Keys to the West: Names to Know as the Big Ten's West Division Looks to Challenge the East in 2017

By Andrew Ellis on August 12, 2017 at 8:10 am
Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli may be the conference's best player at the position.

Troy Fumagalli via Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

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While the Big Ten's East Division features three teams who could compete for the College Football Playoff, there's really not a whole lot being said about the western half of the conference.

Wisconsin took the Buckeyes to overtime in Madison and gave Penn State all it could handle in last season's Big Ten championship game, but few are giving the Badgers – or anyone else in the division – much of a chance this year.

If someone in the West does surprise pundits, then there's a pretty good chance that one of its best players will have put on a show in 2017.

Troy Fumagalli • Senior • Tight End • Wisconsin 

The Badgers may not run the most exciting offense, but they're very likely to feature the conference's top tight end this season; even if the numbers aren't as eye-popping as others. 

Senior Troy Fumagalli enters the season projected as one of the top tight ends for the 2018 NFL Draft. Last year he caught 47 passes for 580 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers may not jump off the page, but it's important to remember how heavily Wisconsin relies on the running game. 

Born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, the 6-foot-6, 247-pounder was forced to have his left index finger amputated shortly after birth. Fumagalli has shown to have more than reliable hands, recording six catches for 83 yards and a score in the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan.

The Badgers host the Wolverines on Nov. 18, but Paul Chryst won't have to deal with the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions.

Josey Jewell • Senior • Linebacker • Iowa

Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes will be breaking in a number of new starters this season, and most people will be watching to see how the quarterback situation unfolds as the team looks to replace C.J. Beathard. On defense, the Hawkeyes will be led by a veteran group of linebackers, including one of the country's best.

Josey Jewell has made 30-consecutive starts at middle linebacker and has been second-team All-Big Ten for the past two seasons. The 6-foot-2, 236-pounder appears on a number of preseason watch lists, and with a young group of defensive backs, Jewell and the linebacking unit will likely lead the way on defense. 

Urban Meyer will make his first trip to Kinnick Stadium as Ohio State's head coach on Nov. 4.

Clayton Thorson • Junior • Quarterback • Northwestern

After struggling as a freshman, Clayton Thorson bounced back nicely during his redshirt sophomore season. He threw for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns while tossing nine interceptions. In 2015, he threw for the same number of interceptions but could only manage seven scores.

Some of the more recent struggles have stemmed from poor offensive line play as Thorson simply didn't have a lot of time to see the field and make his reads. The line allowed 39 sacks last season – which was good for No. 119 in the nation – compared to 29 in 2015. Austin Carr is currently suiting up for the New England Patriots, so Pat Fitzgerald will also need to replace the Wildcats' top pass catcher from a year ago. 

If Northwestern wants to compete with Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska, then it will have to improve the offensive line play and protect its signal caller. 

Justin Jackson • Senior • Running Back • Northwestern

The other side of the Northwestern attack is senior tailback Justin Jackson. The 5-11, 200-pounder was the Big Ten's leading rusher a season ago and is seeking his fourth-straight 1,000-yard season. There was some thought that he could enter the 2017 Draft, but Jackson elected to return for his final season in Evanston. He needs just 357 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher. 

In speaking with ESPN.com:

"I felt like it was in my best interests to come back and fine-tune my skills," he said. "Plus, I've put so much work into this whole school thing, I figured I might as well finish it out."

Jackson ended the 2016 campaign on a high note as he rushed for 224 yards and three touchdowns against Pittsburgh in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

The Wildcats play Wisconsin and Penn State in back-to-back weeks, but they won't be facing off against the Buckeyes or Wolverines this year.

Stanley Morgan • Junior • Wide Receiver • Nebraska

After seemingly spending a decade in Lincoln, quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has graduated and moved on. Interestingly, quarterback really isn't the biggest question mark for the Huskers this season as Tulane transfer Tanner Lee is expected to shoulder the load. 

The Huskers do have questions on the offensive line, but one of the team's biggest playmakers is back in junior wideout Stanley Morgan. With Jordan Westerkamp gone, Morgan is slated to be Mike Riley's top returning wideout. Upon his arrival in 2015, Morgan made an impact on special teams while adding over 300 yards receiving and three scores. He tallied 453 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore. 

The Huskers brought in a talented group of pass-catchers for the 2017 class, but it's too early to expect much from a player like Tyjon Lindsey. If Nebraska wants any chance of capturing the division, Morgan will need to take the next step as the team's new No. 1 wideout.

The Buckeyes are set to travel to Lincoln on Oct. 14.


One player that also deserves mention is Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy. Expected to be one of the conference's top players, the senior suffered a torn ACL earlier in the week and will miss the 2017 season. Last year, his season was cut short in October when he tore a pectoral against Iowa.

The former walk-on had been named a team captain earlier in the offseason and is well known as one of the Badgers' leaders. He's been a real feel-good story to watch after his unheralded recruitment featured only FCS offers from schools like North Dakota State and Holy Cross.

Cichy will instead make his impact from the sidelines as Wisconsin looks to command the West Division for a second-consecutive season.

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