By: Brian Chapman
September is finally here and that means that B1G football is here. There's been a lot of hype for the conference heading into this year with coaching changes (including one last week), a national championship (for the Deep South Buckeyes, ugh!), exciting young players, Heisman trophy candidates and potential 1st rd draft picks. It should be a fun season and I can't wait.
Yesterday I previewed the East. Today I turn my attention to the weaker West division. Wisconsin is the favorite every year and should be this year. Nebraska is usually the closest contender, but I see them sliding back this year. Minnesota is the team to watch out for. They have a favorable home schedule which gives them a chance to go to Indy, but an unfavorable crossover schedule which could make wining the West division nearly impossible.
The good news for the Golden Gophers is that they play both Nebraska and Wisconsin at home this year. Outside of talent and coaching, home field advantage is one of the best advantages you can have in college football. That could make Minnesota a favorite in each game. On the flip side, their crossover opponents are Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan is a home game that Minnesota should win, but if Harbaugh has his team making strides by midseason the Wolverines could present problems. The Ohio State game is a road game, but the venue doesn't matter because they'll get smashed either way.
With Minnesota almost guaranteed to lose to the Buckeyes and Wisconsin avoiding both Ohio State and Michigan State, the Golden Gophers may have to win their other seven games to get into the B1G Championship Game.
To get you ready for the start of the season, I have presented a nice gift for you. For each team, a B1G Question (asked by me), a B1G Answer (answered by me), a B1G Game and a prediction for each team in the division.
B1G Question: What can the Badgers do to get in the conversation with Michigan State and Ohio State as a great B1G team instead of the best team in a weak B1G West division?
B1G Answer: Get a dynamic QB. Ohio State has Heisman trophy candidates Cardale Jones and JT Barrett (and Braxton Miller.) Michigan State has potential top 5 draft pick Connor Cook. Meanwhile Wisconsin's signal caller is none other than Joel Stave. A completely unimpressive game managing senior who didn't have the starting job for the entirety of last season, completed just 53% of his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. The Badgers will always be about a strong run game, but without a great quarterback, they're susceptible to 59-0 beat downs like the one the endured at last year's conference championship game to eventual national champion Ohio State. The last time the Badgers had a dynamic QB was 2011 when Russell Wilson threw for over 3,100 yards. In the past 12 years the only Wisconsin QB to come close to that was John Stocco in 2005. If Wisconsin just wants to be a good 2-loss or 3-loss team that runs the B1G West, they can do so with the QBs that they typically have. If they want to be a College Football Playoff threat, they need a dynamic QB.
B1G Game: Neutral site game against Alabama. It's the first game of the year and it's a game that everyone expects the Badgers to lose. In the last decade, the Crimson Tide have played several B1G teams in non-conference play and smoked every single one of them. This Bama team has some question marks at QB and doesn't appear to be the clear favorite in the SEC. The program doesn't look as dominant as it used to be with its two year championship drought (which seems like a pretty long time for Bama.) If the Badgers' always power offensive line can steamroll the grown men on Bama's line, they'll have a chance to spring the upset. If they're not even competitive, it will be what's expected of Wisconsin and the B1G conference.
Record: 10-2 (7-1)… Losses: Alabama, Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers
B1G Question: Will this new offensive system lead to a respectable offense?
B1G Answer: Yes, if it also has some playmakers. At B1G Media Days, Coach Jerry Kill told the media that his team had been practicing an up tempo, no huddle offense during the spring in hopes of recharging the offense. I think it's a good idea and it can't hurt a unit that lost RB David Cobb and WR Maxx Williams. If no one steps up and becomes a star that defenses have to game plan against, the switch in tempo will be irrelevant. I don't trust RBs Rodney Smith and Rodrick Williams Jr. right now nor do I trust KJ Maye or Drew Wolitarsky in the receiving corps, but they have 12 games to get the fan base to believe a couple of them are stars. Otherwise, the defense will carry them no further than a 7-win season.
B1G Game: Home against Wisconsin. This is their biggest game of the year and the fans want to bring home the Paul Bunyan Ax for the first time since 2003. This could also be the de facto division championship game with a berth in the conference champion game on the line. If that's the case, this would be one of the biggest regular season games in decades for the Golden Gophers and with home field advantage, they might finally be able to slay the mighty Badgers.
Record: 9-3 (6-2)… Losses: TCU, Northwestern, Ohio State
B1G Question: Will the Hawkeyes regret demoting QB Jake Rudock for strong armed CJ Beathard?
B1G Answer: No. Only so far you can get with Rudock. When you struggle to throw for 2,500 yards and you get benched in favor of an underclassman before the bowl game, you're not going to be missed. The Hawkeyes offensive attack has not been great the past couple of years and if you're Kirk Ferentz, why not shoot for greatness. I don't think Beathard is going to be a great QB, but he has the chance to be with his superior athleticism and powerful arm. Rudock doesn't. He is a conservative check down specialist. The Hawkeyes saw Rudock for two years, realized he wasn't getting any better and will not look back, regardless of how Beathard plays.
B1G Game: At Nebraska. The Great Corn Classic is the final game of the year and with a bit of luck, could give the Hawkeyes a better bowl game than the Corn Huskers. Because it's on the road, Nebraska will most likely be favored on game day, but I don't expect great things out of Mike Riley in his first season. This game is completely winnable and it's the kind of game that Ferentz and his fans need to win in order to believe a B1G West Championship is possible in Beathard's second year under center in 2016.
Record: 8-4 (4-4)… Losses: Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota
Nebraska Corn Huskers
B1G Question: Will Corn Husker fans enjoy the transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley in 2015?
B1G Answer: No. I expect a lot of complaining and whining about Riley this year. Some fans will keep a smile on their face as they adopt the "anybody, but Bo" mentality, but I'm not expecting great results from Riley in year one or ever at Nebraska. This was a truly confusing hire and I still don't understand why a program like Nebraska would hire this guy. First of all, he spent the past 12 years at Oregon State, meaning he had plenty of time to build that Pac-12 school into a powerhouse. Instead he had one 10-win season, four losing seasons, had a 5-7 record in 2014 and had a 29-33 record in his final five seasons with the Beavers. Second of all, Nebraska is transitioning to a pro-style offense. That will not be an overnight fix. Third of all, RB Ameer Abdullah and WR Kenny Bell are gone. They happen to be the Corn Huskers best offensive player and career receptions leaders, respectively. And by the way, Mike Riley is 62 years old. That's elderly! He's not still growing as a coach. He's growing old as a coach! With all of those factors, this could be an agonizing season for Big Red.
B1G Game: Home against BYU. This is a very dangerous game. The Cougars have a quarterback with a lot of hype behind him and the Corn Huskers have a lot of questions. This is also the first game of the season, meaning no tune up for new head coach Mike Riley. I think Nebraska will win this game, but this truly is a coin flip. If Nebraska loses, they could flirt with having too few wins to be bowl eligible.
Record: 8-4 (5-3)… Losses: Miami, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan State
B1G Question: Will RB Justin Jackson and WR Christian Jones cause headaches for opposing defenses or do the Wildcats simply have no playmakers to bank on this season?
B1G Answer: If healthy (especially Jones), they can cause headaches, but nothing that a couple of Advil can't handle. Jones has had two knee surgeries so I have no confidence in his ability to stay healthy for all 12 games this fall. Jackson is intriguing young cat because he started as a freshman last year and was 4th among all Power 5 freshman in all-purpose yards per game. Unfortunately, Northwestern started camp with a three-man quarterback race and when you can't decide between three quarterbacks (and you're not Ohio State), that means you have no quarterbacks. I expect opponents to load the box to stop Jackson and force the quarterback to make plays. If the quarterback can't make plays, the offense will be in big trouble.
B1G Game: Home against Iowa. While the Northwestern Wildcats offense is a mystery, the defense is not. They return ten starters and their veteran experience could be enough to baffle Iowa's first year starting quarterback CJ Beathard. If the defense can force Beathard into mistakes, they can spring a mild upset which could make them bowl eligible.
Record: 5-7 (3-5)… Wins: Eastern Illinois, Ball State, Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois
B1G Question: Will Purdue go 0-12?
B1G Answer: No, but they won't avoid a winless season by a large margin. The only three chances to win a game on this schedule are home games against Indiana State, Illinois and Indiana. Anything can against the Hoosiers because it's a rivalry game. Indiana State is not an FBS school and has most likely has the least amount of talent on the schedule, but I imagine that want nothing more to bring pride to their school by knocking off a B1G school from Indiana. Illinois might be the most talented team of the three winnable games on the schedule, but with the Tim Beckman turmoil, anything is possible. Between these three games, especially since they're all home games, I expect the Boilermakers to win at least one. If not, Darrell Hazel should not be fired. He should just step down at season's end.
B1G Game: Home against Indiana State. Purdue is going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad team. We'll find out just how bad in Week 2 when they host Indiana State. The Sycamores went 8-6 last year, but were not in the FBS. They have to have less talent than the Boilermakers. Purdue also doesn't want to feel the embarrassment of losing to an in state non-football school that most people have never heard of. It doesn't matter whether Austin Appleby or David Blough sees more snaps under center this year or whether they finish near the bottom of the conference. It's pretty simple. Win and you at least getting shutout for the season. Lose and 0-12 is a real possibility.
Record: 1-11 (1-7)… Win: Illinois
Illinois Fighting Illini
B1G Question: Will the Illini match last year's success (making a bowl game) even though they're dealing with the recent dismissal of Tim Beckman?
B1G Answer: No. Beckman's Illini improved each season under his leadership going from two wins to four wins to six wins. Even if he hadn't been fired for pushing players to play while injured, I wasn't going to pick them to win eight games. I didn't have them making a bowl game period. Last year Illinois led all of the FBS with five 4th quarter comeback wins. They only had six wins all of last year. That's far too fluky for me to buy in to. Illinois will fall well short of making a bowl game and fans will wish they still had Ron Zook running the show.
B1G Game: At Purdue. If they're not a complete mess by the first Saturday in November, they'll win this game. I have them losing this game, so that should tell you how I think their season will go.
Record: 3-9 (1-7)… Wins: Kent State, Western Illinois, Iowa.
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