The defending national champion may hail from the Big Ten's East Division, but that doesn't mean the West doesn't have its own intrigue. The top storylines to follow this season include new head coaches taking over at Nebraska (Mike Riley) and Wisconsin (Paul Chryst), as well as those (Illinois' Tim Beckman, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, Purdue's Darrell Hazell) that find themselves on the hot seat. Elsewhere Minnesota will look to build on its success under Jerry Kill, albeit without a couple of NFL Draft picks, while Larry Fitzgerald and Northwestern hope to turn things around after a couple of disappointing seasons.
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 3.5 wins -210...Under 3.5 wins +160)
Record Last Year: 6-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 14 (7 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Wes Lunt gets another year under center after throwing just three interceptions in 2014. He's got Geronimo Allison and Justin Hardee to throw to while Josh Ferguson returns to the backfield. The offensive line could be a concern.
Defense: Jihad Ward gets one more year to wreck havoc on the Big Ten. This unit regularly was gashed, giving up 30 points or more 10 times last year. Plenty of players return and will be looking for improvement.
Schedule: Kent State, Western Illinois and Middle Tennessee all come to Champaign while the Illini travel to North Carolina for their non-conference slate. Wisconsin and Ohio State are both Big Ten home games for Illinois.
Selection: The over is the play. This is an important season for Tim Beckman whose seat has to be getting warm after going 12-25 the last three years.
(Over 7.5 wins -115...Under 7.5 wins -125)
Record Last Year: 7-6, 4-4
Returning Starters: 10 (4 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: Iowa's returning starters on this side of the ball consist of three O-linemen and WR Tevaun Smith. C.J. Beathard and Tyler Wiegers will compete for the QB position. Jordan Canzeri tries to replace Mark Weisman, who was the Hawkeyes' leading rusher last season.
Defense: Drew Ott brings fierce pressure from the front line while Desmond King is one of the better CBs in the conference. Everyone else around them are question marks as this unit got roughed up to finish last season.
Schedule: Illinois State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh and North Texas make up Iowa's September. The Hawkeyes finish out the year with home tilts against Minnesota and Purdue and a road game at Nebraska as the final matchup.
Selection: The schedule lends itself to an over for Iowa even with the holes that need to be filled. The Hawkeyes shouldn't lose to rival Iowa State, but the home matchup with Pittsburgh will be tough.
(Over 5.5 wins -210...Under 5.5 wins +160)
Record Last Year: 8-5, 5-3
Returning Starters: 11 (4 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: David Cobb and Maxx Williams are gone from an offense that struggled to move the ball through the air. Mitch Leidner had 11 passing touchdowns and 10 rushing TDs. He's going to have to get the ball to Drew Wolitarsky and KJ Maye.
Defense: It will be tough to move the ball through the air against Minnesota with four seniors back there. There's a lot of talent on this side of the ball. Senior punter Peter Mortell flipped the field often for the Golden Gophers.
Schedule: TCU, Kent State and Ohio all come to Minneapolis while a road game exists at Colorado State. In both October and November, the squad starts out with two straight road games before moving to two straight home games.
Selection: There is some value with the under. It's a tough schedule that Minnesota has to navigate. They could lose the first two games and who knows if it spirals a bit after that.
(Over 8 wins -150...Under 8 wins +110)
Record Last Year: 9-4, 5-3
Returning Starters: 12 (6 on offense, 6 on defense)
Offense: There's a lot to like here as Tommy Armstrong Jr. continues to grow. The signal-caller had 28 touchdowns and gets WR Jordan Westerkamp back. The Huskers will have to find some help in the run game whether it's Terrell Newby or Imani Cross.
Defense: It's not quite the Blackshirts, but Nebraska's defense is getting better. Nate Gerry and Daniel Davie help out the secondary while Maliek Collins solidifies the front line.
Schedule: It's a home-friendly September with BYU, South Alabama and Southern Miss all coming to Lincoln, while there's a trip to Miami in the mix. Last year Nebraska beat the Canes 41-31 at home. The Cornhuskers alternate road and home games in conference.
Selection: No feel for this line. There's a lot of toss-up games for the Huskers. It also depends on Armstrong's continued development as a passer.
(Over 6.5 wins +110...Under 6.5 wins -150)
Record Last Year: 5-7, 3-5
Returning Starters: 15 (5 on offense, 10 on defense)
Offense: Justin Jackson is a nice place to start, as he finished the year with six 100-yard rushing performances. Christian Jones will be a welcome sight out wide to whomever is under center. Dan Vitale (40 rec. in 2014) is an underrated pass catcher filling the Wildcats' super back role.
Defense: Continuity is nice on this side of the ball. There's a solid mix of youth and seniors here so there should be some improvement from a group that gave up 25.2 points per game last year.
Schedule: Northwestern gets a big shot early with Stanford at home. The rest of the non-conference slate consists of home games against Eastern Illinois and Ball State while making a visit to Duke. Northwestern hosts Penn State in early November.
Selection: Six wins seems about right here. There's a big question at quarterback and that's going to be a problem for a team that struggled in close games.
(Over 4 wins -145...Under 4 wins +105)
Record Last Year: 3-9, 1-7
Returning Starters: 16 (9 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Austin Appleby has to cut down the turnovers for this offense to work. He had 11 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns. The whole offensive line is back while Danny Anthrop and DeAngelo Yancey line up outside. Anthrop is coming off injury so who knows when he will be 100 percent.
Defense: The good news is that there's a lot returning, but the bad news is that this group was awful last year. This unit needs to find leaders, which shouldn't be too hard with so many juniors and seniors on the depth chart.
Schedule: A road matchup with Marshall starts things off before home tilts with Indiana State, Virginia Tech and Bowling Green. October could be rough with games against Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Selection: I like the over. The Boilermakers have a chance to improve on last year. If the defense figures things out, this team could approach six wins and be in the conversation for a bowl berth.
(Over 10 wins +160...Under 10 wins -210)
Record Last Year: 11-3, 7-1
Returning Starters: 12 (5 on offense, 7 on defense)
Offense: Things will look different on this side of the ball without Melvin Gordon although the Badgers will be in good hands with Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal. Joel Stave is back under center and he needs to improve after completing just 53.4 percent of his passes.
Defense: Vince Biegel had 16.5 tackles for a loss last year to go with 7.5 sacks. He'll help again this year with the strength of the defense in the secondary. This should be a very solid defense.
Schedule: The season kicks off with another SEC opponent although this one is a bit tougher. The Badgers get Alabama in Arlington, Texas. After that it's Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii. The first true road game isn't until Oct. 10 at Nebraska.
Selection: No feel for this one. It's a high number that you could make the case for in either direction. Once again, if you find that you like the over, then I endorse it at that price.
— 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.