1. Wisconsin Badgers– They have played in three of the last four conference titles games and they are the projected favorites to win this division once again. Paul Chryst is now the new head coach after a three-year stint with Pittsburgh. The offense will look to run the football once again and losing Melvin Gordon to the NFL is huge because he accounted for more than 70 percent of that offense. Although Gordon is gone, Corey Clement is a back who is more than capable of being the number one guy for this Badger offense. The defense will look to get better in the fall after they gave up a conference low 4.7 yards per play in 2014. They will be one of the best defenses in the Big Ten once again.
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers– The Bo Pelini era is over and the Mike Riley tenure is set to begin. Riley takes control of a program that has won nine games in seven consecutive seasons. There is plenty of talent across the board to keep Nebraska in contention to win the West. The biggest hole to fill is star running back Ameer Abdullah but the running game can remain as consistent this season as it was last year with Imani Cross. The major priority for Nebraska’s new coaching staff is getting the defense improved and on track. Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins will anchor this defensive line with the departure of Randy Gregory.
3. Minnesota Golden Gophers– Let’s not forget that they were a win away from advancing to the Big Ten championship game. Now, the big question is can Jerry Kill’s team take that next step in 2015? To contend in the West, they must show more consistency. They lost star tight end Maxx Williams and running back David Cobb. Under Jerry Kill, the defense has definitely been a strength. Four seniors start in the secondary and in the front seven, they look to remain as one of the leaders in the conference in sacks. This is a sleeper pick in the conference to many people.
4. Iowa Hawkeyes– Kirk Ferentz is the most underappreciated coach in the country. In his 17 seasons as the head coach at Iowa, he’s definitely seen it all. He’s won two Orange Bowls and two conference titles. The offense was terrible in every aspect of the game. They couldn’t open holes for the running backs and they failed to protect the quarterback. As poorly as the offense was, the defense was no better. They have some pieces to build around. This will be a rebuilding year at the University of Iowa.
5. Northwestern Wildcats– They have missed the postseason the last two years after making it the previous five seasons. A huge chunk of his roster returns this fall, 15 starters to be exact but holes have to be plugged at key positions like quarterback. This offense will rely heavily on running back Justin Jackson. Northwestern had a very tough time stopping the run last year. Six of their opponents rushed for over 200 yards in 2014. The talent is there to make a run to a bowl game.
6. Illinois Fighting Illini– Tim Beckman’s teams have improved each year in his tenure in Champaign. Wes Lunt was very effective when he was under center but he was sidelined with injuries for five games last season. If you ask offensive coordinator Bill Cubit about the shining point of this offense and he’ll tell you it’s star running back Josh Ferguson. The defense is growing and getting better especially at the linebacker position. Mason Monheim is the heart and soul of this Illini defense. I think it’s safe to say that Tim Beckman enters this season on the hotseat with a 12-25 mark. It’s bowl game or bust.
7. Purdue Boilmakers– They showed many signs of improvements under new head coach Darrell Hazell. 16 starters return this fall giving Purdue a ton of experience in 2015. Markell Jones will be replacing Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert as the starting running back and number one option out the backfield. Where Purdue will have their work cut out for them is on defense. They gave up 30 points or more in eight games last season. They are a few years away from being competitive in the conference.
Prediction: I like Wisconsin to win this division yet again. Though they have a new head coach in Paul Chryst, the expectations will be high once again in Madison. The defense has just enough to remain in games. The biggest concern is the lack of depth on the offensive line. Wisconsin has a pretty favorable schedule after its opener against Nick Saban and Alabama.