Predicting the Big Ten West Division Race with No Clear-Cut Favorite in 2019

By David Regimbal on May 27, 2019 at 2:45 pm
Pat Fitzgerald

The Big Ten West Division needs a contender to emerge.

The other half of the conference had a solid three-year stretch from 2015-17, producing a fourth-ranked Iowa team and a pair of Wisconsin squads that ranked No. 6 and 3 heading into Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game.

Two of those three teams would've punched their ticket to the College Football Playoff had they beaten their East Division counterpart. But a team from the West Division hasn't won the conference since the league's realignment shift in 2014.

And last year, the entire division was a mess.

The Badgers and Hawkeyes never met their preseason expectations and Nebraska was struggling through Scott Frost's first season rebuild. That's how a 6-4 Northwestern team that had lost to Akron in Week 3 clinched the division with two weeks left to play. 

This year's Big Ten West Division race could be just as messy. Here's a projection how it could shake out.

Fourth Place: Iowa

It will be tough sledding for Kirk Ferentz's squad in 2019.

The defense has to replace five of its top six tacklers but returns one of the best pass-rushers in the country in A.J. Epenesa. The offense lost its best pass-catcher in tight end Noah Fant but the top three ball-carriers are back to complement Nate Stanley at quarterback. The unit will try and bounce back from a season in which it ranked 91st nationally in yards per game.

The toughest challenge, though, is the schedule. The nonconference slate should be a breeze, but the Hawkeyes drew Penn State and Michigan as non-divisional matchups and they have to travel to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

Third Place: Northwestern

The Wildcats' path back to Indianapolis will be difficult. 

Northwestern opens the season on the road against Stanford, and after a Week 2 gimme against UNLV, it faces Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa consecutively. It would be impressive if the Wildcats entered November with a 4-3 record after that stretch, but it would likely keep them out of divisional contention.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson is gone, but that might not be an issue with Hunter Johnson in the fold. The former 5-star quarterback transferred to Northwestern from Clemson and is eligible this year after sitting in 2018.

Second Place: Nebraska

Nebraska's first season under Frost wasn't as bad as the 4-8 record indicates. The Cornhuskers roster was decimated by injuries and deferrals, leading to a remarkable 0-6 start to the year. But things started coming together down the stretch, and the Cornhuskers got wins over Michigan State and Minnesota during their 4-2 finish.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez needs to take another big step forward for Nebraska to contend, but that's a leap he should be able to make under Frost's guidance. The schedule sets them up as well, as the Cornhuskers get Ohio State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa at home.

First Place: Wisconsin

The Badgers got a horrendous draw of cross-division matchups as they face Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, but they have the talent to hold their own and win the West Division.

Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State, so Paul Chryst will turn to Jack Coan or Graham Mertz (a true freshman) at quarterback. But the engine of that offense is running back Jonathan Taylor, who will lead the Badgers back to the Big Ten title game.

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