Ohio State is a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten in 2021, but there's an intriguing race set to unfold in the West Division. Northwestern is the defending champ of the division, while Iowa and Wisconsin are projected top-25 teams by most this preseason, and Minnesota and Nebraska are looking to play their way into the mix. The Wildcats have a lot to replace from last year's squad, but it's tough to count out coach Pat Fitzgerald's team in the division title picture.
Which team will win the Big Ten West in 2021? That was the question posed to Athlon editors and college football contributors.
Big Ten Football: Which Team Wins the West Division in 2021?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The West Division crown has resided in Madison (Wisconsin) or Evanston (Northwestern) in each of the last five years, and it's safe to assume both teams will be in the mix once again, along with Iowa and Minnesota. While the unusual nature of last season adds a layer of difficulty in judging some of these teams, the Badgers are my pick to win the West in 2021. Quarterback Graham Mertz is a rising star and should benefit from a normal offseason to develop under coach Paul Chryst, along with better luck in the health department at receiver. As usual, Wisconsin will be strong up front and at running back, while the defense is expected to be among the best in the conference. The Badgers also catch Penn State, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan all at home this year.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
Northwestern is the defending Big Ten West champ and everyone knows that Pat Fitzgerald's team won't go away without a fight but the Wildcats have lost a lot on both sides of the ball and are replacing the only defensive coordinator they've have had for the past 15 years. I'm looking at Wisconsin to reclaim its throne with quarterback Graham Mertz leading the way. After showing plenty of talent and promise as a freshman the key this season is for Mertz to be more consistent and minimize the turnovers. The Badgers have been the gold standard on defense for the past several years and that shouldn't change either and with a better showing from the offense (and better luck in the health department), it will make Paul Chryst's team the one to beat in the Big Ten West.
Ben Weinrib (@benweinrib)
I like Minnesota as a sleeper team with a great offensive line and battle-tested quarterback-running back combination, but the Gophers' lack of defense will probably do them in this fall. That's why I'm taking Wisconsin to win their seventh division title since the conference was split into divisions in 2011. Graham Mertz looked excellent in his abbreviated redshirt freshman year and should start hitting his stride in his third year in the program. The defense is what will keep the Badgers in nearly every game, no matter how Mertz plays, though, as they return eight starters including all-conference linebacker Jack Sanborn and cornerback Caesar Williams.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Wisconsin is my team to beat in the Big Ten West in 2021, but it's not exactly an easy prediction. The final game of the regular season between the Badgers and Iowa could determine the winner of the division heading into the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin will have one of the top quarterbacks in the conference as Graham Mertz takes some steps forward, and home-field advantage could carry them in key games against Penn State and the Hawkeyes.
Gabe Salgado (@GabeSalgado82)
Northwestern will win the Big Ten West again in 2021 for the following reasons:
1. Pat Fitzgerald returns with most of his staff still intact, the only change being new defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil.
2. Northwestern has a competitive advantage over both Wisconsin (won two of the last three meetings), and Iowa (won three of the last four), the other two teams likely favored to win the division.
3. Minnesota is coming off a surprisingly disappointing season, while Illinois is rebuilding, and Purdue and Nebraska continue to struggle.
4. The Wildcats are the defending division champions.
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