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Hot Reads: Three Questions for the Big Ten West

May 09, 2017

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach recently listed the “most pressing” questions facing each each Power 5 conference, three such questions per conference. All three of his Big Ten questions dealt with the East: Can Michigan beat Ohio State, is Penn State for real and what’s going on with Michigan State?

Here in the Western half of the Conference of Meat and Potatoes, I don’t think people harbor any illusions about the power structure. The East has the most powerful teams, thus it drives the conversation. But in the interest of fairness, I have three West-Division-only questions to ponder this morning.

1. How can you pick against Wisconsin? I’m not saying you should pick against the Badgers. Wisconsin has represented the West in two of the three title games under that format so far. But if you wanted to bet against the favorite, why would you do it? It’s a tough one to answer.

The Badgers have 15 starters back, including all three starters on the defensive line, the quarterback and one of the best tight ends in the country. Last year at this time, nobody thought Wisconsin could navigate a schedule that included games against LSU, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State in the first six weeks. LSU wasn’t quite the national-title contender it was in the preseason, Michigan State fell off the map and the Badgers lost to the other two. But then Wisconsin swept Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern in consecutive weeks and the heavy lifting was done.

The 2017 schedule is Oreo-like, stiff on top and bottom, but creamy in the middle. Wisconsin goes to BYU in week three, which could be a tough trip, then comes back to face Northwestern and Nebraska in weeks five and six. That’ll be the first major checkpoint. The last month of the season includes Iowa, Michigan and at Minnesota. The BYU game won’t count for conference standings, obviously, but it could be an interesting litmus test early on, and that Minnesota season finale just has a feeling of potential trouble. Overall, it’s a schedule that might be a little more challenging just based on timing.

2. How good is Northwestern? The Wildcats are a live wildcard again in the West with 17 starters back. That includes the ageless Justin Jackson at running back, an improving quarterback in Clayton Thorson and eight starters from a defense that ranked fifth in explosive plays percentage. It’s a good base from which to build a division-title run. You could even argue, and I suspect some will, that this is the second-choice in the West race.

One of the bigger questions facing Northwestern is how it replaces wide receiver Austin Carr (1,247 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2016). A potential answer may have arrived from the West Coast in former Oregon receiver (and 4-star recruit) Jalen Brown. Whatever Brown is able to add could just be a bonus, as the Wildcats do have three other upperclassmen returning in the receiving corps. That’s important. Passing game continuity tends to matter quite a bit.

3. Who ya got? Iowa, Minnesota or Nebraska? If Wisconsin and Northwestern are slight favorites here, what happens in the intriguing next tier? The home games are all split among these three (and all Oct. 28 or later), so in this little round robin there’s probably not a scheduling edge. All three schools are also replacing quarterbacks.

Iowa and Nebraska at least don’t have to replace a coach, though Minnesota’s decision to do that following its bowl is probably a long-term gain for the Gophers. Will it show up right away in 2017? P.J. Fleck has been strangely quiet as he puts his program together, so make of that what you will. After spending a few months on campus, he could be tempering expectations (through silence) in year one. Or maybe he likes what he’s got and he doesn’t want the secret to get out. Of course, somewhere between those two extremes is an option two, and I personally think that’s where Minnesota will fall.

As for the Huskers and Hawkeyes, Iowa probably deserves the nod based on the past two years, but there’s reason to be cautious about a new(ish) offense run by a new quarterback. Nebraska’s biggest edge here isn’t talent, but urgency. All of Mike Riley’s moves to this point indicate an awareness that the Huskers need to up their level of play. It’s tough to do that when you can’t beat Iowa.

Schlabach did mention the West in a couple of his conference quick hits. Minnesota was listed as the “team most likely to fall.” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr was the “player most likely to rebound.” And the newcomer to watch?

Well, that’s Tanner Lee.

Speaking of Lee

Stanford’s David Shaw is one of my favorites as far as talking about football goes. There’s a reason he was on the NFL Network’s draft coverage. He’s good at this stuff.

Shaw recently spoke with Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. It’s a lengthy conversation and there’s a lot there — including Shaw’s assessment that Nebraska native Harrison Phillips is the strongest player on the team — but this snippet on comparing Jameis Winston to Deshaun Watson jumped out:

I’d probably put Jameis ahead of him slightly on offense. Jameis was more in the pocket, but this kid has an X-factor Jameis had too, which is, like it or not, his personality wins over a locker room. They love that guy. And Deshaun is going to do the same thing. His Day 1 in that locker room, guys are gonna say, ‘Oh there’s our quarterback. Coach, you tell me he’s not going to start but I’m following him already.’ That’s the kind of person he is.

It jumped out because Mike Riley said this yesterday during his tour of Nebraska about Tanner Lee:

“He basically sat out last year, quarterbacked the scout team, everybody respected him, respected his ability,” Riley said while speaking in Lincoln at the first of eight tour stops across the state this week.

“He was elected, without ever having played at all, he was elected as one of our offseason captains … So there’s a lot of respect for this guy not only as a good football player but as a guy.”

Connect the dots there and you end up with a picture where Watson and Lee are two halves of the same whole. OK, not really, it’s far from fair to equate the two, but the point is that Riley’s has mentioned this locker room/leadership stuff on more than one occasion. It might matter quite a bit.

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