Big Ten West football preview: Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota all have a shot

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Mar 6, 2018

Big Ten West football preview: Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota all have a shot​


If the old "Defense wins championships" adage were actually true, the Big Ten West would have won one by now. No division in major college football has collectively stuck to the "defense and a good run game" approach more religiously.

On average, Big Ten West teams ran 64% of the time on standard downs last season; the national average was 59%, and only the FBS divisions with option stalwarts Air Force (MWC Mountain) and Georgia Southern (Sun Belt East) were higher. They stuck to the ground and asked their quarterbacks to bail them out on third-and-long, and when that (usually) didn't work, they turned the game over to a brilliant defense: The West's average defensive SP+ rating of 18.8 adjusted points per game was the lowest in FBS. Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota all ranked in the top 10, and strangely, only Northwestern, typically as defensive as anyone, ranked worse than 32nd.

Previewing the Big Ten West is like going back in time. The quarterbacks are mostly either unproven or proven in the wrong way, and the cup of good linebackers, centers and running backs overflows. But two things are pretty certain: The West race could go in any number of different directions, and the winner is going to be awfully good.

Granted, the words "Big Ten" and "West" took on new definitions last week with the conference's announced additions of USC and UCLA. But let's preview what is currently the West division.

Every week through the offseason, Bill Connelly will preview another division from the Group of 5 and Power 5 exclusively for ESPN+, ultimately including all 131 FBS teams. The previews will include 2021 breakdowns, 2022 previews and burning questions for each team.

Earlier previews: MWC West | MWC Mountain | AAC (Nos. 6-11) | AAC (Nos. 1-5) | MAC East | MAC West | Sun Belt West | Sun Belt East | Conference USA (Nos. 6-11) | Conference USA (Nos. 1-5) | Independents | Pac-12 South | Pac-12 North | ACC Atlantic | ACC Coastal | Big 12 (Nos. 6-10) | Big 12 (Nos. 5-1)

2021 recap​

Basically, Iowa won the West early, then held on for dear life late. The Hawkeyes rode a huge (and unsustainable) plus-15 turnover margin to a 6-0 start, suffered a minus-6 margin while losing to Purdue and Wisconsin by a combined 51-14, then ground out four tight wins in November to eke out the title. All along the way, turnovers told the tale.

Iowa: +19 turnover margin in 10 wins, -7 in four losses

Wisconsin: +10 in nine wins, -9 in four losses

Purdue: +7 in nine wins, -9 in four losses

Minnesota: +6 in nine wins, -3 in four losses

Most of Wisconsin's disasters came early, and the preseason favorites nearly overcame a dismal start to win the division before a final-week loss to Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Nebraska legitimately might have been the best 3-9 team of all time. The Huskers' three wins had a point differential of +119, their nine losses a combined -56. They lost via special teams disasters, late turnovers and various, increasingly creative miscues, went 0-8 in games decided by one score and managed to finish in the SP+ top 40 despite their dismal record.

Illinois used defense and special teams to keep games close and nearly eked out a bowl bid despite finishing 64th overall, while Northwestern fell apart defensively, continued to stink out loud on offense and plummeted to 3-9 a year after winning the East.

2022 projections​

Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa are once again balancing potentially elite defenses and offenses with clear question marks. Purdue has balance and experience, but is missing maybe its two most important people from last season (receiver David Bell and defensive coordinator Brad Lambert). Nebraska is capable of almost literally anything. All five teams are projected within one win of the top of the standings. Buckle up.

Burning questions​

What now, Scott Frost? As exciting as last year's division race turned out to be, a three-win team stole the headlines. Based on the stats Nebraska games produced, and the randomness associated with close games in particular, SP+ saw the Huskers as something far closer to a seven-win team than a three-win team last season. That suggests a rebound is coming.

However ... they've fallen short of SP+ expectations for four straight years. My Second-Order Wins measure, which takes the predictive stats produced in a given game, tosses them into the air and says "With these stats, you could have expected to win this game X% of the time," suggests Nebraska should have won about 23 games thus far under Frost. They've won 15. At some point, it's not randomness -- it's you.

Frost was granted another year (with a reduced salary) and has done his best to change up the recipe.

• Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick was one of four offensive assistants dismissed in January; he was replaced by Pitt's Mark Whipple, whose offense leaped from 86th to ninth in 2021.

• Longtime starting quarterback Adrian Martinez transferred, likely to be replaced by Texas transfer Casey Thompson. Frost has thus far brought in 14 transfers, including seven former blue-chippers and TCU's star defensive end Ochaun Mathis.

• With special teams disasters a constant issue -- the Huskers finished a ghastly 127th in special teams SP+ and haven't ranked higher than 80th under Frost -- Bill Busch moved to full-time special teams coordinator, and Frost seemed to commit to using more starters in special teams roles.

With experience, change in key places and a much kinder schedule -- six of their first eight opponents are projected 72nd or worse in SP+ -- the table is set for a rebound. But how much? If they just get back to 6-6, is that enough to save Frost's job? Do they need to contend in the West for second-year AD Trev Alberts to feel good about the direction of the program?

Can coordinator changes take Wisconsin and/or Minnesota higher? The Badgers and Golden Gophers have been two of the more consistently ground-and-pound teams in the country, and it's hard to say it hasn't worked out pretty well. Wisconsin is one of the most reliably solid FBS programs, averaging a 13.3 SP+ ranking and 10.2 wins per (full) season under Paul Chryst. Minnesota hasn't been quite as successful, but PJ Fleck has gone 11-2 and 9-4 in his last two full seasons.

Both teams would likely have been rock solid in 2022 if Chryst and Fleck hadn't each chosen to bring in new(ish) offensive coordinators. But Wisconsin's hire of Bobby Engram, combined with Minnesota's rehiring of Kirk Ciarrocca, weren't without warrant.

After 11 years as an NFL assistant, Engram returns to the college ranks -- and in the same conference as his alma mater Penn State, no less -- with a tricky task: Change Wisconsin without changing Wisconsin. The Badgers will still ride backs Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi (combined: 2,083 yards and 17 TDs last year) a long way, but when it's time to pass, there's plenty of room for improvement.

Quarterback Graham Mertz hardly could have begun the 2021 season worse. He ranked 117th out of 125 eligible quarterbacks in Total QBR, with a 56% completion rate and two touchdowns to six interceptions, during Wisconsin's 1-3 start. During the Badgers' 8-1 finish, he ranked 29th, ahead of NC State's Devin Leary and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder among others. But Chryst is asking Engram to add some modernity to the passing game, both to help Mertz realize his high ceiling and to make up for drastic inexperience at receiver. Of the four players who caught more than eight passes last season (yes, only four), three are gone. Redshirt freshman Markus Allen is UW's No. 2 leading returning wideout. He caught two balls.

Fleck didn't have to look to the NFL -- he brought back the guy who left two years ago. Minnesota ranked seventh in offensive SP+ in 2019, Ciarrocca's last season as coordinator, but Ciarrocca left for Penn State and got dismissed after one season. His version of the Gopher offense was a platonic ideal of rushing and vertical shots on wrong-footed defenders. Tanner Morgan threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns that season, but has managed only 3,418 yards and 17 touchdowns in the 20 games since. Unlike Mertz, Morgan has an experienced receiving corps at his disposal, led by senior Chris Autman-Bell and big-play former blue-chipper Dylan Wright. He's also got running back Mohamed Ibrahim again after the senior missed almost all of last season with injury.

Mertz likely has a better offensive line and a better defense. Minnesota is replacing four of five OL starters, and while the Gophers could have a borderline top-10 defense, Wisconsin's is borderline top-1. Linebacker Nick Herbig is a guaranteed play-maker, and the line, led by Keeanu Benton and Isaiah Mullens, should be one of UW's best. The secondary is undergoing an overhaul, but Chryst brought in three senior cornerback transfers, led by UCLA's Jay Shaw.

These are very similar teams -- physical, beefy and defense-oriented. Whichever coordinator fares better out of the gate might be the play-caller for the West champion.

Can the Iowa offense ... change something? Kirk Ferentz doesn't make changes unless he absolutely has to. The statistical profile his Iowa Hawkeyes established in 2021 -- run the ball more frequently than average with a plodding tempo and few risky, downfield passes; commit numbers to defending the run while tackling well and playing tons of zone defense -- was similar to that of basically every team he's been in charge of over 23 years.

Last year's Iowa vintage was particularly good defensively, forcing loads of three-and-outs and turnovers and ranking fifth in defensive SP+. The offense? Particularly bad: 120th in success rate, 111th in points per drive, 94th in offensive SP+. Spencer Petras finished 90th in Total QBR. When a late-year ankle injury benched Petras, backup Alex Padilla came in and fared worse. There was no run game to lean on, either; the Hawkeyes moved backward constantly, and after a rousing 6-0 start, they averaged 13.2 points per game during a 2-4 finish.

Ferentz stuck with his offensive coordinator (and son), Brian Ferentz. In fact, after quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe stepped aside, Brian landed that role too. Not making change for change's sake can be admirable and beneficial, but it would be great to know that Iowa is changing something to fix an offense that dramatically held its defense back.

Tight end Sam LaPorta is a keeper, and a trio of sophomores -- RB Gavin Williams, WR Keagan Johnson, TE Luke Lachey -- could mature and raise the skill corps' ceiling. But it's only going to be so high with such limited quarterback play.

Defensively, it's hard to worry. End Zach VanValkenburg and two excellent safeties are gone, but, well, Iowa steadily produces standout ends and safeties. (Remember the name of defensive end Lukas Van Ness.) The linebacking corps is deep and seasoned, and corners Riley Moss and Jermari Harris are excellent.

In 2022, Iowa will be Iowa: extremely capable of winning the West if other challengers don't break through offensively and likely to go about 7-5 if other teams have their act together.

Just how important were David Bell and Brad Lambert? It seems we're already into Act III of Jeff Brohm's coaching tenure at Purdue.

Act I (2017-18): After inheriting a program that had won just nine games in four years, Brohm immediately engineers a turnaround. The Boilermakers go just 13-13 in two seasons. They're improved, tricky and capable of brilliant moments (like walloping Ohio State in 2018).

Act II (2019-20): Purdue goes 6-12. They're not much worse on paper, but they beat bad teams, mostly lose to good ones and go 4-7 in one-score games. Things aren't dire, but momentum is gone.

Act III (2021-??): Momentum! Excitement! The Boilers leap to 25th in defensive SP+, and after a mostly dreadful start, the offense averages 37 points per game down the stretch, and Purdue wins five of its last six to finish 9-4.

The hire of Brad Lambert as defensive coordinator reaped immediate dividends, but Lambert left for Wake Forest this offseason. And a lot of Purdue's offensive brilliance correlated with brilliance from receiver David Bell, a third-round NFL draft pick -- the Boilermakers averaged 33 points per game when he gained at least 70 receiving yards and 22 when he didn't.

Quarterback Aidan O'Connell returns after throwing for 3,712 yards, both lines return a large majority of contributors, and the secondary is loaded with seniors. But Bell is gone, as are Lambert and end George Karlaftis. Does that hurt a little or a lot?

The Music City Bowl provided hope. Without Bell, and with the defense getting torched, Purdue beat Tennessee in overtime, 48-45, thanks to 534 yards from O'Connell. Broc Thompson caught seven balls for 217 yards, and tight end Payne Durham caught a pair of touchdowns. And they're both back. If defensive co-coordinators Ron English and Mark Hagen can keep the ship steady, and O'Connell can produce greatness with Thompson, Wright, Durham, slot man TJ Sheffield, among others, this is a West contender.

Is this just another Northwestern valley-and-peak cycle? Through college football's history, the arc of a developmental program is one of booms and busts. You surge when you've got the right combination of experience and upside, then you scuffle for a while when you don't.

That's the story of Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern. His early Wildcat teams peaked at 10-3 in 2012 before slumping to 5-7 in each of the next two years. From 2015 to 2018, they averaged nine wins per year and won their first West title. They plummeted to 3-9 in 2019, then jumped back to 7-2 with another West title and the program's first top-10 finish in 25 years.

Then they plummeted again, back to 3-9.

Was this just another pre-peak valley? They were particularly inexperienced last year, and they were dealing with the retirement of legendary defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. NFL assistant Jim O'Neil took over, and the transition was tough. Combined with yet another horrific offense (Northwestern hasn't ranked higher than 93rd in offensive SP+ since 2017), there was no obvious strength to lean on. But now that O'Neil has settled in, he can take advantage of ace end Adetomiwa Adebawore and an athletic and exciting secondary.

Was this something a bit more permanent? O'Neil was an outside hire, and there's always a chance that it just doesn't stick, especially with five of six linemen gone. In two years under offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, the Wildcats have used tempo to primarily go three-and-out quickly. They run on running downs and pass on passing downs, and neither works. When they got a rare scoring chance, they face-planted: They ranked 130th in goal-to-go touchdown rate. Nine starters return, including quarterback Ryan Hilinski, but outside of left tackle Peter Skoronski and maybe slot receiver Malik Washington or running back Evan Hull, where's the upside?

If Northwestern rebounds again, it won't be the first time Fitzgerald has defied the numbers. But the numbers were particularly dire last year.

How can Illinois stand out? Illinois made a perfectly sound and competent hire last year, bringing in veteran Bret Bielema to replace Lovie Smith. Bielema loves meaty lines, a dedicated run game and an indomitable defense, and he almost instantly established those things in Champaign. Chase Brown and 240-pound freshman Joshua McCray rushed for 1,555 yards, the Fighting Illini defense leaped from 88th to 32nd in defensive SP+ ... and Illinois went 5-7 because most of its division still did the Big Burly Manball thing better than they did. It's hard to out-Wisconsin Wisconsin, you know?

Now, 5-7 was an absolute step forward. Illini defenders tackled brilliantly and held up with the heavy amount of man coverage that coordinator Ryan Walters deploys. They allowed just 18 points per game over their final nine, and the offense perked up at the end too. They were 84th in SP+ heading into November and finished 64th. Good things! But it's hard to keep that sense of momentum going with a new roster.

Illinois currently ranks 103rd in returning production, worst in the Big Ten. Brown, McCray and slot man Isaiah Williams are solid efficiency options, but Brown is the only proven big-play guy, and the line loses two all-conference contributors. The quarterback position will likely be manned by Artur Sitkowski or Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito, both of whom have been uninspiring to date. If the Illini fall behind schedule, they will be in trouble.

The defensive line and secondary are intriguing -- corner Devon Witherspoon is one of the Big Ten's best -- but a dynamite linebacking corps is replacing five of last year's top six, and the defense is projected to slide a bit. The Illini defied projections last year, but it's hard to do that twice in a row.

My 10 favorite players​

RB Braelon Allen, Wisconsin. The breaking-in period for a true freshman can last a while. For Allen, it lasted just four games. A bit player during the Badgers' dreadful start, he averaged 135 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry during their 8-1 finish.

RB Chase Brown, Illinois. A couple of big Brown rushes went a long way last year: When he rushed for 100-plus yards, Illinois was undefeated. (And that wasn't just a "you run more when you're winning" thing -- he needed only 14 carries to gain 112 yards against Northwestern.)

WR Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota. Returning Big Ten receivers who both ran at least 190 routes last season and averaged at least 2.6 receiving yards per route run: Ohio State's Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Michigan State's Jayden Reed and Autman-Bell. That's good company.

C John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota. The Minnesota line is getting a makeover, but the nearly error-free Schmitz is a good starting point. Per Sports Info Solutions, he attempted 801 blocks last season and blew just three of them -- one rushing and two passing.

EDGE Garrett Nelson, Nebraska. He took part in at least one tackle for loss in nine of 12 games, and he led the Huskers in both sacks and run stops. One of the least-heralded recruits in the Nebraska lineup was one of the best players.

DE Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern. The senior from Kansas City led the Wildcats in tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles. He also forced opposing quarterbacks into 16 incompletions or interceptions. Opponents have to plan for him on every snap.

OLB Nick Herbig, Wisconsin. Wisconsin loses some serious playmakers at linebacker, and it's hard to even pretend to worry because they've still got Herbig: He recorded nine sacks, forced 11 incompletions and ranked second on the team with 13 run stuffs. He's everywhere.

LB Seth Benson, Iowa. With a 31% pressure rate, Benson was one of the best blitzers in the country. He was also second on the team with 11 run stuffs, and when he dropped into coverage, he allowed a paltry 10.7 QBR. A literal do-it-all linebacker.

CB Riley Moss, Iowa. Moss is a lanky but willing run defender, and he's absolutely perfect for coordinator Phil Parker's zone defense. He picked off four passes, broke up six more and allowed a 38.8 QBR as primary coverage guy last year.

NB Jalen Graham, Purdue. Almost the perfect nickel back. Graham is listed at 220 pounds, and he took part in six tackles for loss, generated pressure on 20% of his pass rushes, intercepted two passes, broke up nine more and allowed a 3.1 QBR in coverage.

Honorable mention: QB Casey Thompson (Nebraska), RB Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), WR Broc Thompson (Purdue), LT Peter Skoronski (Northwestern), DE Kydran Jenkins (Purdue), DE Joe Evans (Iowa), DE Ochaun Mathis (Nebraska), NT Keeanu Benton (Wisconsin), LB Tarique Barnes (Illinois), CB A.J. Hampton Jr. (Northwestern)


In 1967, 55 years ago, Minnesota won (OK, shared) its last Big Ten title. Murray Warmath's last awesome team lost only to top-10 Nebraska and Purdue teams, held six of 10 opponents to seven or fewer points and destroyed No. 5 Indiana -- yes, No. 5 Indiana -- by the score of 33-7. They were part of a three-way tie atop the conference with Indiana and Purdue, but the Hoosiers scored the Rose Bowl bid, and the conference didn't send anyone else to bowls. The Gophers wouldn't win even eight games again for another 32 years.

In 1997, 25 years ago, Nebraska won (OK, shared) its last national title. Tom Osborne's last Huskers team survived an all-time test (with an all-time kick) at Missouri, beat Texas A&M by 39 points in the Big 12 title game, then beat Peyton Manning and Tennessee by 25 points in the Orange Bowl. They split the national title with Michigan -- their third title in four years -- and Osborne retired.

The 24 seasons from 1974 to 1997: 17 top-10 finishes, shares of 13 conference titles

The 24 seasons since: three top-10 finishes (all before 2002), one conference title

Also in 1997: Joe Tiller zigged while the rest of the Big Ten zagged. In the 16 seasons before Tiller's hire, Purdue bowled once and never won more than seven games. But with the pass-happy attack Tiller had perfected at Wyoming -- a rare offense for the rushing-and-defense Big Ten -- the Boilermakers found immediate traction. Billy Dicken threw for 3,136 yards, and Purdue beat No. 12 Notre Dame and finished with an Alamo Bowl win and No. 15 finish. Drew Brees took over behind center the next year, and by 2000, Purdue was back in the Rose Bowl.

In 2002, 20 years ago, Kirk Ferentz broke through. Purdue found success with a different recipe, but Iowa found success by doing Big Ten things incredibly well. Ferentz took over for Hayden Fry in 1999, won one game in his first year, three in his second and seven in his third. In 2002, with a rare talent at quarterback -- Brad Banks finished second in the Heisman race -- his Hawkeyes ignited. After an early loss to Seneca Wallace and Iowa State, Iowa won nine straight by an average score of 39-15 and rose to third in the AP poll before a loss to USC in the Orange Bowl. They finished eighth, just as they would in 2003 and 2004. Ferentz has engineered two more top-10 finishes (and seven ranked finishes overall) since.

In 2007, 15 years ago, Illinois beat Ohio State and played in the Rose Bowl. The 2007 season was so damn wild.

In 2012, 10 years ago, Northwestern won a bowl! In 1948, Robert Voigts' Wildcats went 8-2 and beat No. 4 Cal in the Rose Bowl. They wouldn't bowl again until 1995, when Gary Barnett took the Purple to Pasadena, but that just began a different streak: nine straight bowl losses between 1995 and 2011.

In 2012, head coach Pat Fitzgerald, a linebacker on the 1995 squad, ended that streak too: His Wildcats went 10-3 and beat Mississippi State, 34-20, in the Gator Bowl. They've won four more bowls since.

In 2017, five years ago, Wisconsin came within six points of the CFP. Jonathan Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards, the Badgers defense allowed fewer than 14 points per game and Wisconsin began the season 12-0. In the Big Ten championship game, they fell behind Ohio State by a 21-7 margin early in the second quarter but chipped away and got the ball back, down 6, with three minutes left. But Damon Webb picked off a fourth-and-20 pass from Alex Hornibrook, and instead of playing for the national title, Wisconsin had to settle for thumping Miami in the Orange Bowl and finishing 13-1.
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