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Team Previews

Big Ten West Preview

by Mark Lindquist
Updated On: August 13, 2019, 1:22 am ET

Leading up to the start of the season, Rotoworld will be pumping out previews for every Group of 5 and Power 5 conference (plus Independents), complete with fantasy projections courtesy of RW analytics guru Hayden Winks, draft prospects to watch and a full examination of each conference's team's best and worst case scenarios. Up in this installation: The Big Ten West, with the Big Ten East coming on Wednesday.

*Note: While this preview will only specifically cover the Big Ten West, Hayden's fantasy projections are for the whole of the conference.

 

Fantasy Projections

Quarterbacks PaYD PaTD RuYD FPPG
Justin Fields (Ohio State, SO) 3345 29 480 29
Adrian Martinez (Nebraska, SO) 3318 22 635 26
Shea Patterson (Michigan, SR) 3200 28 217 21
Hunter Johnson (Northwestern, SO) 3032 19 272 20
Elijah Sindelar (Purdue, SR) 3249 25 107 20
Peyton Ramsey (Indiana, JR) 2682 18 296 21
Sean Clifford (Penn State, SO) 2989 21 128 18
Brian Lewerke (Michigan State, SR) 2805 17 186 17
Zack Annexstad (Minnesota, SO) 1492 10 30 11
Isaiah Williams (Illinois, FR) 1307 8 85 12
Artur Sitkowski (Rutgers, SO) 1633 9 30 9
Jack Coan (Wisconsin, JR) 1035 7 25 11

 

 

Running Backs RuYD RuTD ReYD FPPG
Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin, JR) 1535 12 148 24
J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State, JR) 853 9 259 18
Reggie Corbin (Illinois, SR) 1066 8 152 17
Anthony McFarland (Maryland, SO) 1115 7 101 16
Isaiah Bowser (Northwestern, SO) 986 10 74 16
Mekhi Sargent (Iowa, JR) 782 9 130 15
Stevie Scott (Indiana, SO) 829 7 93 14
Ricky Slade (Penn State, SO) 745 6 226 14
Raheem Blackshear (Rutgers, JR) 527 2 317 13
Zach Charbonnet (Michigan, FR) 773 8 65 13
Connor Heyward (Michigan State, JR) 551 5 219 13
Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota, SO) 886 7 23 12
Dedrick Mills (Nebraska, JR) 767 9 25 12
Rodney Smith (Minnesota, SR) 622 6 28 9
Toren Young (Iowa, JR) 586 5 34 9
Tario Fuller (Purdue, SR) 564 5 40 9
Journey Brown (Penn State, SO) 575 5 9 8
Christian Turner (Michigan, rFR) 298 3 139 8
Mike Epstein (Illinois, JR) 459 3 78 8
Garrett Groshek (Wisconsin, JR) 329 1 147 7
Isaih Pacheco (Rutgers, SO) 545 4 14 7
Master Teague (Ohio State, SO) 412 4 25 6
Tayon Fleet-Davis (Maryland, JR) 316 4 48 6
Noah Cain (Penn State, FR) 383 3 23 6
La'Darius Jefferson (Michigan State, SO) 368 3 26 6

 

Receivers Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Rondale Moore (Purdue, SO) 106 1193 8 26
JD Spielman (Nebraska, JR) 76 943 6 17
Tyler Johnson (Minnesota, SR) 68 1011 6 17
KJ Hamler (Penn State, SO) 54 900 5 15
Cody White (Michigan State, JR) 62 844 5 15
K.J. Hill (Ohio State, SR) 63 744 6 14
Donovan Peoples-Jones (Michigan, JR) 53 717 6 14
Nico Collins (Michigan, JR) 49 674 6 13
Rashod Bateman (Minnesota, SO) 49 677 4 12
Nick Westbrook (Indiana, SR) 50 691 4 12
Donavan Hale (Indiana, SR) 52 635 4 12
Justin Shorter (Penn State, rFR) 46 659 4 11
Bennett Skowronek (Northwestern, SR) 52 644 3 11
Wandale Robinson (Nebraska, FR) 30 402 3 10
Dontay Demus (Maryland, SO) 34 597 3 9
Jalen Nailor (Michigan State, SO) 43 494 3 10
Whop Philyor (Indiana, JR) 47 477 3 10
Ricky Smalling (Illinois, JR) 40 503 4 10
Tarik Black (Michigan, SO) 29 431 4 9
Jaelen Gill (Ohio State, rFR) 36 516 4 9
Darrell Stewart Jr. (Michigan State, SR) 46 463 2 9
Kanawai Noa (Nebraska, SR) 40 491 3 9
Austin Mack (Ohio State, SR) 37 472 4 9
Ihmir Smith-Marsette (Iowa, JR) 30 439 4 9
Brandon Smith (Iowa, JR) 37 472 4 9
Danny Davis III (Wisconsin, SR) 39 410 3 9
A.J. Taylor (Wisconsin, SR) 34 533 3 9
Garrett Wilson (Ohio State, FR) 34 442 4 8
Jared Sparks (Purdue, JR) 40 394 3 8
Chris Olave (Ohio State, SO) 31 442 4 8
Jahan Dotson (Penn State, SO) 32 455 3 8
Riley Lees (Northwestern, JR) 37 364 2 8
DJ Turner (Maryland, SR) 34 420 3 8
Mike Sainristil (Michigan, FR) 26 388 3 7
David Bell (Purdue, FR) 31 383 3 7
Amad Anderson (Purdue, rFR) 31 383 3 7
Trevon Sidney (Illinois, JR) 31 385 2 7
Binjimen Victor (Ohio State, SR) 24 408 3 7
Kendric Pryor (Wisconsin, JR) 26 306 2 7
Ty Fryfogle (Indiana, JR) 30 366 2 7

 

Tight Ends Rec ReYD ReTD FPPG
Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin, SO) 42 514 6 11
Pat Freiermuth (Penn State, SO) 33 471 7 10
Peyton Hendershot (Indiana, SO) 36 391 3 8
Seth Green (Minnesota, JR) 2 17 0 6
Jack Stoll (Nebraska, JR) 30 342 2 6
Shaun Beyer (Iowa, JR) 28 278 3 6
Sean McKeon (Michigan, SR) 25 282 3 6
Trey Pugh (Northwestern, JR) 27 233 2 5

 

Projected Standings

Big Ten West

Northwestern 9-3 (7-2 in conference)

Nebraska 9-3 (6-3 in conference)

Wisconsin 9-3 (6-3 in conference)

Purdue 7-5 (6-3 in conference)

Iowa 8-4 (5-4 in conference)

Minnesota 5-7 (4-5 in conference)

Illinois 3-9 (1-8 in conference)


Northwestern Wildcats

2018 season: 9-5 (8-1 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: LB Paddy Fisher. Fisher has hit the ground running in two seasons with Northwestern, leading the team in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles each of his first two years in the program. He plays like the football equivalent of a nail gun, straight to the board. Fisher's next developmental step should come in terms of improved nuance in coverage. He is already an elite run-stuffing talent, one of the best in the country in that specific arena. He has upside toward early Day 2 with a strong evaluating process.

 

The case for: Hunter Johnson will finally be unveiled! Johnson signed with Clemson as a five-star recruit in the 2017 class but was unable to beat out Kelly Bryant for starting work his first year on campus. Then some kid named Trevor Lawrence came along in the 2018 class and Johnson slowly began to edge toward the door.

Unlike so many high-profile transfers, Johnson opted not to gun for an eligibility waiver following his Northwestern transfer. Logical enough given that Clayton Thorson was already entrenched as starter. With Thorson no longer on roster, we’ll finally see Johnson receive an extended test run. 

Oh, Cats’ HC Pat Fitzgerald will give you the age old “the battle is real” line when it comes to Johnson v. senior TJ Green, but the battle was real between Kyler Murray and Austin Kendall last August, too, right up until the moment it became very much not real. Johnson is by recruiting ranking the biggest transfer Northwestern has ever received, and he didn’t just come to Evanston to read up on the intricacies of1960’s Cold War politics. 

Here’s where the Wildcats become intriguing -- they made the Big Ten Championship Game last season with Clayton Thorson completing just 61.1% of his passes while throwing out a 17/15 TD/INT ratio and 6.5 YPA. Fitzgerald has won at least nine games -- with two 10-win campaigns -- in three of the last four seasons. Fitzgerald did that with replacement-level (at best) quarterback play. 

It’s not just Johnson that has us optimistic, though. The Wildcats had to work through the sudden retirement of RB Jeremy Larkin in September, followed by an injury to Larkin’s backup, John Moten IV. This seemingly dreadful sequence of events was offset by the blinding light of true freshman Isaiah Bowser, who posted four games of 100 yards rushing and did not finish with fewer than 60 yards on the ground after Oct. 20. Bowser has now had a full offseason to focus on making specific improvements. 

And Fitzgerald knows how to coach defense. He’s got a good one on his hands. Northwestern returns 71% of their defensive production from last season, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That starts with Paddy Fisher, a wrecking ball of a linebacker who totaled 110 tackles and four forced fumbles last season. This is also a team deep in the secondary and stocked up front (Joe Gaziano the name to watch off the edge). 

Everybody can throw flower petals at the feet of Scott Frost, but we will be picking forget-me-nots for Fitzgerald, who is far more accustomed to the rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots nature of the Big Ten and has a defense which can actually do that. Maybe Frost’s offense is flashier, but Johnson could go a long way in helping to deaden that advantage. 

Northwestern will travel to Lincoln on Oct. 5. One week after the Cornhuskers host Ohio State. Fitzgerald has to be licking his chops for that spot. Either Nebraska upsets OSU and enters the week pumped up and primed for a letdown, or they lose to OSU and enter the week dejected. Either way, fantastic.

 

The case against: Well, it’s fantastic only assuming Northwestern gets off to a nice start on the season. No guarantee on that by any stretch, though. The Wildcats will face an early boulder-filled river, booting up against Stanford on Aug. 31, with notable contests against Michigan State and Wisconsin in the two weekends prior to that big trip to Lincoln on Oct. 5. And that Badgers contest is going to be in Madison. 

Northwestern, itself, could be in some kind of precarious spot at the time they face Nebraska. They’ll then get a bye before hosting OSU. That three-step, Wisconsin-Nebraska-Ohio State, could well decide the course of Northwestern’s season. For all of our optimism on Hunter Johnson, we will concede that we don’t actually know who Hunter Johnson is as a football player.

Grouse about his recruiting rating until you’re blue in the face, but he has never started a collegiate game before and hit the eject button after it became clear that Trevor Lawrence was a different species of athlete. Johnson may have had a year off to learn in Northwestern’s system, but he is a greenhorn when it comes to Big Ten play. Wisconsin-Nebraska-Ohio State. That’s tough.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: OVER


Nebraska Cornhuskers

2018 record: 4-8 (3-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: LB Mohamed Barry. Barry has a mind for diagnostics which allows him to slow everything down. He not only knows what he's seeing, he knows how to get there once he sees it. Might as well have a GPS in his brain the way he moves around the field. While requisitely bursty, Barry can sometimes find himself out of position due to lateral stiffness.

 

The case for: In a college football universe where Alabama and Clemson are seemingly always destined for a Playoff matchup, with Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia rarely far off, Nebraska represents something of a wild card. UCF was never going to reach the Playoff without expansion under HC Scott Frost, but should Nebraska hit its absolute ceiling, theirs would come with the backing of a Power Five conference.

Should Nebraska shoot the moon this year, it’s going to require QB Adrian Martinez to have a special season. Perhaps a Heisman-caliber season. We already saw the potential realized in places during his true freshman campaign in 2018. A 384-yard passing performance against Wisconsin and a 125-yard rushing performance against Minnesota, for instance, nicely illustrate the two sides of Martinez’s game.

In his second year under Scott Frost, UCF QB McKenzie Milton accounted for 45 total touchdowns. A mark like that is not outside the realm of possibility for Martinez in his own Year 2 with Coach Frost. Martinez's continued development will determine how high this offense can fly, but he’ll have help. Wide receiver J.D. Spielman could set a pair of career program records this fall, for example, as he needs 68 catches and 1,099 receiving yards to overtake old friend and pacesetter Stanley Morgan in those two categories. 

And we cannot wait to see true freshman wide receiver/running back/general dynamo Wan’dale Robinson, who could be Nebraska’s answer to Purdue’s Rondale Moore (check out the highlight below to see him glide). Robinson got into trouble earlier this offseason after being charged with a misdemeanor marijuana offense -- one of four Nebraska players to run afoul of the sticky icky during the offseason -- and will need to tread lightly off the field this fall, as we imagine that Frost is oh so tired of lecturing his squad.

These marijuana issues are all cause for a minor headache, to be sure, but we would imagine that it’s RB Maurice Washington’s “revenge porn” case which has Frost reaching for the Advil most often these days. Washington remains in legal limbo for his alleged sending of a sexually-explicit video of a former girlfriend (aged 15 in the video) to that same former girlfriend.

Washington is practicing with the team this month and Frost has said that he sees no immediate need to determine the sophomore’s playing status before the season-opener, but his next court appearance will come in the first week of September, into the start of the season. It's not quite clear, yet, how Frost plans on navigating this situation. Washington averaged 5.9 YPC on 77 totes of the rock last season and we would be excited to see what he might be able to do alongside a maturing Martinez.

If Nebraska moves to suspend Washington for any portion of the regular season, they brought in a contingency plan this offseason in former Georgia Tech RB Dedrick Mills. Not that Mills has a clean back history, either -- he was dismissed from the Yellow Jackets in prior to the 2017 season due to a violation of athletic department rules and spent the 2018 season in the JUCO ranks before moving on to Lincoln.

This is an offense that could absolutely sing if all of their pieces remain on the board. Playoff talk is probably a bridge too far -- as fun as such a prospect would be -- but a Big Ten title game matchup with either Ohio State or Michigan (or Penn State/Michigan State, we guess) is very much going to be within reach. Especially if Martinez shines.

 

The case against: No doubt, Nebraska will be entertaining this season. And maybe they even do find their way into the Big Ten Championship Game, emerging from a Big Ten West which is as fluid as any individual division in an FBS conference -- seriously, the only team which would surprise us emerging from it would be Illinois, and you know what, even Illinois could be low-key frisky this fall -- but just tap those darned brakes on talk of the Playoff or a Martinez run to the Heisman. 

The Debbie Downer case with the Huskers would be that they are too early, too young, for some of the grand proclamations flying about. It’s easy to see Nebraska’s offense humming by season’s end, but theirs is a defense which brings less to the fore. A year ago, the Huskers ranked 88th in the country while allowing a touch over 31 points per game. Nebraska’s biggest deficiency on defense comes in a weak secondary which falls off the table in terms of experience after CBs Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle. Expect shootouts galore. 

First game to circle on the calendar will come on Sept. 28, when Nebraska takes on Ohio State. That should be a fine measuring stick contest for both teams. Buoying the Huskers’ chances for big things this season, they avoid Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8.5

Prediction: OVER


Wisconsin Badgers

2018 record: 8-5 (5-4 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Jonathan Taylor. An elite speed-strength runner -- The Athletic's Bruce Feldman ranked him as the No. 5 "freak" athlete in college football this summer -- Taylor has been beautifully productive during his two years at Wisconsin. He sees lanes before they develop and has a superb nuanced feel for allowing his blocks to set up before he turns on the full motor. While Taylor has first-round potential, he is not without his evaluation red flags. Notably, Taylor has little in his resume in terms of pass catching, and a whole lot in the way of ball security issues. Taylor has fumbled 12 times over the past two seasons.

 

The case for: Unlike cool kids on the block Purdue and Nebraska, riding their bicycles around and causing mischief like so many precocious Stephen King protagonists, Wisconsin is the old man sitting on the porch with a newspaper and a glass of iced tea. The Badgers play with a refreshingly old-school style which might be boring, except they happen to have one of the best running backs in the country.

Jonathan Taylor is a threat to break it for a deep touchdown on any given handoff and was so breathtakingly awesome as a true freshman in 2017 that he dragged Alex Hornibrook to the Big Ten Championship Game. 

The case for Wisconsin is a simple enough one -- if Taylor rushes for 2,000-plus yards behind C Tyler Biadasz (maybe the best center in the country), the defense rebounds from an oddly muted 2018 season and QB Jack Coan (or hype frosh Graham Mertz) just doesn’t screw up, this is a team that has nine- or 10-win upside.

Taylor reminds us vaguely of Christian McCaffery. Not in playing styles (Taylor has hands of petrified wood in the receiving game compared to McCaffrey), but in attention on the national stage. Both C-Mac and Taylor play(ed) on outwardly stuffy teams that just don’t receive much of a true spotlight, even when you are putting up, say, 2,194 yards at a 7.1 YPC clip as Taylor did last season. 

Yet another team which could easily win the Big Ten West with a charmed season. It’s a charmed division in terms of parity.

 

The case against: We saw worst-case scenario for Wisconsin last season. For as reliable as Wisconsin might be in their basic offense, they finished with a 5-4 record in conference last season even with Taylor running wild and free. That’s because there was not enough aerial firepower -- nor a good enough defense -- to augment his efforts. 

You would like to think that Coan or Mertz would represent an upgrade over Hornibrook (now off to play Quarterback Roulette behind FSU’s line), but Mertz, talented though he may be, is a true freshman, while Coan averaged 5.5 YPA last season while making four starts in place of the injured Hornibrook. That’s a decent little sample size, and not an encouraging one. 

Schedule-wise, Wisconsin has the misfortune of facing Michigan in September and Ohio State in October. For as much as we like the way the Badgers play the game, our concern is that this squad is not appreciably better than last incarnation. 

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8.5

Prediction: OVER


Purdue Boilermakers

2018 record: 6-7 (5-4 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: TE Brycen Hopkins. In a thinner tight end group than this spring's mega-loaded one, Hopkins has a chance to move up boards over the coming months. Watching Hopkins play is like watching velvet in human form. He has very, very fluid athleticism and couples that with smart routes. Hopkins knows how to play windows.

 

The case for: After very nearly losing HC Jeff Brohm to the cratered out wreck of a team that is Louisville over the winter, the Boilermakers earned a reprieve with Brohm’s return. Now, he’ll look to turn diamond in the rough flashes from last season into a true nuclear chain reaction. 

He will be forging ahead with an old quarterback friend in Elijah Sindelar, who was largely scuttled to the bench in the face of David Blough last season. Sindelar is as tough as a three-day old steak which has been sitting out the sun, having earlier played through a torn ACL back in the fall of 2017. He earned valuable experience during that 2017 campaign -- 2017 being Brohm’s first year, recall -- and offers a reliable, known veteran quality as Purdue looks to move past Blough.

Sindelar’s job will be easy enough this fall. Essentially, locate Rondale Moore and fire away. We jest in part -- Moore won’t be carrying the offense alone, with notable help coming from TE Brycen Hopkins and RB Tario Fuller -- but Rondale represents the most fluid, unpredictable, electric aspect of Purdue’s offense. Playing as a true freshman last season, Moore racked up 2,265 total yards and 14 touchdowns last season between receiving, rushing and special teams returns.

And that was when he was still settling into his dorm room. Even if Moore doesn’t technically match those superlative numbers this fall, he is almost assuredly going to be a more complete player with a full year to marinate in the college game. Last fall, he was working on instinct. This fall, he’ll be coupling those instincts with a real knowledge of Brohm’s system. We can’t wait.

We saw the potential for what Purdue might be working toward in isolated spots last season -- notably in their 49-20 demolition of Ohio State -- and now it’s time for the offense to make a true, consistent ascension. They ranked 52nd in the country in scoring average last season. Let’s see if perhaps they can bump into the top-30 this year. That kind of bump might coincide with a conference run.

 

The case against: Moore is fantastic, of course, but do not let the blinding flash of his game dull your senses to some of Purdue’s potential issues. We love Sindelar for his toughness, much less his accuracy, for one thing. He has completed just 56% of his passes for his career, never more than 60% in a season. And even if Sindelar can find a level of steadiness as starter, the offensive line in front of him could probably best be described as under construction. The Boilermakers have just two senior linemen at their disposal in Grant Hermanns and Matt McCann and as Rivals’ Tom Dienhart puts it, “This is still a young unit with many moving parts.” 

On the defensive side, while strong at safety with notable names Brennan Thieneman, Navon Mosley and Jalen Graham, Purdue is much more thin at cornerback and could run into issues in the secondary if they find themselves worn down by injury. Our biggest concern with Purdue is not that they will fall off a cliff and backtrack in Year 3 under Brohm. It’s that for all of their sizzle with Rondale Moore and Brycen Hopkins, there might not be enough on roster to truly elevate this outfit over what we saw a year ago.

Schedule-wise, at least, the Boilermakers won’t be navigating a gauntlet. They have a tough non-conference matchup with TCU on Sept. 14 and will have to deal with Penn State on Oct. 5, but beyond those two tricky spots, Purdue will not be facing Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State. Instead, they’ll be drawing Maryland and Indiana from the Big Ten East (in addition to Penn State), with a West matchup against Illinois further padding out the schedule. Indeed, the schedule, alone, is worth some optimism.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 8

Prediction: UNDER


Iowa Hawkeyes

2018 record: 9-4 (5-4 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: EDGE A.J. Epenesa. After signing with Iowa as a five-star prep recruit, Epenesa has rapidly made good on his prep ranking through a steady development. He is a homewrecker to opposing passing games and possesses some of the best burst you will see from any defensive lineman. Making this package all the sweeter, Epenesa graded out very respectably on PFF in terms of his run defense last season. A top-10 pick for the spring should be in play barring injury. We're not ruling out top-five, either.

 

The case for: How much do you believe in QB Nathan Stanley? Your mileage with the Hawkeyes will probably vary depending on how willing you are to subscribe to Stanley rising above the fray of this chaotic division. Not only is Stanley huge for the Hawkeyes, this season will be huge for him, personally, as he tries to elbow his way up the quarterback draft ladder.

Aided by stud NFL tight ends in TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant last season, Stanley threw for 2,852 yards (59.3% completions) with a 26/10 TD/INT ratio in 2018, his second consecutive campaign of exactly 26 touchdown tosses. Hock and Fant have flown from the nest and Stanley is also out old reliable WR Nick Easley, so he will have to shepherd a changing of the offensive guard upcoming. 

Early indications are that we could see more three wide receiver sets in the fall sans the team’s departed star tight end duo, with Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Nico Ragaini set to start. Nobody in that trio has ever posted a season with more than 400 yards receiving. Again, a steady hand from Stanley on the wheel will be key, here. 

Iowa takes a defensive hit with S Amani Hooker moving on to the pros, but they will have one more season, at least, of edge-rushing terror A.J. Epenesa, who gives Ohio State’s Chase Young a run for his money as the best defensive lineman in the prospective spring draft class. Epenesa couples with the emergent Chauncey Golston to make for one of the most destructive edge duos in the country. 

Iowa has the same kind of lunch pail workmanlike sheen of Wisconsin, but the difference between the two is that Stanley could give Iowa an offensive oomph through the air that a Jack Coan just doesn’t offer Wisconsin.

 

The case against: Of course, if you're comparing Wisconsin and Iowa, the Badgers also have a game-breaking running back. The Hawkeyes’ running backs room, conversely, consists of a serviceable-but-unspectacular duo in the persons of Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young, who totaled 1,382 rushing yards combined last seasons. Both averaged 4.7 YPC, which feels exactly right. 

Where Iowa’s offense could conceivably stumble would come if a combination of factors converge as the weather cools. That starts with Fant and Hockenson going bye-bye. Suddenly, Stanley no longer has that safety blanket (those two safety blankets) and is relying on a receiving corps that is not ready for primetime. And relying on a pair of backs who are rarely going to outright be able to carry the offense. 

Even if Stanley improves on his accuracy -- he has yet to hit on better than 60%  of his passes in a season -- there is no guarantee that the players around him are ready for the roles that they will be thrust into. And on the defensive side, while Epenesa is a national treasure and should be protected at all cost, and while Golston is showing budding young talent, the linebacking corp and secondary will largely be comprised of rotational pieces which will be asked to take on heavier responsibilities.

Iowa’s conference schedule will open with their most difficult game of the fall, on the road against Michigan, one which they will follow up with a home showdown against Penn State. That will represent the toughest one-two stretch of the year, but they aren’t going to have a true easy game in conference until they face Illinois in the second-to-last game of the year. Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota and Nebraska all grace their Big Ten slate this season, in addition to UM and PSU.

Bottom line, Iowa’s offense is in a kind of odd space, with a talented quarterback who might not have the talent to throw to, an average running backs room and two studs on the offensive line (that we have not mentioned Alaric Jackson or Tristan Wirfs yet is borderline criminal of us). What does that equal out to? We aren’t quite sure, to be honest with you. Our general feel on this one is that Iowa might not have the horses, but the Hawkeyes have this funny way of finding the ponies they need most years.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 7.5

Prediction: OVER


Minnesota Gophers

2018 record: 7-6 (3-6 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: WR Tyler Johnson. Big-bodied and a contested catch maven at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Johnson has real highlight reel ability and brings a game-tilting presence to the field. For draft purposes, he must answer speed and athleticism questions. If he can satisfy the NFL on those fronts, look out.

 

The case for: Boy howdy do we love some of the pieces, here. Tyler Johnson is one of the most underrated wide receivers in the country -- you play well for Minnesota, you are almost naturally going to be underrated. But while Johnson is the big, big, big dog on campus, here, he is not the only pretty pup in the receiving corps. 

Rashod Bateman serves as the perfect complement, a 51-704-6 Robin to Johnson’s 78-1169-12 Batman (receiving lines from 2018). Imagine if the Gophs can coax a consistent season out of Tanner Morgan -- fellow signal-caller Zack Annexstad looks like he could miss the season due to injury. We haven’t even seen what Johnson can do with good QB play yet. Hopefully for Minnesota, the star wideout won’t have to wait until hitting the NFL to find out what that’s like.

Johnson is the most-sparkling offensive performer on roster, but this is also a deep, multi-faceted running backs room. Aged veterans Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks return, for one thing. And we do mean aged. They will be 22 and 23 years old, respectively, when the campaign starts up. Both have run into injury issues during their time with Minnesota, but they are no longer going to be required to almost exclusively carry the load on the ground. Thanks to the emergence of youngster Mohamed Ibrahim. Ibrahim posted 1,160 yards (5.7 YPC) and nine touchdowns last season, in his first active year on campus. He’ll bring the energy and bounce, allowing Brooks and Smith to bring the veteran experience and more patient understanding of how it all fits together. 

This offensive action will take place behind a beefy line -- even sans Donnel Green, still all kinds of beef, especially in the person of the hulking (like, six-foot-nine, 400 pounds kind of hulking) Daneil Faalele, backed by a defense which should benefit to the utmost from the return of S Antoine Winfield, even as it looks to replace standout linebacker Blake Cashman

To the latter Cashman reference, the linebacking corp, here, actually looks to be something of a strength between Carter Coughlin (a sort of DE/LB tweener), Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and Thomas Rush. Martin and Barber make for a borderline elite duo. 

In summation, this is a squad that has most of the right warm bodies in the right places to win at least eight games if the season breaks right.

 

The case against: Maybe Minnesota does have “most of the right warm bodies,” as our cheerier side would argue, but our more cynical avatar would counter that they are missing the one warm body that would make a real difference. Our more cynical avatar is curious as to the quarterbacks room. 

Annexstad might not even be an option, here, as he has been nursing a foot injury in camp and has no immediate return timetable. That leaves Morgan in a good spot to start. And Morgan is the guy we would want to see, anyway, as he showed a willingness to push the ball downfield last season in a way that Annexstad largely did not. Morgan averaged a hearty 9.2 YPA on his 152 attempts. He was also picked off six times and completed 58.6% of his passes for the season. 

If Morgan can hit another gear, there are plenty of playmakers around him to make this a dangerous team in the conference. It’s all about consistency now, ironing out some of those youthful mistakes. 

 

Vegas over/under win total: 6.5

Prediction: UNDER


Illinois Fighting Illini

2018 record: 4-8 (2-7 in conference)

Best NFL Draft prospect: RB Reggie Corbin. Well, Illinois top draft prospect would have been DE Bobby Roundtree, but sadly, Roundtree sustained a serious spinal injury in a swimming accident back in May and could potentially be forced to walk away from the gridiron. So, Corbin. He might as well be out of the FROZEN universe with his ability to put opposing defenders on skates, posting a breakaway percentage of 67.1 last season (per PFF). Essentially, that means that 1/3 of Corbin's runs went for 15 or more yards. He's that kind of fun. Corbin will need to prove that his breakout 2018 was no fluke, but so long as he can do that, he is going to be an under-the-radar back to watch for the draft next spring.

 

The case for: Get out of the cage, Mark, go go go! Your author has been jonesing to write this Illinois preview, to shine a spotlight on HC Lovie Smith’s beard and a bushel of transfers which make Illinois, we dunno, kind of relevant? Maybe? A little? Bad, but relevant, would be an upgrade on the rest of Smith's tenure.

Make no mistake, if things go south on Lovie, he is going to be melancholically stroking that beard in a darkened room while listening to sad jazz this winter, because Lovie is going to be out a job if things go south. Illinois AD Josh Whitman has already come out and said that he expects a bowl berth from the perpetually-hapless football program this fall. 

This isn’t quite a dead man walking team, though. At least not in terms of talent. Reggie Corbin runs like smoke and helped make Illinois watchable (at times) last season while rushing for 1,085 yards (8.5 YPC) and nine touchdowns, with four games of 100 or more yards highlighting a strong October-into-November stretch for the upperclassman. Former USC WRs Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe make for name firepower, too, even if neither has truly put it together since receiving acclaim out of the prep ranks. 

Guys like Sidney and Imatorbhebhe are the ones that Illinois needs to gamble on as they try to make Whitman’s red line on a bowl. The same can be said for former Michigan QB Brandon Peters, whom Illinois landed after swinging/missing on Penn State’s Tommy Stevens (who transferred to Mississippi State) and USC’s Matt Fink (who ended up returning to USC after dipping his toe in the transfer portal and finding the vortex not to his liking). 

Peters comes with a four-star pedigree and a stay at Michigan, which does carry its own small amount of weight. The backup Big Ten quarterback transfer game found a success story in LSU’s Joe Burrow last season and could potentially find two in Miami’s Tate Martell (Author's note: Scratch that on Tate, Jarren Williams was named Canes' starting QB on Monday) and Illinois’ Peters.

If Lovie really wanted to just go for it, though, maybe he would be wise to not even look Peters’ way, but instead break in four-star duel-threat frosh Isaiah Williams. Thing of it is, though, Williams actually received relatively little interest as a quarterback -- he was labeled as an “athlete” for the 2019 cycle -- and would be exceedingly raw as a passer. Exceedingly, probably to the point where the more conservative Peters play would make sense for a coach who has a timer running on his job. Williams appeals in a go-for-broke kind of way.

 

The case against: Lovie might have technically crushed the transfer market with a number of dart throws, but when the dam has multiple holes to fill and is on the verge of giving way all together, you have little margin for error. And because Illinois was not working from the kind of safe floor as fellow transfer market dominator Miami, their transfer gets come with a high risk of flaming out.

Let’s take them one by one, starting with the two former USC wideouts in the aforementioned Sidney and Imatorbhebhe. While both signed with the Trojans as four-star recruits, they totaled 10 catches while with the program. Another former Trojan and this one a former five-star in DE Oluwole Betiku, would theoretically excite, except Betiku recorded just two tackles at USC, both in 2017, then missed the 2018 campaign outright while recovering from hip surgery. 

None of the above trio should be counted as remotely close to sure things. Nor should Richie Petitbon, a guard formerly of Alabama who could start at right guard (this was the spot held down by Nicholas Allegretti last season) but saw little playing time while in Tuscaloosa.

The theoretical talent is intriguing on this roster, and Illinois does seem to slowly be lurching its way toward respectable mediocrity. It’s just a matter of whether they’ll reach that level this season. This was one of the worst defenses in the FBS last season. Betiku -- even if he discovers himself -- cannot lift this boat on his own and the stark reality is that while Illinois might be better, it is near-impossible to find five wins on the schedule. Better, but still pretty bad. We'd suggest that Lovie keep the classifieds section open throughout the fall.

 

Vegas over/under win total: 3

Prediction: PUSH

Mark Lindquist
Mark Lindquist holds a master's degree from the University of Iowa and writes baseball and college football for Rotoworld.com. He's currently working on a memoir about life, death, rock 'n' roll and his year teaching at a Chinese university. You can reach him on Twitter @markrlindquist.