Top Big Ten West Questions

The big Big Ten West questions with spring football a few weeks away.

It’s business as usual for Wisconsin despite the coaching change, right?

There’s no reason to expect anything else. Paul Chryst knows exactly what the Wisconsin program is about and what is needed to make it all go, and no, there’s no way the bar should be set any lower than the Big Ten West championship. Melvin Gordon might have been a special running back, but so was Montee Ball – Corey Clement appears to be more than ready to be the next Badger up. The O line has to replace three starters, but there’s no real concern, and the passing game can’t be any less interesting with Joel Stave back for yet another year and with receivers Alex Erickson and Reggie Love a bit more experienced. On the other side, the D is deeper and should be excellent, especially in the secondary. It might not be pretty to start – who willingly schedules Alabama to open the season? – but the Badgers will be favored in every other game except for, maybe the road trip to Nebraska.

Are Nebraska fans going to be okay if Mike Riley goes 9-3?

Probably, mainly because the Bo Pelini thing was more than just wins-and-losses. He didn’t seem to really fit what Nebraska fans wanted, but even beyond that, it was how the program lost. The win-loss record, of course, was solid, but getting lit up in some of the biggest games just wasn’t okay. Riley will get a year of grace period only because he’s a new head coach, but with Wisconsin, Michigan State and Iowa at home, and the Big Ten road games all manageable at Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Rutgers, there will be grumbling if the Huskers don’t take the West.

Is Pat Fitzgerald on a hot seat?

Apparently not, but Northwestern could really, really use a season to go the right way. Ever since starting the 2013 season 4-0 and getting GameDay to come to Evanston, the Wildcats have gone 6-14, finishing 5-7 in each of the last two seasons. A bowl appearance was there for the taking at the end of last year, but NU collapsed to Illinois to finish off a wildly inconsistent and disappointing campaign with wins over Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State to go along with the seven losses. Fitzgerald isn’t going to be canned unless the program suffers a massive disaster, but another bowl-less season would make 2016 very, very pressure-filled.

Is Kirk Ferentz on a hot seat?

The Hawkeyes are going into their sixth season since coming up with the shocking run to the 2010 Orange Bowl, and while there was only one true clunker – a 4-8 2012 season – over the last 14, it doesn’t seem like the program is taking any major steps forward. Ferentz has been consistently solid, the Hawkeyes have had their moments, and 12 bowl seasons in the last 14 make for a nice resume, but last year’s team should’ve done more. The schedule was favorable, the experience was in place, and everything was set up nicely, but they lost four of their last five games including a blowout to rival Minnesota and a loss to in-state little brother Iowa State. Ferentz’s contract goes through 2020, and he’s going to be a young 60 this August, but this might still be a make-or-break year. Iowa doesn’t have to win the West, but it has to be a player and can’t afford a losing campaign.

After a 6-6 regular season, a bowl appearance and a strong recruiting class, are things on the way up for Illinois?

Ehhhhh, probably not. Just when it seemed like the Illini might be turning a corner, head coach Tim Beckman struggled on the PR side with a bizarre radio appearance on WSCR in Chicago, rambling about how the media has to be on the team’s side and how a good recruiting class and football team are needed for the improvement of an entire state. The team was wildly inconsistent and didn’t quite have enough to hang with most of the better teams, but if this could possibly be another bowl-bound season, then yeah, it might be time to think there might be something there. With four of the first five games at home, and with Wisconsin and Nebraska each having to travel to Champaign, there’s reason to dream … nah.

Is Purdue going to be remotely competitive?

It’s possible with just enough experience returning to be more fun. There were moments last year when the Boilermakers showed off a little potential, beating Illinois and pushing Michigan State and Minnesota hard, but the offense fizzled late. All five starters are back up front, and quarterbacks Austin Appleby and Danny Etling return along with most of the key targets. Eight starters are back on a defense that wasn’t all that bad and did a decent job considering the problems on offense. The schedule isn’t all that horrible with the potential for six wins if the Boilermakers can beat teams like Marshall, Northwestern and Bowling Green. But yes, the team should be stronger and more competitive.

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