2014: 11-3 (7-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Paul Chryst (first year)
Key returnees: QB Joel Stave, RB Corey Clement, S Michael Caputo
Early test: Saturday vs. No. 3 Alabama (in Arlington, Texas)
Outlook: Stave is a prime candidate for a bounce-back year now that he has been reunited with Chryst, who was his offensive coordinator before the coach left for Pittsburgh. An improved passing game and Corey Clement will help, but the Badgers will miss Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 2,587 yards and scored 32 touchdowns last year. Chryst also kept defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Last August, the defense had big questions, but Aranda made it one of the Big Ten’s best.
2014: 8-5 (5-3)
Coach: Jerry Kill (fifth year)
Key returnees: QB Mitch Leidner, CB Eric Murray, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun
Early test: Thursday vs. No. 2 TCU
Outlook: The Gophers should have a potent defense, but the statistics could get skewed against TCU, not to mention No. 1 Ohio State (Nov. 7). The key for Minnesota will be winning toss-ups at Colorado State (Sept. 12), the Big Ten opener at Northwestern (Oct. 3) and home games against Nebraska (Oct. 17) and Michigan (Oct. 31). Throw in the trophy games at Iowa (Nov. 14) and vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 28), and it’ll be a fascinating ride.
2014: 9-4 (5-3)
Coach: Mike Riley (first year)
Key returnees: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr., RB Imani Cross, DT Maliek Collins
Early test: Saturday vs. Brigham Young
Outlook: Eight Nebraska players will miss the BYU game because of injury or suspension. That includes wide receiver and punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El, who is out six to eight weeks because of a foot injury. It’s uncertain how the Huskers will replace Ameer Abdullah at tailback. One candidate is Terrell Newby, whom Rivals.com rated the nation’s 75th-best recruit in 2013 coming out of West Hills, Calif. He’s an example of the talent Riley inherited.
2014: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Coach: Kirk Ferentz (17th year)
Key returnees: QB C.J. Beathard, RB Jordan Canzeri, DE Drew Ott
Early test: Sept. 19 vs. Pittsburgh
Outlook: One reason last season was so deflating for Iowa fans is the Hawkeyes had a favorable schedule, with interdivision games against Maryland and Indiana. It’s the same Big Ten slate this year, with a different QB. Jake Rudock started 25 of 26 games before transferring to Michigan and rarely took chances down the field. Beathard will do that, if he gets time. The Hawkeyes have to replace both offensive tackles, including Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff.
2014: 5-7 (3-5)
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (10th year)
Key returnees: RB Justin Jackson, WR Christian Jones, CB Nick VanHoose
Early test: Saturday vs. No. 21 Stanford
Outlook: Northwestern won only five games last year but had victories over Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Penn State, and could have won at Minnesota if not for Jalen Myrick’s 100-yard kickoff return. Jackson is one of the top RBs in the Big Ten, and fans have reason to be excited with 6-4 redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson taking over at QB. The Wildcats also have 10 returning from the Big Ten’s seventh-best scoring defense.
2014: 6-7 (3-5)
Coach: Bill Cubit (interim, first year)
Key returnees: QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, LB Mason Monheim
Early test: Sept. 19 at North Carolina
Outlook: The firing of coach Tim Beckman one week before the season seemed as if it could derail the season, but here’s the thing: Cubit is a better coach than Beckman. Cubit has 17 years of head-coaching experience, including a turnaround at Western Michigan. Lunt is back from his leg injury, and the Fighting Illini should have WR Mike Dudek (knee) and DE Jihadi Ward (knee) back to full health in time to face the Gophers on Nov. 21.
2014: 3-9 (1-7)
Coach: Darrell Hazell (third year)
Key returnees: QB Austin Appleby, WR Danny Anthrop, S Frankie Williams
Early test: Sunday at Marshall
Outlook: Purdue collapsed after last year’s 39-38 heartbreaker at Minnesota, ending the year on a six-game losing streak. But 16 starters return to a program that could be poised to take a nice leap in Hazell’s third season. A tough offensive line returns entirely intact, and Appleby is an experienced QB who’ll have a go-to target in Anthrop. The defense has been awful, though. Until the Boilermakers find a way to stop opponents, progress will be slow.