FIVE STORY LINES BY JOE CHRISTENSEN
1. Quarterback stability
Wisconsin has to replace Joel Stave, but the starting QB returns for everyone else in the West: Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong Jr., the Gophers’ Mitch Leidner, Illinois’ Wes Lunt, Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and Purdue’s David Blough. In the East, there will be new QBs at Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State and Indiana.
2. Explosive tailbacks
Analysts are rightfully excited about Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season. But the West Division features several top returning backs, too, including the Gophers’ Shannon Brooks (6.0 yards per carry), Wisconsin’s Corey Clement (6.5 in 2014) and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley (6.0).
3. Crossover watch
The Big Ten’s new nine-game conference schedule features three interdivision games. The list: Gophers (at Penn State, at Maryland, Rutgers), Illinois (at Rutgers, at Michigan, Michigan State), Iowa (at Rutgers, at Penn State, Michigan), Nebraska (at Indiana, at Ohio State, Maryland), Northwestern (at Michigan State, Indiana, at Ohio State), Purdue (at Maryland, Penn State at Indiana), Wisconsin (at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State).
4. East/West disparity
It’s easy to argue that the East is a tougher division, with the three-headed monster of Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan. But it’s worth noting that the West went 7-7 in crossover games last year. The Gophers are 1-3 the past two years against East, with a 2014 victory at Michigan, two losses to Ohio State and last year’s narrow home loss to Michigan.
5. Defensive standouts
The East features several defensive headliners, including Jabrill Peppers, Malik McDowell, Jourdan Lewis and Raekwon McMillan. But the returning conference leader in tackles for a loss is Northwestern’s Anthony Walker (20½), followed by Illinois’ Dawuane Smoot (15). The West also boasts Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel (14) and Purdue’s Jake Replogle (14).