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What to know about Big Ten West teams this season

How do the Illini’s division opponents stack up?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re about a week away from Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis and roughly five weeks away from Illinois’ Aug. 27 season opener at Memorial Stadium versus Wyoming. Yep, football season is nigh, so let’s highlight some talking points for the B1G West, starting with our beloved Orange & Blue.

Illinois Fighting Illini

2021 record: 5-7 (4-5 Big Ten)

The Illini were thiiiiiiiis close to bowling in Bret Bielema’s inaugural season at the helm. Maybe this year we’ll see less punting on the opponent’s 35-yard line.

Former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was ousted in January, and Bert hired Barry Lunney Jr. as his new OC.

Three former Illini were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft — Kerby Joseph (Detroit Lions), Vederian Lowe (Minnesota Vikings), and Doug Kramer (Chicago Bears).

The Illini added Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito, who enters camp as the presumptive QB1. If he can’t outplay Art Sitkowski, then Illinois might as well trot out the D2 walk-on guy or the JUCO baseball player walk-on guy.

The defense improved dramatically under DC Ryan Walters. It’ll be Lunney’s task to energize what was a pedestrian offense in 2021 (329.8 ypg, 20.2 ppg). Chase Brown & Joshua McCray have a chance to be the top tailback tandem in the B1G, and Isaiah Williams has potential to be an All-Big Ten receiver.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Indiana v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

2021 Record: 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten; West champions; Lost to Kentucky in Citrus Bowl)

The Hawkeyes’ offensive line was uncharacteristically bad last season (even though center Tyler Linderbaum was a first-round NFL Draft pick), surrendering 32 sacks. It didn’t help matters that Spencer Petras was virtually immobile and passed for just 10 TDs and 9 interceptions.

Petras is still the starting QB, and Iowa’s defense should still be pretty good, which is terrific news if you like watching 13-10 games nine times per season.

I fully expect Iowa to gain 150 yards of offense every game and still manage to finish 8-4. Illinois won’t beat them again until Kirk Ferentz retires in 2057.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Is the shine wearing off P.J. Fleck?
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

2021 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten; Defeated West Virginia in Guaranteed Rate Bowl)

Stories of player mistreatment by head coach P.J. Fleck (pictured above) began to pop up this summer, exposing some not-so-flattering details about Fleck behind the scenes. You mean to tell me the guy who stole a catchphrase from his former employer and emblazons boat oars on his team’s uniforms is actually all about himself? CLUTCH THE PEARLS!

In some good football news for Gopher fans, running back Mo Ibrahim returns following last year’s season-ending Achilles injury. Ibrahim is one of the best backs in the Big Ten when healthy.

Tanner Morgan will also have one more go-round with the Gophers under center. Morgan holds more than a dozen program records and is probably the best QB Minnesota has ever had, though I still have a soft spot in my heart for Asad Abdul-Khaliq.

Illinois hosts the Gophers on Homecoming Oct. 15.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

Surely THIS will be the year that Scott Frost returns Nebraska to glory, RIGHT?!?! I mean, it was supposed to be last year, and the year before that, too. But it’s DEFINITELY GONNA HAPPEN THIS TIME!

To be fair, the Huskers were quite competitive, losing all nine of their games by single-digits. But let’s not crown them as future Big Ten champs until they actually, you know, DO SOMETHING. The media wants Nebraska Football to be a thing but nobody under the age of 25 actually remembers when the Huskers were important.

Starting QB Adrian Martinez left the program and bolted to Kansas State. However, Scott Frost was able to lure Texas transfer Casey Thompson and Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy to Lincoln.

And hey! Nebraska will get to play in Ireland this season (yay?), taking on Northwestern in Week Zero.

Northwestern Wildcats

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin
Pat Fitzgerald is behind only Kirk Ferentz as the Big Ten’s longest-tenured head coach.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)


Now that the curse of Lovie Smith has been lifted, Illinois can look forward to actually beating Northwestern some of the time! How cool is that?

Chicago’s Big Ten Team scored a paltry 16.6 ppg in 2021. Pat Fitzgerald’s defense was also less than stellar, surrendering 429.5 ypg, including an alarming 213 per game on the ground and 31 rushing TDs.

In addition to hosting Illinois Nov. 26, the Wildcats also have the pleasure of playing Penn State AND Ohio State this year. Have a great time, guys!

Purdue Boilermakers

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Purdue at Tennessee Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten; Defeated Tennessee in Music City Bowl)

Purdue was sneaky good last season, completing its first 9-win campaign in 18 years and beating two top-five opponents, including a win over #2 Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. And yet all I can think about is how the Illini pissed away last year’s game — Bert! Why, oh why, must you punt inside the 40?

Jeff Brohm’s Boilermakers lost their best defensive player (George Karlaftis) and their best offensive player (David Bell) to the NFL. It won’t be an easy task to replace either of them. However, Purdue did pick up Iowa transfer wideouts Charlie Jones & Tyrone Tracy and sixth-year senior Aidan O’Connell returns at QB.

Their giant bass drum is cool. Their mascot is creepy.

Purdue comes to Champaign on Nov. 12, Illinois’ Senior Day.

Wisconsin Badgers

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

2021 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten; Lost to Arizona State in Las Vegas Bowl)

Badgers fans seem conflicted about starting QB Graham Mertz (pictured), who exploded onto the scene in 2020’s season opener against Illinois (20-21, 5 TDs), but has been underwhelming the past two campaigns. Mertz fumbled five times in 2021 & his interception rate of 3.9% was worst in the B1G and tied for fourth-highest in FBS.

Anyway...he’s back but lost three of his best pass-catchers, so good luck improving on this:

But let’s not pretend like Wisconsin is Quarterback U — even though they were totally gonna get Caleb Williams, you guys! — they pump out 6-foot-6, 320 pound offensive lineman like Pez candy & Jim Leonhard is one of the top defensive coordinators in college football.

Wiscy allowed just 16.2 ppg, 64.8 rushing yards, 2.1 yards per rush attempt, 28.7% on third down conversions, and racked up 39 sacks in 2021.

The Badgers aren’t flashy (this is the Big Ten, after all!) but they’re always tough and fundamentally sound and very strong in the trenches.

The Fighting Illini travel to Camp Randall on Oct. 1.