It’s preview season all across the land and we got into the swing of things yesterday with my picks in the Big Ten East. Today we’ll tackle the West, where you could convince me of just about any order of finish for the top four teams.
The picks in our 2014 Football Yearbook were a consensus of the Hail Varsity staff as a whole, but here’s how I ordered the West when asked to submit my picks:
1. WISCONSIN — Ohio State had a better offense and Michigan State a better defense, but taken as a whole there was no more efficient team than Wisconsin in the Big Ten last year. The Badgers had a Big Ten-best 146.76 opponent-adjusted yardage differential in 2013 and ranked third in both offensive and defensive yards per play (also opponent-adjusted). Gary Andersen inherited a “ready-made” team in year one and Wisconsin performed like one. This year there are question marks, however. The defense returns just three starters (all in the secondary) and the passing game, a weakness last season, lost its top four receivers, including the only one that really mattered in Jared Abbrederis. That said, I think pretty highly of Andersen as a coach and am pretty confident he’ll field another strong defensive unit even without a ton of recognizable names. That plus the fact that the Badgers have been the most consistently good team among this group of West contenders earns them the nod.
2. NEBRASKA — There’s little doubt that Nebraska’s the most talented team in the West. Add up the national recruiting class rankings for the past four years and average them out and you’ll find that the Huskers, No. 3 on that list, are the only West division team to rank in the top seven. Wisconsin and Iowa (eighth and ninth respectively) are slightly behind both Rutgers and Maryland. On paper, that gives Nebraska some margin for error but this isn’t a new development. The Huskers have been more talented than its immediate neighbors the past three seasons too and has still made enough mistakes through turnovers or field position to negate that advantage. Can that change in 2014? Who knows, but if it does — and the Huskers have been their best under Pelini with a dominant defense, which could happen this season — Nebraska probably wins the West.
3. NORTHWESTERN — Out on a bit of a limb here, but I like this team quite a bit. Almost all of the major pieces are back off a 5-7 team that was at least two games better than 5-7. Four-straight losses by less than eight points, however, have done a surprisingly good job of obscuring that. Getting running back Venric Mark back in 2014 should help, but it’s less important than what the Wildcats have returning up front — namely, everyone. The entire two-deep is back on the o-line and this should be one of the better run blocking units in the country. Add in a potentially scary group of wide receivers and a defense that’s deeper than it’s been in the past and this is a team that could win a lot of games. Or at least enough to finish higher than most are projecting.
4. IOWA — There weren’t too many Hawkeye fans happy to see Greg Davis back for another year as offensive coordinator in 2013, but he got Iowa back to average last season thanks to surprisingly decent performances out of first-year starter Jake Rudock at quarterback and a deep running back corps. That said, what really made the difference was a defense that gave up just 4.58 opponent-adjusted yards per play and that group has to replace all three linebackers. Perhaps more importantly, Iowa lost just four starts on defense last year according to Phil Steele, an extraordinary bit of injury luck that might just compound that inexperience in 2014. The defensive line should be really good and it’s hard to pick against the Hawkeyes’ schedule, the best in the Big Ten, but a regression seems reasonable on defense and I’m not sure the offense is quite dynamic enough yet to make up the difference.
5. MINNESOTA — There were five Big Ten teams that finished the year with a negative yardage differential and Minnesota was the only one of those teams to finish with a winning record. The Gophers gave up 30 yards more per game than they gained last season (opponent-adjusted), which isn’t typically a recipe for success much less an 8-4 regular season. The offense is well-equipped to play keep away again with three returning running backs who all had at least 60 carries last season. The defense loses stars Brock Vereen and Ra’Shede Hageman but looks like a pretty solid unit as well. Add it up and Minnesota has everything it needs to execute like it did last year, which should mean a bunch of close games again but don’t be surprised if a handful of those go the other way this season.
6. ILLINOIS — Well, the offense works. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit came in last year and at least gave the Illini something to hang its hat on, ranking sixth in the Big Ten at 6.03 opponent-adjusted yards per play. But as we’ve seen with Indiana, pairing a prolific offense with an unproductive defense offers a rocky road to winning in the Big Ten. Illinois does have eight starters back on defense so there’s some hope for improvement from an experience angle here, but there does seem to be a lack of playmakers. The Illini have had four defense players drafted in the past two years and they weren’t much good with those guys so it’s hard to predict too much of an improvement defensively, and thus overall, in 2014.
7. PURDUE — This season can’t be much worse than last season, right? It won’t be from a raw wins and losses standpoint thanks to the fact that Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Southern Illinois are all on the schedule, but Big Ten wins will be hard to come by. The offense was anemic last year, averaging just 4.91 adjusted yards per play and the defense wasn’t much better but at least it finished ahead of Indiana and Illinois statistically. If there’s a way forward here, maybe it’s on defense. The Boilermakers took their lumps last year with a young starting lineup and that should be worth something in 2014, but it’s hard to go much higher than 4-8 here.