The balance of power in college football and the strength of divisions is always cyclical. The Big Ten West is on the wrong side of the cycle in 2016, as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern enter the year with key question marks and projected to finish outside of the top 25 by most preseason prognosticators. Iowa is the heavy favorite in the Big Ten West this fall, but the Hawkeyes have a few question marks of their own. The receiving corps needs a few playmakers to emerge, and the offensive line loses two standouts. Nebraska returns one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Tommy Armstrong, but the defense was hit hard by departures up front. Wisconsin returns a solid core of talent and one of the league’s top defenses. However, the Badgers must navigate a difficult schedule.
As mentioned above, Iowa is the clear favorite in the Big Ten West. But which position groups could be the difference between the Hawkeyes challenging the East champ for the conference title or Nebraska winning the West crown? Here are five key position groups to watch for development in 2016:
5 Critical Position Groups to Watch in the Big Ten West
Iowa Special Teams
The development of the receivers outside of senior Matt VandeBerg and the battle to replace offensive line standouts Austin Blythe and Jordan Walsh are two other areas to watch, but let’s focus on Iowa’s special teams. Kicker Marshall Koehn departs after connecting on 16 of 20 field goals last season, and punter Dillon Kidd also expired his eligibility (40.2 avg.). While special teams aren’t as flashy as quarterback play or a skill position, this unit could decide the outcome in a couple of close games. After all, Iowa won five games by eight points or less last season. Sophomore Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis (0 for 1 career field goals) are the frontrunners to replace Koehn, while redshirt freshman Colten Rastetter holds an edge at punter. Central Michigan graduate transfer Ron Coluzzi (39.2 avg. in 2015) is another name to watch at punter. Iowa should find the right answers here, but this could be something to watch in close games early in the 2016 season.
Opponents didn’t find much room to throw on Minnesota’s defensive backs last season. The Golden Gophers finished 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense, allowed only 13 passing scores and surrendered only five plays of 40 yards or more. Jay Sawvel will handle the play-calling duties after Tracy Claeys was promoted to head coach at the end of last season and will work with new assistant Dan O’Brien on reloading the secondary. Standout cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun and safety Antonio Johnson expired their eligibility after 2015. The cupboard isn’t bare, but Sawvel and O’Brien have to find the right mix. Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick should push for all-conference honors, with sophomore KiAnte Hardin likely to start on the opposite side after recording 13 tackles in 2015. Adekunle Ayinde and Ace Rogers should battle for one of the starting spots at safety, with senior Damarius Travis (returning from injury) claiming the other job. Travis recorded 10 tackles in last season’s opener but missed the rest of the year. His return is a huge boost for this unit.
Nebraska Defensive Line
The development of this unit will be critical to Nebraska’s hopes of challenging Iowa for the Big Ten West Division title. The Cornhuskers will have four new starters up front, with the departure of standout tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine leaving a void on the interior. Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten against the run last season but only generated 24 sacks. Who will step up for new line coach John Parrella this fall? Sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun is a name to watch on the edge after generating 4.5 sacks in nine games last fall. Senior Ross Dzuris and freshmen Alex Davis and DaiShon Neal are also expected to provide support at end. Senior Kevin Maurice (21 tackles) is the leader on the interior, but talented redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil Davis are two names to watch.
Northwestern Wide Receivers
If Northwestern wants to repeat last year’s 10-win campaign, it’s no secret the Wildcats need more out of the passing game. Quarterback Clayton Thorson should take a step forward in his second season as the starter, but coach Pat Fitzgerald needs a few playmakers to step up on the outside. Northwestern loses leading receiver Dan Vitale (33 grabs) and its No. 3 target Christian Jones (23 catches). Who will step up for Thorson this fall? Senior Austin Carr (16 receptions) and two players making a position change – Solomon Vault from running back and Marcus McShepard from defensive back – are three names to remember. Superback Garrett Dickerson should be a key weapon for Thorson, and if the Wildcats need to tap into their recruiting class for help, Ben Skowronek or Riley Lees are two potential instant-impact prospects. A key stat to remember: Northwestern connected on just seven passing plays of 30 yards or more in 2015.
Wisconsin Offensive Line
Wisconsin’s offensive line is usually one of the best in the Big Ten, but this unit didn’t perform up to its normal standard last fall. The Badgers ranked eighth in the conference in sacks allowed (24) and struggled to open up running lanes (3.82 yards per carry). Youth and injuries had a lot to do with the performance of the front five, but there’s plenty of hope for quick improvement in 2016. Four starters are back for coach Paul Chryst, and UW-Stevens Point transfer Ryan Ramczyk is penciled in at left tackle. Sophomores Micah Kapoi, Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel should all show improvement in their second year as starter. The development of this unit is critical with a new quarterback taking over, as well as a brutal first-half schedule.