BIG TEN WEST DIVISION
Last year: 4-8, 2-7 Big Ten, seventh in the West
Returning starters: 17 (6 offense, 10 defense, punter)
Players to watch: QB Brandon Peters, QB Isaiah Williams, RB Reggie Corbin, WR Ricky Smalling, DE Bobby Roundtree, CB Nate Hobbs
The big questions: Will former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters live up to his Top 100 recruiting ranking coming out of high school for the Illini after transferring? Will he have targets to throw to in an offense where the top receiver Ricky Smalling caught only 33 passes in 2018? How many wins will it take for Lovie Smith to keep his job?
Coach’s quote: “We were one of the worst defenses in college football. Right after the season, we went to work to correct that.” — Lovie Smith
Last year: 9-4, 5-4 Big Ten, tied for second in the West
Returning starters: 10 (5 offense, 4 defense, punter)
Players to watch: QB Nate Stanley, RB Mekhi Sargent, WR Brandon Smith, DE A.J. Epenesa, LB Dijmon Colbert, CB Michael Ojemudia
The big questions: Who will replace the catches of wide receiver Nate Easley and tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant, who combined to catch 140 passes, 18 of them for touchdowns, last season? Can three-year starting quarterback Nate Stanley break Chuck Long’s Iowa career record for touchdown passes? Can Iowa improve its running game, which was not up to the Hawkeyes’ usual standards last season?
Coach’s quote: “We’ll find out.” – Kirk Ferentz, when asked if Iowa is a Big Ten championship level team.
Last year: 7-6, 3-6 Big Ten, tied for fifth in the West
Returning starters: 14 (8 offense, 5 defense, punter)
Players to watch: QB Zack Annexstad, QB Tanner Morgan, RB Rodney Smith, RB Mo Ibrahim, WR Tyler Johnson, WR Rashod Bateman, DE Carter Coughlin, LB Kamal Martin, DB Antoine Winfield Jr.
The big questions: Who will win the quarterback battle between Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan? Annexstad was Minnesota’s starter for the first seven games last season as a true freshman before a season-ending injury. Morgan started the last six games and the Gophers were 4-2 in those games. Could Minnesota be helped by a schedule that includes South Dakota State, Georgia Southern, Rutgers and Maryland and lets it avoid Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State?
Coach’s quote: “What we’re going to be able to do is focus on being better today than we were yesterday. It sounds like a broken record and it sounds boring, but sometimes boring is OK.” – P.J. Fleck
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: QB Adrian Martinez, WR J.D. Spielman, RB Dedrick Mills, DE Khalil Davis, LB Mohamed Berry, DT Carlos Davis
The big questions: Is Nebraska’s optimism about this season after winning four of its last six games in 2018 justified, or is the Huskers’ fan base getting ahead of itself? Is Nebraska a legitimate contender for the West Division title? Can quarterback Adrian Martinez, who threw for 2,617 yards and rushed for 629 yards, be even better this season? Will No. 1 running back Maurice Washington resolve his legal problems and get back on the field?
Coach’s quote: “We’re going to go where the players are. I don’t care where they are. If they’re in Jamaica or in Kazakhstan, we’re going.” – Scott Frost on Nebraska’s recruiting
Last year: 9-5, 8-1 Big Ten, first in the West
Returning starters: 13 (5 offense, 7 defense)
Players to watch: QB Hunter Johnson, RB Isaiah Bowser, WR Bennett Skowronek, DE Joe Gaziano, LB Paddy Fisher
The big questions: Was Northwestern’s trip to the Big Ten championship game a signal the Wildcats are going to be contenders regularly, or was it a fluke? Are the expectations that Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson will be an immediate success at quarterback fair or unfair? Will Isaiah Bowser, who rushed for 866 yards in Northwestern’s last eight games in 2018, approach 1,500 yards this season?
Coach’s quote: “It’s one thing to be consistently a bowl team and consistently successful on the field. It’s another thing to consistently compete for championships. And we’re not there yet.” – Pat Fitzgerald
Last year: 6-7, 5-4 Big Ten, tied for second in the West
Returning starters: 14 (4 offense, 10 defense)
Players to watch: QB Elijah Sindelar, WR Rondale Moore, TE Brycen Hopkins, DT Lorenzo Neal, LB Markus Bailey, CB Kenneth Major
The big questions: Who will emerge as the No. 1 running back with last year’s top two rushers gone? Is linebacker Markus Bailey 100 percent healthy after offseason hip surgery? Is Rondale Moore (114 catches, 12 touchdowns, 1,258 yards last season) the most dangerous wide receiver in the Big Ten?
Coach’s quote: “He’s exceeded our expectations and our expectations were high from the get-go. He’s somebody who when the lights come on it doesn’t faze him a bit. He’s a special talent.” — Jeff Brohm on wide receiver Rondale Moore
Last year: 8-5, 5-4 Big Ten, tied for second in the West
Returning starters: 11 (4 offense, 6 defense, punter)
Players to watch: QB Jack Coan, RB Jonathan Taylor, WR A.J. Taylor, WR Kendric Pryor, DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, LB Zack Baun
The big questions: Can Wisconsin bounce back from a disappointing 8-5 season, the first time since 2013 it didn’t win 10 or more games? Is Jack Coan, who started the last four games last season, the answer at quarterback? With a first-year quarterback will 2,000-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor have an even heavier workload after averaging 303 carries per season the last two years?
Coach’s quote: “He does not feel like he has arrived. He’s one of the best workers on this team.” — Paul Chryst on Jonathan Taylor, who rushed for 2,194 yards last year and 1,977 yards as a freshman