A few years ago, the Big Ten West wasn’t any fun. Wisconsin was just assumed the winner of a weak division with very little intrigue. That is no longer the case. The Big Ten West is a fascinating division now, and a lot of that is thanks to some excellent coaching hires in the past few seasons. P.J. Fleck loaded up Western Michigan before coming over to Minnesota. Jeff Brohm built the best team in Conference USA at Western Kentucky before taking over at Purdue. Scott Frost led the unbeaten UCF Knights before heading home to take the head coaching job in Lincoln. This infusion of coaching talent has made the Big Ten West far more competitive already. It isn’t just the head coaches, but also the coordinators they have brought along with them.
The Badgers are no longer the favorite in the Big Ten West. According to 5Dimes, Nebraska is the +310 favorite to win the Big Ten West. Purdue sits at +330 to win the West. Wisconsin is listed at +350. Minnesota is listed at +440. Iowa is priced at +475. Northwestern is given a real chance at +550. Everyone in this division has a chance outside of Illinois. The Fighting Illini are listed at +3,000, and honestly that price is giving them too much credit. Those prices will obviously move around a bit, but the point is the oddsmakers are having a hard time figuring out who to favor here. We have a division full of intrigue, and then we have the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Iowa and Wisconsin doesn’t have new coaches, but they have very good coaches. They aren’t just going to pass the torch right over to the new coaches without a battle. How about the tempo battles that will come in this conference? Nebraska and Wisconsin couldn’t be much more different when it comes to pace of play. There will be several matchups like this, and those are always compelling contests.
Big Ten West Season Win Totals Best Bet
Purdue under 7 (-105, Bookmaker) – Jeff Brohm is one of my favorite coaches in the country. Nick Holt is an excellent defensive coordinator. Purdue is definitely trending upward in the long run. I don’t like being low on them at all, and I still find it really difficult to get to eight wins for this team. Adam Burke’s power ratings and win total projections are available at BangTheBook, and Adam has them projected to win 5.92 games. I’m in agreement that this number is too high.
Purdue returns only three guys on offense. The Boilermakers have what might be the worst offensive line in the Big Ten. Elijah Sindelar isn’t much of a downgrade from David Blough, but the running game is going to have a hard time getting going. Purdue lost their top two running backs from a year ago, and the interior of this Purdue offensive line is a clear weakness. Rondale Moore is the most electric player in the Big Ten, and he is going to do his thing regardless of the talent around him. The group of receivers at Purdue is probably the best in the conference. Still, I find it hard to believe the lack of a running game won’t be an issue. Opposing defenses are going to be more prepared for the short passing game this season. Purdue will have to do something a little different. Do they have a good enough offensive line to allow them to get deep? Purdue averaged 6.35 yards per play last year, and I think that number will drop quite a bit this season.
Purdue’s defense returns nine guys from last year. The Boilermakers will be solid against the run once again this year. Their pass rush should improve some with George Karlaftis on the defensive edge. Holt and his staff will scheme well to cover up some of their weaknesses, but this secondary isn’t very good. Purdue allowed 211 plays of 10 yards or more last year. They will have to tighten that up a lot, because I don’t see the offense being as dominant as last season. Overall, a mediocre defense that is extremely well-coached.
Purdue is a really young team this year. The Boilermakers will be very good in a year or two, but I think expectations are too high for them this season. I like this under.
Nebraska over 8.5 (-110, BetOnline) – There is a lot of hype surrounding Nebraska in the preseason, and I expected to lean toward the under before a took a closer look at this team and the schedule they face this season. I have Nebraska power rated lower than Iowa and Wisconsin, but Nebraska clearly has the easiest schedule of these three teams. The Cornhuskers have a top notch coach in Scott Frost, and in his second year we should expect a significant jump. The jump in wins should be boosted by the schedule they play. Nebraska doesn’t have to play Michigan, Michigan State, or Penn State. In the non-conference they host South Alabama and Northern Illinois. They travel to Colorado to take on a Buffaloes team that is way down from several years ago. There should be quite a few wins here.
Adrian Martinez has gotten a ton of hype in the preseason, and Scott Frost isn’t talking down expectations at all. Frost thinks Martinez is going to be a superstar. Is it coach speak or does Frost love his game that much? Time will tell, but I do think this is a very good system fit for Martinez. As a freshman last season, Martinez completed 64.6% of his passes. His wide receivers are good enough, and I think the offensive line is underrated. Will Maurice Washington be available? His legal issues make the running back spot a big question mark. Nebraska would be well-suited to avoid Martinez running any more than he has to this year. They badly need Martinez to remain healthy.
The Cornhuskers defense allowed 5.85 yards per play. Nebraska allowed a whopping 5.6 yards per carry in Big Ten action. The defensive front is deeper this year, and they are in the second year of the system. Mohamed Barry emerged as a leader on defense a year ago, and he is back to lead this unit. The secondary was pretty good last year, and they return a lot of guys with experience. Nebraska allowed opponents to convert on 43.18% of third down conversion attempts last year. I would expect that number to improve in 2019. Nebraska has made it a point of emphasis to try to be more aggressive forcing turnovers this year. They forced 20 turnovers a year ago. Overall, I expect some improvement from this unit.
Nebraska is fortunate to play their toughest opponents at home this year, and they avoid three of the best in the Big Ten. I’m not betting this win total because I feel like this team is too dependent on Martinez being healthy, but I think nine wins is more likely than eight.
Wisconsin over 8 (-130, 5Dimes) – It’s strange to see Wisconsin rated as low as they are by the oddsmakers and in the season preview magazines. Wisconsin had a weird season last year. The Badgers were blown out by Minnesota at home in the regular season finale. They followed that up by beating Miami 35-3, and only allowing the Hurricanes to pick up six first downs all game.
Wisconsin’s defense battled serious injury problems last year. The Badgers have been accustomed to being a top five or at least top ten defense in the country. Last year, Wisconsin gave up 5.5 yards per play, which ranked 51st in the country. The defensive line was far weaker than normal. Wisconsin went from allowing 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3 yards per carry in the previous seasons to giving up 4.4 yards per carry last year. The pass rush was non-existent. The Badgers only sacked opponents 19 times. It was a very disappointing year for the defense. The biggest positive though is that those injuries led to youngsters getting playing time last year. Those guys now have game experience, and they should clearly be better than a year ago. I don’t expect Wisconsin to be a top five defense, but they should be top 25.
Sam Hornibrook transferred in the offseason, so there will be a new starter under center in Madison. Graham Mertz is the one of the highest rated recruits in years for this Wisconsin offense. Will Jack Coan or Graham Mertz start under center? I would think Mertz will end up with the majority of the playing time. I don’t see Coan as the answer, and Mertz has a very high ceiling. Jonathan Taylor is a monster in the backfield. The Badgers ran for 6.22 yards per carry despite having no passing game. The receivers are all back from last year. The quarterback play should be improved, because Hornibrook was really bad last year. If the passing game is decent, this offense will be pretty damn difficult to stop. Expect this Wisconsin offense to better than last year’s unit.
The Badgers have a really difficult schedule, but I can’t take the under on the win totals here. This team has to be highly motivated after the way last season went, and I expect a lot of improvement this season. The schedule makes this a lean instead of a bet for me, but I lean toward the over.
Iowa over 7.5 (-135, 5Dimes) – Iowa can be a tough team to predict before the season. I usually have some trouble power rating the Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz is definitely a very good coach. Some of the Iowa teams that on paper looked like a ten win team have been major disappointments. Some Iowa teams that look like they will struggle to win six games have won ten games or more.
The Hawkeyes averaged only 5.44 yards per play on offense last year. That ranked them 91st in the country. Nathan Stanley threw 25 touchdowns compared to only ten interceptions. Still, the offense as a whole wasn’t as good as they should have been. Iowa had the ridiculous tight end tandem of Hockenson and Fant last year. Both of those guys are gone, but Iowa does return a lot of good players. The Iowa offensive line should be one of the best in the Big Ten. Stanley knows this offense well, and he should take care of the football. The receivers/tight ends aren’t as good this year, but the offensive line and the running backs are stronger. Iowa threw the football on 45.54% of their offensive plays last year, but I would expect a more run heavy package this season.
Defensively, Iowa returns only four starters from last season. Their top four tacklers from a year ago are gone. The Hawkeyes allowed only 3.3 yards per carry last year. They can’t match that this season. The defensive tackle spots are the biggest question marks for this defense. I do expect a big season out of AJ Epenesa at defensive end. He is going to be in the backfield a lot this year. Coordinators are underrated in importance by many bettors, and I think Phil Parker is an excellent defensive coordinator. Iowa can’t replicate their 7th place ranking in yards per play allowed from last season, but they will still be a strong unit.
I see eight wins from this team. The juice is a bit high for my liking, but I do lean toward the over.
Minnesota over 7.5 (-125, Bookmaker) – The Golden Gophers improved from 5-7 two years ago to 7-6 last season. The improvement came on the offensive end. Minnesota averaged 5.68 yards per play last season. The defense was wildly inconsistent. Minnesota’s defense allowed 55 points (and got their defensive coordinator fired) against Illinois, but completely shut down Wisconsin and Georgia Tech at the end of the season.
Joe Rossi is the defensive coordinator. He took over with four games left last year, and the Gophers defense was amazing the rest of the way. They allowed only 14.8 points per game in their last four contests, and that was against quality competition. They aren’t going to repeat those numbers this year, but I do think they will improve quite a bit from season to season. Antoine Winfield Jr. is back and most people don’t realize how much of a difference he will make. If you put a top five safety at the back of the defense, it is going to make it much harder on the opposing offense. The pass defense will unquestionably be better if they can stay healthy at all. Can the Golden Gophers improve against the run? They allowed 5.17 yards per carry a year ago. I still see this as the team’s single biggest weakness.
Minnesota got decent play from Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad last year. Both of those guys were freshmen last year, and you have to expect they’ll be better in year two. Who starts? That’s a good question. They do have improved depth even behind the top two at quarterback this season. The strength of this team is their talent and depth at running back. Fleck’s teams are more run heavy than most realize, and I would expect more than 60% of their offensive plays to be runs this season. The offensive line is middle of the pack, but there should be a small improvement from this group. Fleck is very high on Minnesota’s receivers. I do think there are plenty of playmakers on the outside here. With nine starters back, this offense as a whole will improve even more.
I like the over on the win total here. Minnesota doesn’t have to play Ohio State, Michigan, or Michigan State. Instead, they go to Rutgers and host Maryland. A favorable schedule to be sure. The schedule gets far tougher late in the season, but Minnesota should rack up the wins in the early going. There is some value here.
Northwestern under 6.5 (-120, Bovada) – The Northwestern Wildcats pulled off a remarkable feat last season. Northwestern finished 9-5, and the Wildcats won the Big Ten West. Why is this so remarkable? Northwestern averaged 4.74 yards per play a year ago. The Wildcats allowed 5.57 yards per play. Northwestern also had a -12 sack margin a year ago. It’s hard to believe a team with those numbers competed in the Big Ten Championship Game. Northwestern finished +7 in turnover margin on the season. They won four conference games by 4 points or less. Pat Fitzgerald is a great coach, and he maximizes his talent about as well as anyone. Still, the Wildcats were at least somewhat fortunate last season.
Northwestern’s 4.74 yards per play ranked 124th out of 130 in the nation. The Wildcats offense averaged only 3.11 yards per carry. Clayton Thorson was under pressure early and often in the passing game. The offensive line was very weak a year ago, and it looks like a serious problem again this season. The offensive front is especially weak up the middle. Hunter Johnson is a big name recruit who transferred from Clemson to Northwestern to take over the quarterback spot. Johnson has all the tools, and it is possible he’ll step in right away and have a lot of success. I’m a bit skeptical though, since I don’t trust the offensive unit around him. There are no star running backs or receivers, and the line is a huge weakness.
The Wildcats defense was solid a year ago, and I think they are set to be good again this season. The top five tacklers from last year are back. Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are great leaders at the LB spots. Northwestern gave up a touchdown on only 21/45 red zone trips by their opponents. That number will likely regress a bit, but don’t be surprised if their yards per play allowed actually improves this season.
Northwestern’s schedule is very tough in the early going. That won’t give Johnson much of a chance to get his feet wet. The schedule softens down the stretch, but I don’t think this team will get to seven wins.
Illinois under 4.5 (-125, BetOnline) – The Lovie Smith experiment hasn’t worked as expected thus far. Smith has been able to pull in some big name recruits, and the team does have some more talent than they had in his first year. Still, they haven’t been able to put it together at all. Illinois is 9-27 in Smith’s tenure as head coach. Smith will have an extra job this year. He will be his own defensive coordinator after Hardy Nickerson was forced to resign due to health issues during the season last year.
Rod Smith is the offensive coordinator for Illinois, and he definitely helped this offense immensely in 2018. He was a good offensive coordinator at Arizona for a few seasons, and his system really helped Ilinois have a lot more success running the football last year. It probably surprises you to know that Illinois averaged 5.91 yards per carry last season. That was good for sixth best in the nation. The Fighting Illini averaged a whopping 6.27 yards per carry in Big Ten play. They did face a relatively easy schedule of defenses last year, but those rushing numbers are really impressive. Remember, Illinois averaged 3.3 yards per carry two years ago. The offensive line and running back spots are where Illinois has the most depth this year. Expect a lot of running plays from the Fighting Illini.
Lovie Smith recently said freshman quarterback Isaiah Williams, “Has a chance to do some things.” It’s kind of a funny quote, but Williams was highly recruited out of high school. The Illini would be well suited to keep it on the ground a lot this year, but they definitely need Williams to take better care of the football than their quarterbacks did last year. Their quarterback threw 9 touchdowns and 13 interceptions last year.
The Illinois defense returns 10 starters from a year ago. Is that a good thing? Many will tell you it is, but these guys weren’t any good last year. They allowed 7.04 yards per play (126th in the nation). They gave up 7.34 yards per play in the Big Ten. Illinois did pick up some help on the defensive line, and I would expect some improvement against the run. The secondary is a major problem area though. I don’t have high expectations for this defense.
I will look for chances to take overs with this Illinois team from a totals perspective. For the season win total, a slight lean to the under. I won’t bet this one.