College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions


The Big 10 West is an extremely interesting division within the Big 10

Next year, college football will undergo significant changes with the introduction of a 12-team playoff and the formation of 16-team megaconferences. Among these transformations, the additions of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten stand out as particularly jarring. It’s still hard to picture Big 10 Conference games taking place in Los Angeles, or a Rutgers vs USC matchup being a yearly Big 10 meeting, but here we are and this is this new landscape of college football.

Rung Game + Defense Has Ruled the Big 10 West

We start today with what has always been a powerful and exciting division in the Big 10, the Big 10 West. While there have been calls to eliminate divisions in favor of a new scheduling structure, the Big Ten West has had a distinct and reliable identity. Although it may not have been the most competitive division, with its champions consistently falling short in the Big Ten championship game due to the blue bloods in the East, it has remained steadfast in its commitment to defense and power football, even as the rest of the football world gravitates towards offense-oriented strategies. It’s a nice little throwback to old-school ground-and-pound, in-the-trenches football. It’s a division that gets more entertaining as the weather gets colder, but it’s not for everyone, I get that.

It’s a defense first division and 2022 was no different. The defensive prowess of West teams was evident, with Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin ranking highly in defensive SP+ metrics. Meanwhile, Purdue showcased the division’s strongest offense, albeit still outside the top 40 nationally. Looking ahead to this year, the West is once again home to some of the nation’s top defenses, while offensive firepower remains relatively scarce. Luke Fickell may look to change that in his first season at Wisconsin as an offensive overhaul is underway. The bottom teams in the West last season will all have new head coaches in Wisconsin, Nebraska, and now Northwestern as Pat Fitzgerald was just let go amid an odd hazing scandal.

Before we move to 2023, let’s look at how they finished last season.

Big 10 West 2022 Standings

Purdue 6-3 8-4
Illinois 5-4 8-4
Minnesota 5-4 8-4
Iowa 5-4 7-5
Wisconsin 4-5 6-6
Nebraska 3-6 4-8
Northwestern 1-8 1-11

2023 Big 10 West Predictions

1. Wisconsin Badgers (7-2 Big 10) 9-3 Overall

College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions

Luke Fickell’s arrival at Wisconsin as the new head coach signals a new era for the Badgers. Fickell, who enjoyed a successful tenure at Cincinnati, brings a wealth of experience in the Big Ten from his time as a player at Ohio State. With Wisconsin being the preseason favorite to win the West Division, Fickell has an opportunity to make an immediate impact.

One significant change under Fickell’s leadership is the introduction of new offensive coordinator Phil Longo and his Air Raid system. This departure from the traditional ground-and-pound style that has been successful for the Badgers over the years brings excitement and a potential boost to the offense. While Longo plans to maintain the rushing attack that Wisconsin is known for, the addition of the Air Raid should add a new dimension to the team’s offensive game plan.

The success of the rushing attack will largely depend on the performance of running backs Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi. Allen has already achieved remarkable milestones by rushing for over 1,000 yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, while Mellusi has shown promise since transferring from Clemson. Their contributions will be crucial to the team’s offensive success.

At the quarterback position, the Badgers will rely on transfer Tanner Mordecai, who showcased his talent at SMU with impressive passing numbers. His experience in a spread offense will be put to the test against the tough defenses of the Big Ten, but with his track record, he brings a level of confidence to the position.

To bolster the receiving corps, Wisconsin made additions through the transfer portal. Bryson Green, Will Pauling, and CJ Williams are expected to make immediate contributions to the team. Their presence should provide a boost to the passing game and give Mordecai additional weapons to target.

Defensively, the Badgers are in a strong position with eight returning starters. This unit has the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten, adding to the overall strength of the team.

With Fickell at the helm and the combination of an upgraded offense, an experienced quarterback, and a solid defense, Wisconsin appears poised to contend for the West Division title. The new era under Fickell brings anticipation and excitement for Badgers fans as they eagerly await the start of the 2023 season. I think they may really surprise people with just how ready they are.

2. Minnesota Golden Gophers (6-3 Big 10) 8-4 Overall


College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions


During his tenure at Minnesota, P.J. Fleck has successfully built a strong and consistently competitive program. Over the last three full seasons, the Gophers have posted an impressive combined record of 29-10, securing three bowl victories and achieving their first top-10 finish in 57 years in 2019. Despite these accomplishments, one hurdle has remained elusive for them—the ability to win the Big Ten West division.

In 2019, Minnesota had a prime opportunity to claim the division title by defeating Wisconsin at home. However, they suffered a disappointing 38-17 loss, dashing their hopes. Similarly, in 2021, the Gophers held a halftime lead against Iowa but couldn’t maintain their advantage, falling short by a mere five points. The 2022 season saw Minnesota showcase brilliance in September and November, but a three-game losing streak in October, compounded by injuries and uncertainty at the quarterback position, hindered their progress. A critical 20-10 loss to Purdue during that stretch proved to be the deciding factor.

Despite their setbacks, Fleck has undoubtedly elevated the Gophers’ program to new heights. The team’s consistent competitiveness and success in bowl games demonstrate their growth under his leadership.

With QB Athan Kaliakmanis taking over for Tanner Morgan and the Gophers welcoming in 1,000 yards rushing transfer from Western Michigan in Sean Tyler, I think this is the year Fleck and the Gophers could represent the West in the Big 10 title game, but they still need to win that one big game. While they have both Michigan and Ohio State on their schedule this year, I think the date to circle is November 25th when the Gophers host Luke Fickell and the Wisconsin Badgers in what may very well be a rivalry game to see who will play for the Big 10 title.

3. Iowa Hawkeyes (5-4 Big 10) 7-5 Overall


College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions


The Iowa Hawkeyes have their sights set on the West Division title once again, but they must find a way to jumpstart an offense that struggled in Big Ten play last season, averaging just 18.7 points per game. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and his team will rely on improvements in this area to make a serious run at the division crown.

While the loss of linebacker Jack Campbell and standout cornerback Riley Moss is significant, the Hawkeyes still boast one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. With a strong defensive unit in place, Iowa can keep games close and give their offense a chance to succeed.

To address their offensive struggles, Iowa brought in Michigan transfer Cade McNamara as their new starting quarterback. McNamara, who led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff in 2021, faced some challenges and was eventually benched in 2022. However, the Hawkeyes believe he can provide an upgrade at the quarterback position and help revitalize their stagnant offense.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz also turned to the transfer portal to bolster the offensive line and receiving corps. These additions bring optimism that the offense will show improvement in the upcoming season. The offensive line will provide better protection for McNamara, while the new receiving options should give him more reliable targets in the passing game.

It’s worth noting that there has been criticism directed at offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, Kirk Ferentz’s son, for the team’s offensive struggles. As the architect of the offense, Brian will face pressure to make the necessary adjustments and put the Hawkeyes in a better position to succeed.

Overall, the Hawkeyes understand that their offensive woes need to be addressed if they want to compete for the West Division title. With improvements in the passing game and better overall offensive production, Iowa has the potential to make significant strides this season. The team’s strong defense will continue to be a foundation for success, giving them a chance to be a formidable contender in the Big Ten West.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini (5-4 Big 10) 7-5 Overall


College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions


Illinois football fans won’t love this but I think they take a small step backwards in 2023. They caught a lot of breaks last year and have lost some excellent players and coaches. Under the guidance of head coach Bret Bielema, the team achieved its first winning season since 2011, finishing with an 8-5 record and securing five victories in Big Ten play. However, replicating or surpassing that win total won’t come without obstacles.

One of the significant challenges for Illinois lies in its defense. Coordinator Ryan Walters departed to become the head coach at Purdue, leaving a void in the coaching staff. Additionally, the defense is experiencing significant turnover in the secondary, which may impact their overall performance. Adjusting to these changes and finding suitable replacements will be crucial for the team’s defensive success.

On the offensive side, the Illini will have their third different starting quarterback in as many years. Luke Altmyer, a transfer from Ole Miss, was brought in to provide stability and a smooth transition from former quarterback Tommy DeVito. However, if Altmyer struggles, there are alternatives in former Ball State starter John Paddock and redshirt freshman Donovan Leary. The offensive line returns three starters, including tackles Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams, as well as guard Zy Crisler. The center position will be under the guidance of Josh Kreutz.

The receiving corps is led by Isaiah Williams, who made a successful transition from quarterback to receiver and led the team with 82 receptions. Williams anchors an improving group that includes Pat Bryant and Casey Washington, with incoming freshman Malik Elzy expected to make an impact as well.

In the backfield, Illinois faces the challenge of filling the void left by running back Chase Brown, who had a stellar season in 2022 with 1,643 rushing yards. Josh McCray and Reggie Love III will be tasked with stepping up and maintaining the team’s ground game.

Overall, Illinois faces several key adjustments and transitions in both its offensive and defensive units. Navigating these changes and finding suitable replacements will be crucial for the team’s success in the upcoming season. With Bielema at the helm, Illinois aims to build upon their recent achievements and continue their upward trajectory in the Big Ten conference.

5. Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-5 Big 10) 6-6 Overall


College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions

When Matt Rhule took the helm at both Baylor and Temple, his debuts were far from successful, resulting in a combined 3-21 record. However, as Rhule begins his tenure at Nebraska, there is optimism that his debut in Lincoln will fare better than his previous experiences in Waco and Philadelphia. I don’t want to make a wild prediction, but I do think this squad could surprise some people in 2023 and do even better than we predict.

Although Nebraska is still a work in progress, there are several factors that point to potential improvement under Rhule’s leadership. The quarterback position is expected to be filled by Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims, who brings a new dynamic to the offense after the departure of Casey Thompson to FAU. The skill positions are also solid, with the return of running back Anthony Grant and the additions of transfer players Billy Kemp IV from Virginia and Arik Gilbert from Georgia, bolstering the pass-catching unit.

The development of the offensive line and the defense will be crucial to Nebraska’s success in the upcoming season. The offensive line needs to show improvement in order to provide adequate protection for Sims and open up running lanes for Grant. On the defensive side, there is room for growth, as the team allowed an average of 27.6 points per game last season.

While Nebraska may still be a work in progress under Rhule’s guidance, there is hope that his debut will mark a step in the right direction for the program. With an upgraded quarterback and a solid group of skill players, the team has the potential to make positive strides in the upcoming season. However, the development of the offensive line and the ability to improve the defensive performance will be crucial factors that determine the success of Nebraska’s 2023 campaign.


6. Purdue Boilermakers (3-6 Big 10) 4-8 Overall


College Football: Big Ten West Preview, Predictions

First-year coach Ryan Walters faces a challenging task in guiding Purdue back to the Big Ten Championship, especially following the departure of quarterback Aidan O’Connell and receiver Charlie Jones. However, the Boilermakers have some promising pieces in place, and Walters has assembled a strong coaching staff while making key additions through the transfer portal.

At quarterback, transfer Hudson Card is expected to take the reins, bringing his talent and experience to the position. Running back Devin Mockobee is set for another standout season in an offense led by new coordinator Graham Harrell, which should provide a boost to the team’s scoring potential.

While Walters demonstrated his ability to lead a top-notch defense at Illinois last season, he faces a rebuilding effort at Purdue. The team allowed an average of 27.4 points per game in 2022 and will have just four returning starters on defense. This offseason will be crucial for Walters and his staff to develop the necessary depth and cohesion on the defensive side of the ball.

Despite the challenges, there is optimism surrounding Purdue’s prospects under Walters’ leadership. The talent acquired through the transfer portal, coupled with the expertise of the coaching staff, provides a solid foundation for success. While returning to the Big Ten Championship may be a tall order in Walters’ first year, the team has the potential to make strides and establish a competitive presence in the conference.

7. Northwestern Wildcats (0-9 Big 10) 1-11 Overall

Northwestern is a flat-out dumpster fire right now and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Their handling of the hazing allegations and what they did with Coach Pat Fitzgerald was a masterclass in how to look completely clueless in crisis management. Firing Pat Fitzgerald but holding on to the entire staff following a 6-month investigation which resulted in the conclusion that Fitzgerald had zero knowledge of the incidents or complaints is wildly absurd. Firing him after first giving him a 2-week suspension after they conducted a 6-month investigation is laughable. They’re an absolute mess and I think we will watch this program fall to depths we’ve never seen. They are locked in as a bottom dweller.

I think they really need to beat Howard on October 7th to avoid a winless season. Northwestern’s offensive outlook received a significant boost with the commitment of quarterback Ben Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati, for the 2023 season. But I don’t care. The alumni are upset, the players are upset, and the transfer portal may be filled with Wildcats next year as it’s too late this year. What a mess.

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