The Big Ten West is going to be a fun race although Iowa could be the team best built to win it, again. The Hawkeyes will have to fend off challenges from Nebraska and Wisconsin among others. The other intriguing race will be for last place between Illinois and Purdue, most likely.
For the purposes of this exercise, projected win totals are broken down into three categories — definite wins, definite losses and toss-ups. Most of the conference games will in the toss-up category, especially ones on the road. This preview will offer thoughts on each team and if there’s any value either over or under.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of 5Dimes Sportsbook
Big Ten West
Illinois Fighting Illini
(Over 4.5 wins -120...Under 4.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 9 (5 on offense, 4 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Wes Lunt returns for his senior season and there's not a ton around him on this side of the ball. Malik Turner leads the way out wide. The offensive line is pretty set with the tackles and center back.
Defense: Illinois has a lot of its front line back as well as Taylor Barton at safety. New defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has some work to do to keep this team at the level they played at last year (37th nationally in scoring defense).
Schedule: Illinois plays four of its first five at home with Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan representing the non-conference opponents. Michigan State and Iowa both come to Champaign this year.
Selection: I think there's a slight lean to the under. New head coach Lovie Smith has a lot to do in order to bring this team back after being away from the college game for 21 years. I definitely don't see the postseason in this team's future.
(Over 8.5 wins -110...Under 8.5 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 12-2, 8-0
Returning Starters: 13 (5 on offense, 8 on defense)
Offense: Key returnees make me optimistic that theHawkeyes will be solid on offense. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had just five interceptions compared to 17 touchdown passes in 2015. He's got wide receiver Matt VandeBerg and running back LeShun Daniels as his main weapons. The offensive line will be solid as well.
Defense: Desmond King is one of the best cornerbacks in college football. Linebacker Josey Jewell and his 126 tackles are back as well. This unit was 19th overall in scoring defense, giving up more than 24 points in a game on just three occasions.
Schedule: Miami (Ohio), Iowa State and North Dakota State are part of a three-game homestand to open up the season. The Hawkeyes play three of their next four on the road although those games are at Rutgers, Minnesota and Purdue.
Selection: Iowa's game against Michigan on Nov. 12 could feature two teams with just one or two losses. The Hawkeyes’ schedule is way too easy not to take the over.
(Over 6 wins -115...Under 6 wins -105)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 2-6
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: This group was putrid at times in 2015, scoring just 77 points over the first five games. Quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to improve his TD-to-interception ratio from the 14:11 he posted last season. He has wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky back as well as talented running back Shannon Brooks.
Defense: The Gophers have the right pieces in place to be a good defense. They were especially stingy against the pass last season, allowing just 179.5 yards per game through the air to finish 11th in the nation. The team will have to replace reliable punter Peter Mortell.
Schedule: Minnesota has four of its first five at home with Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State representing the non-conference slate. The Gophers do not play Michigan this year, but they do host Iowa for their annual tilt with the Floyd of Rosedale on the line.
Selection: Six is the right number. This team screams .500 unless Minnesota improves upon its 106th-ranked scoring offense. The schedule is easier than last year so an uptick in the win column is possible.
(Over 8.5 wins -120...Under 8.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong gets one more year to lead Nebraska to a better bowl destination. Last year he threw 16 interceptions to 22 touchdowns while accounting for more than 3,000 passing yards. Running back Terrell Newby and wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp are his two best weapons. The biggest question mark is the offensive line.
Defense: Safety Nate Gerry quarterbacks the secondary after making 79 tackles last year. The front four will have to be completely rebuilt so coordinator Mark Banker has his work cut out for him.
Schedule: Much like the rest of the conference, Nebraska doesn't leave home for four of its first five games. The Cornhuskers take on Fresno State and Wyoming before a big tilt with Oregon. Their toughest stretch is towards the end with back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Selection: I think the under at even is worth a look. The Huskers have four tough road games and it’s possible they could lose all of them. Head coach Mike Riley is recruiting hard so this team may have its best years ahead of them.
(Over 6.5 wins -120...Under 6.5 wins EVEN)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Running back Justin Jackson is going to have to continue to be the workhorse with sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson under center. Jackson had 1,418 yards rushing last year despite some mediocre QB play. Thorson had just seven touchdowns to nine interceptions and his wide receiving corps in 2016 isn’t very experienced.
Defense: The Wildcats were really good defensively last year. They have two starters back in each level of the defense meaning they won't fall too far from where they were last year (12th nationally in scoring defense, 13th in total defense).
Schedule: Northwestern doesn't leave home in September, which means it will be on the road for most of the final stretch, closing things out with three road games over five weeks. Pat Fitzgerald’s team shouldn't be challenged out of conference with Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke on the docket.
Selection: The over is a real good play here. Northwestern will aim to get off to a fast start after getting blasted by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl to close out the 2015 season. I think the schedule lays out nicely for the Wildcats to return to the postseason and possibly contend in the Big Ten West.
(Over 4.5 wins -105...Under 4.5 wins -115)
Record Last Year: 2-10, 1-7
Returning Starters: 16 (7 on offense, 9 on defense)
Offense: I really like running back Markell Jones, who ran for 10 touchdowns in 2015. He's back along with DeAngelo Yancey at WR to help an offense that was stuffed at or behind the line in 15.5 percent of its rushes. The offensive line gets three players back, but improvement is needed.
Defense: The Boilermakers return a lot from last year's defense that allowed almost 37 points per game. Lineman Jake Repogle had 14 tackles for a loss last year, but overall this was a group that struggled. The good thing is a lot of experience returns, but this unit as a whole has to tighten up.
Schedule: Continuing the trend, Purdue has all of its non-conference games at home, hosting Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Nevada. The Boilermakers also get Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern at home.
Selection: I liked the over last year and it wasn't a winning side. I'm not falling for that again. Head coach Darrell Hazell's seat is hot after just six wins in his first three seasons. It may not get much better in 2016.
(Over 7 wins -110...Under 7 wins -110)
Record Last Year: 10-3, 6-2
Returning Starters: 11 (6 on offense, 5 on defense)
Offense: Badger fans won't have to worry about the run game with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale in the backfield. Bart Houston and Alex Hornibrook should mount a spirited competition for the No. 1 quarterback job, although the former figures to have the edge because he’s a senior. The offensive line should be strong as usual.
Defense: Linebacker Vince Biegel gets one more year for the Badgers. The defense figures to take a step back after finishing first in the nation in points allowed and second in yards allowed last season because of the departures. Linebacker Joe Schobert and safety Michael Caputo are both gone.
Schedule: The Badgers are the only team in the Big Ten West to play a non-conference game outside of their own stadium, although they won't go far. Wisconsin will take on LSU at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., followed by Akron and Georgia State. The Badgers also must navigate the Michigan two-step on the road before hosting Ohio State.
Selection: Seven is a great number. The schedule strength is tougher than the rest of the Big Ten West. No one else plays a stretch as tough as at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State and at Iowa over a four-game span.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.