Burly, blue-collar Big Ten West is wide open

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2014 - 12:17 PM

Physical play, a strong running game and a stout defense likely will prevail in this wide-open division.

hide

Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff (68) looks to block Wisconsin linebacker Brendan Kelly, right, during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Photo: Charlie Neibergall, ASSOCIATED PRESS

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

The Big Ten used this year’s additions of Rutgers and Maryland to restructure its football divisions, replacing the often-mocked Leaders and Legends titles with East and West.

Critics generally applauded the announced changes in April 2013, but the divisions appeared unbalanced. On paper, 16 months ago, the East looked considerably stronger than the West.

But that was before Iowa and Nebraska knocked off a reeling Michigan program last fall. That was before the Gophers and Nebraska defeated a Penn State squad still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. And that was before quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, robbing Ohio State of the conference’s most important player.

The East might have the Big Ten’s best team, with Michigan State, but the West should have the best race with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, and yes, even the Gophers, believing they have a chance to reach Indianapolis for the conference title game.

“I think these things ebb and flow,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said in July. “Northwestern has been to a Rose Bowl. Wisconsin went to three or four in a row. Nebraska has won national championships. Iowa has played in very big games. Illinois has played in Rose Bowls and other major bowls.

“When I think about historic balance, I think that the teams will play out based on the quality of the players and quality of the coaches. And I’m not worried about that part of it.”

The Big Ten introduced a conference championship game in 2011, and Wisconsin won the first two. Michigan State knocked off Ohio State last year, playing a physical style similar to what Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota use, with an emphasis on defense and time of possession. Nebraska once perfected that style under Tom Osborne.

“The blue bloods [Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State] haven’t won a championship game yet, and the three teams that have won the championship all look like Neanderthal football,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “At least that’s what people want to call it. To me, it’s good football. They don’t turn it over, they run it, they pass it, and they score enough points to win and play defense. That’s what the game has always been about.”

Maybe that will be the West’s identity — Neanderthal football.

Wisconsin looks ready for it, at least offensively, with Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement running behind a veteran offensive line. Gordon would have been one of the top running backs picked in the NFL draft but returned for his junior season, knowing he’ll get the bulk of the carries now that James White has graduated.

Badgers second-year coach Gary Andersen is ready to mix things up a bit, though, by picking Tanner McEvoy as the starting quarterback over Joel Stave. The 6-6 McEvoy is a dual-threat QB who overcame a wrist injury last year and wound up starting three games — at safety.

“I would say he’s an elite athlete,” Andersen said. “It allows you to do some things offensively to force defenses to understand that if you make a mistake, he’s more than willing to take off and make you pay.”

The bigger question for the Badgers is defense, where they need to replace eight starters, including standout middle linebacker Chris Borland. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his 3-4 system will get tested immediately, as Wisconsin opens Saturday against LSU in Houston.

Iowa needs to replace a trio of linebackers that started together for two years — James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. But the Hawkeyes should be tough in the trenches again, with experience returning on both lines, including left tackle Brandon Scherff, a likely first-round NFL draft pick who returned for his senior season.

“I think [the West] is wide open,” Iowa running back Mark Weisman said. “I definitely think it has a lot of physical teams, and that’s what we pride ourselves on.”

Wisconsin and Iowa were picked first and second in the West, respectively, in Cleveland.com’s annual Big Ten sportswriters’ poll. Those teams were followed by Nebraska and Northwestern, two teams that took several roster hits during training camp.

Nebraska has two potential first-team All-Americas in running back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory. But during fall camp, the Huskers suffered season-ending injuries to linebacker Michael Rose, defensive back Charles Jackson and backup running back Adam Taylor. In addition, safety LeRoy Alexander was suspended for the season.

Northwestern thought it had exhausted its bad luck last year, but versatile running back Venric Mark transferred after getting suspended for the first two games. Wide receiver Christian Jones (knee) and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly (foot) also suffered season-ending injuries in August.

  • Gophers season opener

    6 p.m. Thursday vs. Eastern Illinois • TCF Bank Stadium

    TV: BTN (107.9-FM)

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Los Angeles 14 Bottom 9th Inning
Chicago Cubs 4
Boston - A. Webster 6:05 PM
Baltimore - K. Gausman
Milwaukee - Y. Gallardo 6:05 PM
Pittsburgh - J. Locke
Toronto - M. Buehrle 6:05 PM
NY Yankees - H. Kuroda
Washington - D. Fister 6:10 PM
Miami - T. Koehler
Chicago WSox - J. Quintana 6:10 PM
Tampa Bay - J. Hellickson
NY Mets - Z. Wheeler 6:35 PM
Atlanta - J. Teheran
Cleveland - T. Bauer 7:10 PM
Minnesota - P. Hughes
Detroit - J. Verlander 7:10 PM
Kansas City - J. Vargas
Seattle - T. Walker 7:10 PM
Houston - B. Peacock
Arizona - C. Anderson 7:10 PM
Colorado - J. Lyles
Cincinnati - D. Holmberg 7:15 PM
St. Louis - J. Lackey
Philadelphia - D. Buchanan 8:35 PM
Oakland - J. Lester
Texas - L. Bonilla 9:05 PM
LA Angels - H. Santiago
San Francisco - T. Hudson 9:10 PM
San Diego - O. Despaigne
San Diego 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Buffalo
Dallas 9/21/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis
Washington 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Houston 9/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Minnesota 9/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Tennessee 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Baltimore 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Cleveland
Green Bay 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Indianapolis 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Oakland 9/21/14 12:00 PM
New England
San Francisco 9/21/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Denver 9/21/14 3:25 PM
Seattle
Kansas City 9/21/14 3:25 PM
Miami
Pittsburgh 9/21/14 7:30 PM
Carolina
Chicago 9/22/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Washington
(5) Auburn 20 FINAL
(20) Kansas State 14
Connecticut 7:00 PM
So Florida
Old Dominion 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Rice
Troy 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(13) Georgia
Georgia Tech 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Virginia Tech
Eastern Mich 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(11) Michigan State
Iowa 9/20/14 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/20/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Maryland 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Syracuse
Tulane 9/20/14 11:30 AM
Duke
Hawaii 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Marshall 9/20/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Carolina 9/20/14 2:30 PM
East Carolina
Army 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Virginia 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(21) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 9/20/14 2:30 PM
SMU
Rutgers 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Central Mich 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Kansas
Utah 9/20/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Florida 9/20/14 2:30 PM
(3) Alabama
Louisville 9/20/14 2:30 PM
FIU
Fla Atlantic 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Wyoming
Indiana 9/20/14 3:00 PM
(18) Missouri
San Jose St 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Minnesota
Texas State 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Illinois
Massachusetts 9/20/14 3:00 PM
Penn State
Georgia State 9/20/14 5:00 PM
Washington
Appalachian St 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
Miss State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
(8) LSU
Northern Ill 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas
Middle Tennessee 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Memphis
Utah State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Miami-Ohio 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Idaho 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Ohio U
Ball State 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
(14) So Carolina 9/20/14 6:30 PM
Vanderbilt
(4) Oklahoma 9/20/14 6:30 PM
West Virginia
Ga Southern 9/20/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
UNLV 9/20/14 7:00 PM
Houston
(22) Clemson 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(1) Florida State
Miami-Florida 9/20/14 7:00 PM
(24) Nebraska
New Mexico 9/20/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 9/20/14 9:00 PM
Arizona
Louisiana 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Boise State
(2) Oregon 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
San Diego St 9/20/14 9:30 PM
Oregon State
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(25) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(12) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:00 AM
NC State
Duke 9/27/14 2:00 AM
Miami-Florida
North Carolina 9/27/14 2:00 AM
(22) Clemson
Colorado 9:00 PM
Real Salt Lake
Toronto 9:00 PM
Brt Columbia
Edmonton 9/20/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Calgary 9/21/14 12:00 PM
Montreal
Ottawa 9/21/14 3:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Montreal 9/26/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 9/26/14 9:00 PM
Edmonton
Hamilton 9/27/14 5:30 PM
Winnipeg
Brt Columbia 9/27/14 8:30 PM
Calgary
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

Date/Opponent Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.
Sep 27 - at Michigan TBA
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern TBA
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 am
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 am
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa TBA
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State TBA
Nov 22 - at Nebraska TBA
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin TBA

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: How will the Vikings and Gophers do this weekend?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close