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Big Ten Football: Ranking the West Division

 

7 Purdue

2015 Record: 2-10 (1-7 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 7

Defense: 9

Points Per Game: 25.1

Opponents Points Per Game: 36.5

 

Darrell Hazzell is 6-30 entering his fourth season as the Purdue Boilermakers head coach and is certainly on the hot seat entering this season. They do return 16 starters, however, the level of talent in the Big Ten requires a bit more than what they have. The Boilermakers had one game last season where they went without a turnover, in that game they beat Nebraska 55-45. 2016 could be another down year for the Boilermakers which sees the departure of Darrell Hazzell as well. New offensive coordinator Terry Malone comes trying to prevent that from happening.

 

Key Game: @Maryland, October 1

 

The Boilermakers could be 2-1 or 1-2 entering their Big Ten conference schedule. As Maryland looks to rebuild under D.J. Durkin, the Boilermakers have to show they can turn the corner as well by winning their first Big Ten game before the opponents get a bit tougher.

 

6 Illinois

2015 Record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 5

Defense: 4

Points Per Game: 22.7

Opponents Points Per Game: 23.3

 

Lovie Smith returns to the college coaching ranks after leaving in 1995, where he was defensive backs coach at Ohio State. Smith returns to the Big Ten but to a different school looking to breathe new life into a struggling Illini football program. On the bright side, the Fighting Illini were one game shy of bowl eligibility last season. Unfortunately, they don’t return many starters from last season’s team. They’re in good hands with Lovie Smith at the helm, although this season could be one to forget in a hurry.

 

Key Game: North Carolina, September 10

 

The Fighting Illini welcome ACC opponent UNC Tar Heels to Champaign and they’re not an easy team to beat. Tar Heel running back Elijah Hood is an elusive back who could give Illinois fits if they don’t contain him early. Quarterback Wes Lunt could have his work cut out for him in this Week 2 tuneup before Big Ten play.

5 Minnesota

2015 Record: 6-7 (2-6 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 7

Defense: 7

Points Per Game: 22.5

Opponents Points Per Game: 25.2

 

The Golden Gophers managed to make it to a bowl last season despite Tracy Claeys having to take over midseason but with a full season as head coach, he looks to do more damage. The Golden Gophers return quarterback Mitch Leidner as well a stout offensive line and 2016 looks to be one where the Golden Gophers make a run at the Big Ten West crown. If the Golden Gophers can return to the 11th best passing defense in the nation in 2016, it shouldn’t be too difficult for them.

 

Key Game: Northwestern, November 19

 

The Golden Gophers don’t have Ohio State, Michigan State, or Michigan on their schedule this season. If they can beat Northwestern, that leaves Wisconsin as the lone team left to defeat in order to finish the season as a success story in the Big Ten West. With all the momentum coming off a Northwestern victory, it’s hard to deny the Golden Gophers an upset the following week.

 

4 Nebraska

2015 Record: 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 6

Defense: 6

Points Per Game: 32.8

Opponents Points Per Game: 27.8

 

The Nebraska Cornhuskers finished 2015 below .500 but that’s no reason to fret. The Cornhuskers lost six games by 8 points or less and quarterback Tommy Armstrong returns looking to limit the turnovers. Armstrong threw 16 interceptions in 2015. The defense lost two NFL Draft picks as well so adjustments abound, the Cornhuskers could fall a bit in the Big Ten rankings before it’s all said and done.

 

Key Game: Oregon, September 17

 

The Cornhuskers welcome the fast paced Oregon Ducks to Lincoln next season and if the Cornhuskers can keep pace, their season could be one that sees them in the seven or eight win category. The two teams haven’t met since 1986 where the Cornhuskers won that game 48-14. The Cornhuskers are 5-1 overall against the Oregon Ducks as well.

 

 

3 Wisconsin

2015 Record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 6

Defense: 5

Points Per Game: 26.8

Opponents Points Per Game: 13.7

 

The Wisconsin Badgers had a decent performance in Paul Chryst first season as head coach, duplicating those efforts but at a more efficient rate is the goal in 2016. The offense is the biggest project the Badgers will have on their hands this season as the defense should recover gracefully despite some key losses. The Badgers are still in search of their prolific running game. Last season, they ranked 98th nationally, their lowest total in almost 20 seasons. 10 wins is nothing to pout over though, this season may be a different story though.

 

Key Game:  LSU, September 3

 

The Wisconsin Badgers open the season against another SEC opponent, this time it’s the LSU Tigers. The teams last met in 2014 when the Tigers won 28-24 in a close one. Wisconsin is currently 0-3 all-time against the LSU Tigers and getting in the win column early in 2016 should be key to any success they might have.

 

2 Northwestern

2015 Record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 7

Defense: 6

Points Per Game: 19.5

Opponents Points Per Game: 18.6

 

The Northwestern Wildcats have been a breath of fresh air for the Big Ten the past few seasons. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald led the Wildcats to the second 10-win season in his coaching tenure since arriving in 2006. The Wildcats return a majority of last season’s team but need to make some offensive adjustments to return to prominence. The defense only allowed five passing touchdowns last season so building off that kind of effort is key.

 

Key Game: Duke, September 17

 

The Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Duke Blue Devils last season 19-10 in their first meeting since 2008. As the Wildcats and Blue Devils renew their series, this game is key in how the Wildcats season will go. Defense set the tone early and a 55 yard touchdown run saved the day for the Wildcats. Look for 2016’s matchup to have similar results.

 

1 Iowa

2015 Record: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)

Returning Starters

Offense: 5

Defense: 8

Points Per Game: 30.9

Opponents Points Per Game: 20.4

 

The Iowa Hawkeyes saw their first 10 win season since 2009 and look to keep that going entering this season. The Hawkeyes could boast the Big Ten’s best defense before the 2016 season concludes behind the stellar play of Thorpe Award winner Desmond King. King’s eight interceptions last season were a single-season Iowa record. Look for the Hawkeyes to return to the Big Ten title game this season with a chip on their shoulder as they currently sit atop the Big Ten West division as #1.

 

Key Game: North Dakota St, September 17

 

The Iowa Hawkeyes invite the FCS’ finest in North Dakota St. next season. NDSU is no slouch as they have won the last five FCS National Championships and they could very well come into Hawkeye territory and leave with an upset. If the Hawkeyes want 2016 to be another special season, they should be ready for the Bison.