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4. Purdue
Good: The program is still riding a crest of momentum coming off an unlikely 7-6 season. Things haven’t been this promising and exciting in West Lafayette since 2005. No matter the personnel issues, Jeff Brohm knows how to make things work with what he has. That’s the definition of a good coach.
Bad: A strong defense has been gutted with players like Danny Ezechukwu, T.J. McCollom, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Okonye, Gelen Robinson and Da’Wan Hunt gone. There remains a woeful lack of difference-makers at receiver. And the offensive line is a mish-mash of mediocrity that needs a serious upgrade.

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5. Nebraska
Good: New coach Scott Frost already is getting rock star treatment, energizing a fan base that deserves good things—but hasn’t gotten them often in recent years. There is some skill-position talent on offense. First order of business: Find a QB for Frost’s dynamic offense.
Bad: There will be a transition period as the new staff incorporates its schemes, while also instilling a new culture. Does the personnel on hand fit what the new staff wants to do on both sides of the ball? Job No. 1: Get better in the trenches on offense and defense.

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6. Minnesota
Good: P.J. Fleck leads the Big Ten in energy and positive mojo. And he’s adding talent. The RB duo of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks is good. The back seven on defense has potential led by LB Thomas Barber.
Bad: The QB spot was a black hole in 2017. Until that changes, this offense will struggle. The offensive line also has a lot to improve if this attack wants to be physical at the point of attack in the rushing game. P Ryan Santoso is gone. Don’t laugh. He was a weapon.

7. Illinois
Good: It was baptism by fire last season for myriad true freshmen. They should have benefited from that exposure. At least that’s the hope. A change at offensive coordinator may spark a moribund attack. What exactly is the offensive identity in Champaign?
Bad: This roster has been beaten down with a lot of losing in two years under Lovie Smith. How is the psyche of the players? Yes, many youngsters played in 2017, but yawning questions persist at just about every position. This is still a very young team with a lot to learn

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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