Big Ten West Division previews


Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, shown here against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice.

Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, shown here against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice.


AP Photo

Northwestern’s football team celebrates with the Land of Lincoln trophy after beating in-state rival Illinois last season.

Northwestern’s football team celebrates with the Land of Lincoln trophy after beating in-state rival Illinois last season.


AP Photo

Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, who missed most of last season because of an injury, will return this season for the Boilermakers. He originally opted out of the season to enter the NFL draft but changed his mind.


AP Photo

Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan (17), shown here in a game against Oregon last season, injured his foot in a preseason practice. If he is out for a significant part of the season the Badgers’ chances of repeating as Big Ten West Division champion could take a big hit.


AP Photo

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BIG TEN WEST DIVISION

Illinois

Last year: 6-7, 4-5 Big Ten, fourth in the West

Returning starters: 15 (8 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter)

Players to watch: QB Brandon Peters, WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, RB Mike Epstein, WR Donny Novaro, TE Daniel Barker, OT Alex Palczewski, OG Kendrick Green, LB Milo Eifler, LB Jake Hansen, DB Sydney Brown, DB Tony Adams, K James McCourt

The big questions: Can the Illini come close to last season’s six wins and go to a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2010 and 2011? Who will emerge as the No. 1 running back after last year’s top two rushers used up their eligibility and Ra’Von Bonner opted out of the season because of the coronavirus? Will coach Lovie Smith, who shaved off his beard in the spring, return to the bearded look?

Iowa

Last year: 10-3, 6-3 Big Ten, third in the West

Returning starters: 12 (7 offense, 4 defense, kicker)

Players to watch: QB Spencer Petras, WR Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR Brandon Smith, WR Nico Ragaini, WR Tyrone Tracy, RB Tyler Goodson, OT Alaric Johnson, DE Chauncey Golston, LB Dijmon Colbert, DB Matt Hankins

The big questions: Controversy erupted this summer in Iowa’s program when several current and former players spoke out against what they described as a culture in Iowa football that makes Black athletes uncomfortable. Maybe the biggest question for the Hawkeyes is how this might affect the season. Among the usual type of questions, the biggest might be can sophomore Spencer Petras be productive in his first year as the starting quarterback, as he replaces three-year starter Nate Stanley? Does offensive lineman Coy Cronk’s name sound familiar? It should. The graduate transfer started for four years at Indiana. He still had eligibility left because he had a season-ending injury in the Hoosiers’ fourth game last season and was able to take a redshirt year.

Minnesota

Last year: 11-2, 7-2 Big Ten, second in the West

Returning starters: 12 (7 offense, 4 defense, kicker)

Players to watch: QB Tanner Morgan, WR Rashod Bateman, WR Chris Autman-Bell, RB Mo Ibrahim, OG Curtis Dunlap Jr., DT Micah Dew-Treadway, CB Coney Durr, CB Benjamin St.-Juste

The big questions: Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is often mocked for his optimism, but the Gophers’ 11 wins last season proved he was right to be optimistic. Will the return of wide receiver Rashod Bateman, a possible NFL first-round draft choice, put Minnesota among the Big Ten’s top teams again and keep Fleck smiling? Bateman (60 catches, 1,219 yards and 11 TDs last season) decided in September to return for this season after saying in August he would sit the season out because of the coronavirus. Can quarterback Tanner Morgan match or improve on his 2019 season when he threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns? Who will replace wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who had 86 catches last season? Defensively, how do the Gophers replace All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr.?

Nebraska

Last year: 5-7, 3-6 Big Ten, tied for fifth in the West

Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter)

Players to watch: QB Adrian Martinez, RB Dedrick Mills, WR Wan’dale Robinson, TE Jack Stoll, OT Brendon Jaimes, LB Colin Miller, CB Cam Taylor-Britt

The big questions: Nebraska was a surprise in a bad way last year. Can it be a surprise in a more positive way this season? The Cornhuskers were the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten West, or at least be contenders, in the eyes of many people. Instead they finished tied for fifth in their division and won only three Big Ten games. Can Nebraska hope for a much better record this year with games against Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota on the schedule? Can quarterback Adrian Martinez bounce back from a season where he missed two games because of injuries and had only 10 touchdown passes? Who will replace J.D. Spielman as the deep threat receiver after he transferred to TCU?

Northwestern

Last year: 3-9, 1-8 Big Ten, seventh in the West

Returning starters: 17 (7 offense, 9, kicker)

Players to watch: QB Peyton Ramsey, RB Isaiah Bowser, WR Riley Lees, DE Samdup Miller, LB Blake Gallagher, LB Paddy Fisher, DB Jr. Pace

The big questions: After going from the Big Ten championship game in 2018 to last place in the Big Ten West last year, is Northwestern ready to rebound from a disastrous season? Can Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey turn around a passing game that was undeniably atrocious in 2019 when the Wildcats’ quarterbacks combined for only six touchdown passes in 12 games? Will Isaiah Bowser have the 1,000-yard rushing season he was expected to have last season before injuries kept him out of seven games? Can linebacker Paddy Fisher earn some sort of All-Big Ten honors for a fourth year in a row?

Purdue

Last year: 4-8, 3-6 Big Ten, tied for fifth in the West

Returning starters: 14 (7 offense, 5 defense, kicker, punter)

Players to watch: WR Rondale Moore, WR David Bell, OT Grant Hermanns, DE George Karlafitis, LB Derrick Barnes

The big questions: Rondale Moore and David Bell are two of the best receivers in the Big Ten, but how will they fare with a first-year quarterback? Moore had 114 catches in 2018 as a freshman but missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. Bell caught 86 passes last season when he was a freshman. Who will be the starting quarterback? Jack Plummer started nine games last season and Aidan O’Connell started three. Is standout defensive tackle Lorenzo Neal close to 100 percent after missing last season because of knee surgery?

Wisconsin

Last year: 10-4, 7-2 Big Ten, first in the West

Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 8 defense, kicker)

Players to watch: QB Jack Coan, WR Kendric Pryor, RB Nakia Watson, TE Jake Ferguson, DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, LB Jack Sanborn, DB Falon Hicks

The big questions: How long might quarterback Jack Coan be out because of a preseason foot injury? Who will take his place? Can Wisconsin return to the Big Ten championship game for the fourth time in Paul Chryst’s six years as the Badgers coach and finally knock off the East Division champion? The Badgers have lost twice to Ohio State and once to Penn State in Chryst’s previous title games. Can they do that without running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who both left for the NFL after their junior seasons?

Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, shown here against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2020/10/web1_Bateman.jpgMinnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman, shown here against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, is expected to be a first-round NFL draft choice. AP Photo
Northwestern’s football team celebrates with the Land of Lincoln trophy after beating in-state rival Illinois last season.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2020/10/web1_Northwestern.jpgNorthwestern’s football team celebrates with the Land of Lincoln trophy after beating in-state rival Illinois last season. AP Photo
Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, who missed most of last season because of an injury, will return this season for the Boilermakers. He originally opted out of the season to enter the NFL draft but changed his mind.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2020/10/web1_RondaleAP.jpgPurdue wide receiver Rondale Moore, who missed most of last season because of an injury, will return this season for the Boilermakers. He originally opted out of the season to enter the NFL draft but changed his mind. AP Photo
Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan (17), shown here in a game against Oregon last season, injured his foot in a preseason practice. If he is out for a significant part of the season the Badgers’ chances of repeating as Big Ten West Division champion could take a big hit.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2020/10/web1_Coan.jpgWisconsin quarterback Jack Coan (17), shown here in a game against Oregon last season, injured his foot in a preseason practice. If he is out for a significant part of the season the Badgers’ chances of repeating as Big Ten West Division champion could take a big hit. AP Photo

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Keep up with Ohio State football all season online at LimaOhio.com/buckeyes.

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