Ranking The Big Ten West: Wisconsin On Top
It's March, which means we're still about five months away from kickoff in the Big Ten West, but it's prime prognosticating season.
Until August, sports writers across America will sit at their desk pounding the keyboard, compiling rankings to try to show the world how much they know about college football. Then we'll all be shocked and in awe when none of us were right.
It's the nature of the beast. So here's my attempt at breaking down the Big Ten West for the upcoming 2014 season. Hopefully I'll be one of the few who got it right. Make me proud, Big Ten West.
The division runs through the Mad City.
Last season Wisconsin went 6-2 in conference play with losses to Ohio State and Penn State, who are now residing in the Big Ten East. Here's a fun fact: If the new Big Ten divisions were implemented last season, Wisconsin would have won and played Ohio State in the Big Ten championship. I feel like 2014 will be much of the same for Bucky Badger with Joel Stave again under center and Melvin Gordon carrying the rock.
The biggest question is how will they replace many of the pieces that made the Badgers defense great the last few years?
Schedule: LSU, Western Illinois, Bowling Green, USF, at Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, at Rutgers, at Purdue, Nebraska, at Iowa, Minnesota.
Predicted Record: 10-2 (7-1); losses to LSU and Iowa.
Iowa had a good bounce-back season in 2013 with a 5-3 conference record (8-4 overall). Now that the Hawkeyes are in an easier division (at least for now), they have a good shot to take a run at Wisconsin and the Big Ten championship game. But they'll need a better offense in 2014, and that defense will have to play as well or better (better sounds good) to make a splash.
Schedule: Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State, at Pitt, at Purdue, Indiana, at Maryland, Northwestern, at Minnesota, at Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska.
Predicted Record: 10-2 (6-2); losses to Maryland and Nebraska.
The Huskers have got to be angry. Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has made bowl games in three of the four years, winning just one. The team showed up at the 2012 Big Ten championship game, but that's about all they did. Wisconsin trounced them, 70-31. Despite a "meh" 5-3 conference finish last year and another "meh" Gator Bowl victory over a depleted Georgia Bulldogs team, Nebraska is poised to make a legitimate push back to the top. It has the weapons, but can it survive trips to Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa? Good (tough?) luck.
Schedule: Florida Atlanta, McNeese State, at Fresno State, Miami (FL), Illinois, at Michigan State, at Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa.
Predicted Record: 8-3 (5-3); losses to Miami, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
Take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt, as I'm a Northwestern alumnus. Therefore, I take special pride in the Wildcats when they do well, and hate on them extra hard when they disappoint me, which is often.
The Wildcats are completely fine with mediocrity. They are the only program I have ever seen that would legitimately throw a party for winning a Gator Bowl after a three-loss season. Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and now even Michigan State are laughing at us. We can brag about our top-notch education all we want, but when it comes to athletics, 2014 must be a huge year in Evanston or else whatever access our football bragging cards gave us for 10 minutes will expire.
Some theorize that if the 'Cats have another disappointing year, Pat Fitzgerald will be on the hot seat. I have news for the folks over at the athletics department: if at least portions of Fitzgerald's coaching staff aren't already on the hot seat, the Wildcats athletics should just close up shop.
Northwestern has talent on both sides of the ball, and it has since 2012. There's a lot working in Northwestern's favor in 2014, including a quarterback with experience in Trevor Siemian, a favorable home conference schedule and senior leadership. But can it turn those ingredients into a winning recipe? I'll be blunt: No. Probably not.
Schedule: Cal, Northern Illinois, Western Illinois, at Penn State, Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Nebraska, at Iowa, Michigan, at Notre Dame, at Purdue, Illinois.
Predicted Record: 6-6 (3-5); losses to Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Notre Dame.
All signs point up in Minnesota. The Golden Gophers doubled their conference win total to a modest 4-4 in 2013, making back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2009. Led by head coach Jerry Kill, I expect the Gophers to improve even more in 2014. But don't expect them to contend for a Big Ten championship just yet.
Schedule: Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, at TCU, San Jose State, at Michigan, Northwestern, Purdue, at Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, at Wisconsin.
Predicted Record: 5-7 (2-6); losses to TCU, Michigan, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
I scoured the internet for hours trying to find something positive about Illinois football in 2014. The only marginally-cool thing I found was they're playing Washington at Soldier Field. And then I realized that game took place last year and the Illini lost 34-24. I'll keep you updated when I find something else.
Schedule: Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, at Washington, Texas State, at Nebraska, Purdue, at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State, at Northwestern.
Predicted Record: 4-8 (1-7); losses to Washington and everyone in the Big Ten besides Purdue.
Fortunately I did find something cool to talk about relating to Purdue football in 2014: They play Notre Dame at Lucas Oil Stadium. I feel bad for Purdue football. They've got cool uniforms, a cool atmosphere and a great fan base. I recently spent a college Saturday afternoon in Fort Myers, Fla., and I saw an entire section of people wearing Purdue shirts. I asked our waitress about them and sure enough, these people have been meeting for Purdue games "for over 10 years."
For the record, Fort Myers is 1,000 miles away from West Lafayette, Ind. I understand college football fans and alumni from any given school can be found anywhere in the world, but the last place I ever thought I'd run into a passionate collection of Boilermakers fans is in Florida.
As for the analysis, it's going to be another long year for Purdue. But hats off to those fans.
Schedule: Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Southern Illinois, Iowa, at Illinois, Michigan State, at Minnesota, at Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern, at Indiana.
Predicted Record: 4-8 (1-7); losses to Notre Dame and everyone in the Big Ten besides Indiana.