The Gophers are six days from their season opener against TCU, and we’re ramping up our coverage at StarTribune.com. This week, as an added feature, Chip Scoggins and I are unveiling a series of Top Five lists, looking at the Gophers and the national college landscape.
Check out Chip’s latest entries here. I’ve done “Five keys to the Gophers’ season,” “The Gophers’ five most indispensable players,” "The Gophers' five most unsung players," and "Five potential breakout stars for the Gophers." Today, I'm going to swing this around the conference a bit with a look at five Big Ten West storylines:
1. Circle these games
The de facto Big Ten East championship game will be Nov. 27, when Michigan State visits Ohio State. If the West turns into a three-team race between Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Gophers, as many predict, these are the key matchups: Wisconsin at Nebraska (Oct. 10), Nebraska at Gophers (Oct. 17) and Wisconsin at Gophers (Nov. 28).
2. Searching for old mojo
Some picked Iowa to win the West last year (guilty, right here), but the Hawkeyes stumbled to 4-4. Kirk Ferentz can’t afford another year of mediocrity. Fans are restless. And Northwestern has two 5-7 seasons since its promising 10-3 finish in 2013. Like Ferentz, Pat Fitzgerald needs to rediscover his magic touch.
3. West meets East
Overall Big Ten record determines the division champion, but the interdivision challenges are strikingly different. The list: Gophers (vs. Michigan, at Ohio State), Wisconsin (vs. Rutgers, at Maryland), Nebraska (vs. Michigan State, at Rutgers), Iowa (vs. Maryland, at Indiana), Illinois (at Penn State, vs. Ohio State), Northwestern (at Michigan, vs. Penn State), Purdue (at Michigan State, vs. Indiana).
4. Quarterback battles
Purdue had an open competition but stuck with junior Austin Appleby, who passed for three touchdowns in last year’s 39-38 loss to the Gophers. Northwestern named redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson as its starter this week, and the former four-star recruit looks the part, at 6-4 with mobility and a big arm.
5. Disruptive forces
Nebraska junior DT Maliek Collins is a first-round NFL prospect after notching 10.5 tackles for a loss last year. Other returning defenders who lived in opposing backfields last year include Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel (16.5 TFL last year), Wisconsin LB Joe Schobert (13.5), Iowa DE Drew Ott (12.0) and Purdue DT Jake Replogle (11.0). Gophers senior DE Theiren Cockran (7.0) hopes to pick up his production, and the team expects big things from DE Hank Ekpe now that he's healthy.