The Big Ten West, in predicted order of finish by Star Tribune college football writer Joe Christensen:
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (16th year)
2013: 8-5 (5-3 Big Ten)
Top returnees: LT Brandon Scherff (first-team All-Big Ten last year), DT Carl Davis (second-team All-Big Ten)
Early test: Sept. 20 at Pittsburgh
Outlook: They’re not flashy, but the Hawkeyes should be tenacious again in the trenches. Three starters return on the offensive line, and three on the defensive line. Junior QB Jake Rudock is back, along with Mark Weisman and three other leading rushers. The big question is linebacker, where all three starters graduated. With a soft schedule, the Hawkeyes could be 8-0 when they come to Minnesota on Nov. 8.
Coach: Gary Andersen (second year)
2013: 9-4 (6-2)
Top returnees: RB Melvin Gordon (1,609 rushing yards), RT Rob Havenstein (second-team All-Big Ten)
Early test: Aug. 30 vs. LSU at Houston
Outlook: Jared Abbrederis graduated, and none of the returning wide receivers caught more than 10 passes last year. That could add difficulty for new starting QB Tanner McEvoy, but the Badgers will have a dominant running game again with Gordon, Corey Clement and another mammoth offensive line. Wisconsin must replace eight starters — including LB Chris Borland and DT Beau Allen — from a defense that ranked sixth nationally last year in scoring defense.
Coach: Bo Pelini (seventh year)
2013: 9-4 (5-3)
Top returnees: RB Ameer Abdullah (1,690 rushing yards), DE Randy Gregory (10 ½ sacks)
Early test: Sept. 20 vs. Miami (Fla.)
Outlook: QB Taylor Martinez is gone, but sophomore Tommy Armstrong Jr. went 7-1 last year as the starter, and Kenny Bell is back after leading the team in receiving the past three years. Armstrong is a better runner than passer. He threw eight interceptions last year to go with his nine touchdown passes. The Cornhuskers get a tough interdivision game at Michigan State (Oct. 4) and play the two West division favorites — Iowa and Wisconsin — on the road.
Coach: Jerry Kill (fourth year)
2013: 8-5 (4-4)
Top returnees: RB David Cobb (1,202 rushing yards), DE Theiren Cockran (7 ½ sacks)
Early test: Sept. 13 at TCU
Outlook: With Philip Nelson gone, Mitch Leidner is their lone experienced quarterback. The Gophers ran on nearly 70 percent of their plays last year and are hoping for more balance. Leidner will rely heavily on tight end Maxx Williams, but the Gophers need receivers to emerge. The defense should be potent after quietly ranking 25th in the nation in scoring defense last year, but they must replace DT Ra’Shede Hageman and CB Brock Vereen.
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (ninth year)
2013: 5-7 (1-7)
Top returnees: S Ibraheim Campbell (four interceptions), LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (106 tackles).
Early test: Aug. 30 vs. California
Outlook: Northwestern went 10-3 two years ago and seemed poised for a bounce-back season before the roster took several hits during training camp. Running back Venric Mark’s transfer and wide receiver Christian Jones’ knee injuries were the biggest blows. Kain Colter has graduated, and the offense will be less dynamic with Trevor Siemian at QB. Northwestern’s defense should be strong but probably not strong enough to compensate for the offensive setbacks.
Coach: Tim Beckman (third year)
2013: 4-8 (1-7)
Top returnees: RB Josh Ferguson (779 rushing yards), S Earnest Thomas (101 tackles)
Key test: Sept. 13 at Washington
Outlook: Beckman is 1-15 in Big Ten games and could feel the heat if his team doesn’t take another step this year. Will Lunt, a transfer from Oklahoma State, will take over at QB; Ferguson is a dangerous threat at running back; and several incoming recruits could make impacts at receiver. Four returning starters on the offensive line should help, but the defense needs major improvement, especially against the run.
Coach: Darrell Hazell (second year)
2013: 1-11 (0-8)
Top returnees: QB Danny Etling (10 TD passes), RB Akeem Hunt (464 rushing yards)
Key test: Sept. 14 at Notre Dame
Outlook: Hazell, the former Kent State coach and longtime Ohio State assistant, inherited a crumbling foundation from former Purdue coach Danny Hope. Etling is a four-star recruit who started seven games last year as a true freshman. Hunt and Raheem Mostert, the 60- and 200-meter Big Ten indoor sprint champion, are big-play threats at running back. But the Boilermakers have big questions again on the offensive and defensive lines.