Like the SEC East Division’s so-called defamation of the West, the Big Ten West is thought to be an afterthought when considering some of the conference’s best teams – like Ohio State, Michigan State, and historically, Michigan – derive from the East.
However, Wisconsin, which has won 10 games or more six different times since the 2005 season, is an exception to the fact. The Badgers went 11-3 during the league’s first year as a West/East split, winning their side of the conference and beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
But with a new head coach for the third time in four years, more quarterback questions, and a backfield that lacks Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon, Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Greg Wallace says that Wisconsin is a team that could fall victim to regression.
“It was a major surprise when Gary Andersen bolted Wisconsin for Oregon State, but new coach Paul Chryst inherits a solid situation as he returns to his hometown of Madison,” Wallace wrote. “That said, it might be tough for Chryst to duplicate last season’s 11-win season in his debut as the Badgers head coach.”
Like the 2014 season, Wisconsin’s downfall could again come from incompetency at the quarterback position; Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy combined to complete 37-of-96 (38.5 percent) of their attempts for 375 yards, one touchdown and nine interceptions in the Badgers’ three losses.
“However, the quarterback situation is, at best, unstable,” Wallace continued. “Neither Joel Stave nor Tanner McEvoy was the answer last fall: Stave threw nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions, Wisconsin threw for 148.7 passing yards per game, No. 118 nationally, and Stave will likely face a challenge from freshman quarterbacks D.J. Gillins and Austin Kafentzis.”
Wallace also mentions Minnesota in his “10 Teams Most Likely to Regress” column, which finished second in the Big Ten West (8-5, 5-3) with surprisingly competitive losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, while delivering huge in-division wins against Iowa (51-14) and Nebraska (28-24).
So if both Wisconsin and Minnesota are expected to regress, which team will rise up and claim the West in 2015?
Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern made some decent strides in the right direction last season, but it’s safe to assume that none of these programs are in the position to actually make a competitive run for a conference championship.
Iowa has been stuck in mediocrity for the last decade. With stability questions on the offensive line, a lack of playmakers at offensive skill positions, and a ton of pressure on expected starting quarterback C.J. Beatherd, we can expect the offense to struggle once again as the Hawkeyes snooze their way to another eight-win year.
Though they always look impressive on paper, nothing is ever guaranteed with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who haven’t won a conference title since Bill Clinton was the President of the United States in 1999. Mike Riley is a fresh face in Lincoln, but there are major questions to whether he can do what Bo Pelini couldn’t: win the big game.
The Huskers should have one of the best secondary units in the Big Ten, but there could be some issues within the front seven as Randy Gregory and other highly productive names need replacing. Star running back Ameer Abdullah will be missed greatly, and there’s reason for concern at the quarterback position with Tommy Armstrong, Jr. looking to be the incumbent.
Even with the potential regression in some areas, it should still be noted that Wisconsin possesses the best chance to come out of the West on top of its competition with the Golden Gophers right in the mix.
This could be a year where nine wins lands you a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game to face one of the East’s premier members.