Big Ten West preview — Almost anything is possible this season


Sometimes the most interesting divisions and conferences are not the most relevant from a national title perspective. The Big Ten West is a good example. Barring a(nother) second-year miracle from Scott Frost at Nebraska, it’s quite likely that there won’t be any division team involved in the College Football Playoff race come mid-November. But that doesn’t stop it from being maybe the most fascinating division in FBS.

Depending on how you feel about Jeff Brohm’s ability to rebuild on the fly at Purdue for the second time in three years, you can make a pretty solid case for up to six West teams winning the division. (Sorry, Illinois.) Nebraska obviously has a fantastic young coach and potentially thrilling young quarterback.

Minnesota was actually both better and younger than Nebraska last year and flashed massive upside. Northwestern won the division in 2018 with smoke and mirrors, but Pat Fitzgerald has an endless supply of such. Wisconsin is Wisconsin. Iowa is Iowa. The volume of storylines here is immense.

A quick reminder on terminology: S&P+ is the tempo- and opponent-adjusted efficiency measure I created at Football Outsiders in 2008.

Teams are listed below in order of S&P+ projections. Click here for the Big Ten East preview.

Jump to a team:
Wisconsin | Iowa | Minnesota | Nebraska
Northwestern | Purdue | Illinois

2018 record and rankings: 8-5 (No. 19 in S&P+, No. 24 in FPI)
2019 S&P+ projection: 9.1 wins (No. 11)
2019 FPI projection: 6.6 wins (No. 38)

In team sports, at least, stereotypes are often stereotypes for a reason. There is generally a kernel of truth in our assumptions. Take Wisconsin, for instance. Since Barry Alvarez broke through decades of struggle with a series of Rose Bowl bids, the Badgers have all but trademarked a certain style of play: run-heavy and physical on offense, equally physical and strong in containment on defense.

Wisconsin plays within itself, takes few risks, and leans on you till you fall over. Right? There have been more than enough 1,500-yard rushers and 20-16 wins to fulfill the prophecy. The name of the head coach has changed a few times, but the style and, for the most part, the wins haven’t abated.

The past couple of years have seen interesting plot twists, however.

In 2017, Wisconsin enjoyed a breakthrough. The Badgers rolled through the regular season at 12-0, skating through their nonconference slate, through a pretty easy Big Ten West, and playing their best ball in their biggest games — they beat ranked Iowa and Michigan teams by a combined 62-24. They fell by only six points to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship, then walloped Miami in the Orange Bowl to finish 13-1 and seventh in the AP poll.

This team was Wisconsin, but more. The defense, led by first-year coordinator and former Wisconsin star Jim Leonhard, ranked fourth in defensive S&P+ and achieved that ranking through aggression. The Badgers were second in the country in havoc rate (total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays), and a full 47% of opponents’ incompletions, the most in the country, were due to a defensed pass (interception or breakup). Wisconsin was sound and big-play phobic, but it also took the fight to you and ended up the better for it.

Offensively, Wisconsin still ran the ball constantly, but when the Badgers needed to pass, they could do it. They had one of the most efficient passing-downs offenses in the country, with Alex Hornibrook distributing the ball to an outstanding, young receiving corps. This wasn’t just Wisconsin, it was Wisconsin+.

In 2018, then, you could say we saw Wisconsin-. The defense dealt with injuries up front, and both injuries and extreme inexperience in the back. D’Cota Dixon, the only experienced defensive back, missed four games, and the rest of the secondary was made up of freshmen and sophomores. The pass rush vanished, too.

Wisconsin sank to 59th in havoc rate and 29th in defensive S&P+ — not bad, but not nearly as good.

The regression put pressure on the offense to make plays, and the passing downs magic disappeared. First, Hornibrook struggled; then, he got hurt and lost his job to sophomore Jack Coan. He transferred to Florida State after the season.

Wisconsin was as good as ever at running the ball — Jonathan Taylor rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns, and UW was second in rushing marginal efficiency. But the bonus features we saw in 2017’s squad were gone. The warning signs came early in a 24-21 loss to BYU, and the deficiencies created massive inconsistency in conference play — after winning seven Big Ten games by double digits the year before, they lost four such games.

So what now? After two extreme seasons in different ways, will the Badgers settle back into the 10-and-3-every-year rhythm we’re used to? It’s possible, but there could be more on the table if the QB position is more stable.

Taylor’s back, the receiving corps still features A.J. Taylor and Danny Davis III, and this year’s secondary is loaded with sophomores and juniors who got their feet wet in 2018. With Hornibrook gone, the starting job probably will go to either Coan or blue-chipper Graham Mertz, one of the most highly anticipated freshmen in school history.

In terms of turnover, the biggest questions come in units Wisconsin usually owns. The Badgers have to replace four starting offensive linemen, including two All-American guards (Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel) and 2017 All-American tackle David Edwards. This is Wisconsin, so there’s no shortage of large, cornfed beasts, but the experience level is down a couple of pegs.

The Badgers also lose their top three TFL leaders, all linebackers. The line is more experienced, but OLB Zack Baun is the only known playmaker in the front seven. The secondary should be better, but that would only matter so much if the pass rush falls off a cliff.

2018 record and rankings: 9-4 (No. 23 in S&P+, No. 16 in FPI)
2019 S&P+ projection: 7.7 wins (No. 25)
2019 FPI projection: 7.9 wins (No. 23)

It perhaps goes without saying that, to reach your goal in any sport and at any level, you’re going to have to win some close games. New England wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl this past season without an overtime win at Kansas City. Toronto wouldn’t have won the NBA title without winning six of eight games decided by two or fewer possessions in the late rounds of the playoffs. Virginia wouldn’t have won the NCAA men’s basketball title without four straight one-possession or OT wins.

You could make the case that close games mean even more in the Big Ten West. In a conference with pretty equal talent levels and slower tempos (which create fewer possessions and give fewer opportunities for one team to pull away from the other), your fate is going to be tied pretty closely to whether you were able to pull games out late. Northwestern went 5-1 in one-possession conference games last year, which allowed the Wildcats to win the division despite mediocre stats. Iowa went 12-0 in the 2015 regular season thanks in part to five one-score wins.

The god of close games is fickle, though. Most teams’ close-game records drift back and forth over time. (Northwestern might be an exception in that regard.) A team’s record in the other games ends up pointing out how they’re trending as a program.

Iowa: trending well.

The 20-year Kirk Ferentz era has been one of consistently solid results — Iowa has, after all, won between seven and nine games in seven of the past nine years — but breaking the Hawkeyes’ record out into one- and multiscore results highlights some peaks and valleys.

• 1999-2000: 2-12 in multiscore games, 2-7 in one-score games
• 2001-05: 33-9 in multiscore games, 12-8 in one-score games
• 2006-07: 8-8 in multiscore games, 4-5 in one-score games
• 2008-10: 19-0 in multiscore games, 9-11 in one-score games
• 2011-12: 7-7 in multiscore games, 4-7 in one-score games
• 2013-18: 33-11 in multiscore games, 19-16 in one-score games

Since 2012’s odd 4-8 campaign (2-3 in multiscores, 2-5 in one-scores), Ferentz has embarked on a third sustained peak. Iowa hasn’t been quite as impressive as it was while going 19-0 in multiscore games in 2008-10, but the Hawkeyes are still 24-6 in such games since 2015. And while they haven’t come close to matching their rather lucky 12-2 record from 2015, S&P+ suggests they’ve continued to improve every year since.

In fact, the Hawkeyes’ No. 23 ranking in S&P+ last fall was their highest since ranking 20th in 2010. They went 9-4 and came close to much more: Three of their four losses came by a combined 12 points.

That 2010 season, however, marked the end of one of Ferentz’s peaks. Can the Hawkeyes keep improving this time around?

The talent on the two-deep is encouraging. Quarterback Nate Stanley returns for his third year as a starter — barring injury, he should end up third in all-time passing yards in Iowa City — and while he’ll have to find some new go-to targets after losing both leading receiver Nick Easley and two first-round tight ends (T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant), he’ll at least have junior wideouts Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith, both of whom shined at times last year.

Despite Iowa’s physical reputation, the Hawkeyes’ run game is rarely particularly good. It doesn’t lose yardage much, but it doesn’t gain all that much, either. But it should at least improve with the return of three junior running backs (Mekhi Sargent, Toren Young, and Ivory Kelly-Martin) and four linemen with starting experience, including all-conference tackle Alaric Jackson. Perhaps that will help to keep Stanley and his younger receiving corps out of awkward downs and distances.

Depth could be an issue on defense, but the star power is high. Former blue-chip end A.J. Epenesa enjoyed a breakout 2018, recording 16.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and 18 run stuffs, and he has a nice dance partner in Chauncey Golston (9 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 9 stuffs). The linebacking corps returns four…

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