The Nebraska football hype train has arrived in full force this summer, in all its glory.
Nebraska was picked to win the Big Ten West division in a media poll conducted by cleveland.com.
Outside of Nebraska, that prediction may have raised some eyebrows. After all, the Huskers finished 2018 with a record of 4-8 and 3-6 in the conference.
Is picking Nebraska to win the West a good idea?
To answer that question, I need to look in detail at the other teams in the West: Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
One thing is certain, though: This is going to be the most exciting year in the West that I can remember. The division is wide open, folks. It’s truly the wild, wild West.
The only West team that I feel comfortable saying won’t even sniff a Big Ten championship appearance is Illinois – all the rest are in play.
So let’s start with the Illini and another random team – let’s say, Wisconsin – while I’m here.
*In next week’s column, I’ll preview two more teams from the West: Nebraska and Iowa*
After a 4-8 (2-7) campaign last year, Illini head coach Lovie Smith made some moves this offseason by bringing in a bunch of talented grad transfers on offense, so there’s some intrigue on that side of the ball. But although it’s a new season with a fresh start, I’m comfortable saying Illinois’ defense will still have major problems and won’t improve much from last year, when it finished last in the Big Ten in scoring defense (39.4), rushing defense (245.2), total defense (508.3) and second to last in passing defense (263.1).
The Illinois defense will also likely be without its top player this upcoming season as starting defensive end and All-Big Ten honorable mention pick, Bobby Roundtree, suffered a severe spinal injury from a swimming accident on May 18. Roundtree led the Illini defense with 7 1/2 sacks and 12 1/2 tackles for a loss in 2018.
While the Illini defense struggled last year, their offense saw some bright spots.
Second-year Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith was to thank for that as he injected some life into what was a lifeless offense in his first season calling the plays. Smith is a Rich Rodriguez disciple, so he took his own version of the shotgun-based spread-option-run offense to the Illini and had some success with talented running back Reggie Corbin and former Husker and Virginia Tech quarterback AJ Bush Jr. Corbin, a 5-foot-10, 200-pounder, rushed for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018 while Bush had 733 yards and eight rushing scores on 5.3 yards per carry.
Illinois was kind of fun to watch on offense last year (you read that correctly, I wrote the word: *fun* when talking about Illinois football), but there’s a problem for this season – Bush graduated and isn’t returning. To make matters worse, the freshman quarterback that also saw time and showed positives when Bush went down with an injury, M.J. Rivers, transferred out of the program because of “personal circumstances.”
That leaves a big question mark at the QB1 spot for Lovie. But there are pieces to work with.
This is a guess, but it’ll likely be a two-man race for the starting quarterback job this fall between Michigan grad transfer Brandon Peters, a junior, and a 247Sports composite four-star true freshman named Isaiah Williams. Redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor will be in the mix too.
It just didn’t work out for Peters in Ann Arbor. The 6-5, 230-pounder started only four games at Michigan and completed just 52 percent of his passes (58 of 110) for 680 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Jim Harbaugh’s courting of quarterback Shea Patterson from Ole Miss likely forced Peters to leave.
Williams, on the other hand, is basically the complete opposite of Peters, who’s a big pro-style quarterback that won’t be asked to run much as he’s not the most athletically gifted guy. Most of Williams’ Power Five offers out of college – and they were good offers that included Alabama, Clemson and Auburn – weren’t to play quarterback. Most teams viewed him as an athlete that could play receiver or defensive back.
To put it simply: Williams – a highly-touted athlete from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis and a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri – is small. He’s listed at 5-10, 170 pounds. When you watch his high school highlights, however, you can see why Illinois will give him a chance at quarterback. He’s a jitter bug with the ball in his hands. He showed one-cut-and-go explosiveness while operating a spread offense like Illinois’ in high school.
Will that success translate to Division I college football and against Big Ten defenses? We don’t know yet. So I’ll remain a skeptic until I’m proved wrong.
But having Peters and Williams on the roster can open some fun possibilities for the Illini offensively. Illinois finished second in the conference last year in rushing yards per game at 243, so give credit where it’s due – they were good at running the ball.
Can that running game be replicated in 2019? I doubt it. Peters isn’t a running threat. Is he a better passer than Williams, who in his final high school season completed 51 percent of his passes (97 of 187) for 2,178 yards with 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions? We don’t know yet.
Will Lovie and Rod Smith use a two-quarterback system in 2019? Will defenses load the box if Williams is out there and focus on containing his running threat? Will defenses play more coverage when Peters is on the field?
I don’t have any answers for any of those questions. But I’m going to love finding them out this fall.
Wisconsin is a team that I’ve always respected because the Badgers know who they are and never try to be something they’re not. They have an identity.
Who are they? They’re a run-heavy, smash-mouth, knock-you-on-your-butt offense with a massive offensive line and a good enough game manager at quarterback. Their 3-4 defense is equally big up front and always seems to have stud outside ‘backers and solid inside ‘backers. Pressuring the quarterback and bending but not breaking is the name of the game on defense in Madison.
With that being said, this might be the Wisconsin team that has the most questions surrounding it. Last year’s starting quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, got hurt in the middle of the season and lost his job to Jack Coan, who didn’t exactly wow the fanbase.
Hornibrook then transferred to Florida State, so the Badgers will have a two-man race for QB1 in fall camp between Coan and a hot-shot 247Sports composite four-star freshman named Graham Mertz out of Mission, Kansas. If Coan earns the job, it might not last long because if he’s not winning, fans love to chant the names of the five-star backup quarterback from the stands when things aren’t going well.
The 2019 Wisconsin offensive line will have new faces in the trenches, too, as head coach Paul Chryst will need to replace four starters on that unit from last year. That hurts. This is just me taking a wild guess, but I have a feeling Wisconsin will reload on the line and still have the hogs up front that are able to pave the way for another 1,500-yard rushing season from Jonathan Taylor.
Wisconsin’s defense also has some questions surrounding it. Just one of the Badgers’ top five tacklers return in 6-3, 225-pound senior outside linebacker Zack Baun, who was third on the team in stops with 63.
With so many new faces on the defense, will Wisconsin replicate what it did on that side of the ball last year, where it ranked fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense (22.6), rush defense (155.08), pass defense (189.1) and fourth in total defense (344.2)?
An entire defense is slightly different than a smaller five-man offensive line unit, so I’m not as confident that they’ll reload as easily on that side of the ball. So I’ll guess that the Badgers will see a drop off from those 2018 averages. I can’t imagine it’d be a big drop off, though. Wisconsin has been too consistent over the years to think it’ll struggle mightily on defense.
Wisconsin opens the season on the road in Tampa against South Florida. In a game where I’m sure we’ll see plenty of cramps in the late-August heat in Florida, I see the Badgers’ size and physical style of play leaning on the Bulls for four quarters. Wisconsin should go home with a win.
After South Florida, Wisconsin then has five straight home games, and it gets a bye week before its game against Michigan in Madison on Sept. 21. The Badgers also get Northwestern, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue at home, which is nice. Those will be tough games, but at least Chryst has them in his own stadium.
Even with potentially a true freshman starting at quarterback in Mertz, four new starters on the offensive line and only one of the top five tacklers back on the defense, I’m still going to give Wisconsin the benefit of the doubt as a candidate to win the West.