The balance of power in the Big Ten clearly resides in the East Division, as Wisconsin is expected to be the only preseason top 25 team from the West. The Badgers are a heavy favorite to win the division crown in 2017, with Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa vying for the next couple of spots. While Wisconsin is an easy pick at the top of the division, it's a close call for the second spot with the Cornhuskers, Wildcats and Hawkeyes locked into a tight battle.
The Cornhuskers improved their win total from six to nine last year but open 2017 with a new quarterback (Tanner Lee) and a transition on defense. The Wildcats finished below Iowa and Nebraska in the final standings last season and must find a new go-to- receiver to replace Austin Carr. Iowa has a tough schedule in 2017 and lost standouts Desmond King (CB), LeShun Daniels (RB), quarterback C.J. Beathard and defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson.
The 2017 season is still a few months away, but it’s never too early to analyze the upcoming year. Athlon’s editors and writers will debate some of college football’s top offseason questions until the release of its top 25 in May.
Iowa, Northwestern or Nebraska: Which Team is the Biggest Threat to Wisconsin in 2017?
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott), AthlonSports.com contributor
With an offense full of players who are better fits to properly execute Mike Riley's vision combined with a defensive transition to new coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 alignment, Nebraska is going to be nearly unrecognizable to most teams in the Big Ten. Additionally, the Cornhuskers get key matchups with Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern at home in 2017, so this may be the year Nebraska makes some serious noise in the B1G.
Robert A. Boleyn (@BoleynRobert), AthlonSports.com contributor
With Iowa catching Penn State, Minnesota and Ohio State all at home relatively early in the season, it could come down to the uncommon Nov. 11 matchup with Wisconsin in Madison. The young Hawkeyes will have some big-game experience under their belts by then. And they're always at their best as the underdogs. Add in the strength of their returning defense, another big, physical offensive line, and what’s expected to be another 1,000-yard rushing season from Akrum Wadley, and it could be a winner-take-all game for Iowa.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Both Iowa and Nebraska will be breaking in new quarterbacks this fall, and the Cornhuskers will be running a different base defense (3-4) under new coordinator Bob Diaco. Meanwhile, Northwestern brings back plenty of experience under center in junior Clayton Thorson, who has one of the best running backs in the nation (Justin Jackson) joining him in the backfield. The Wildcats aren’t without their share of question marks, but I like the veteran playmakers and a Big Ten schedule that has just two tough road assignments – at Wisconsin, at Nebraska. Fortunately these games are more than a month apart. If Northwestern takes care of business at home (esp. against Penn State and/or Michigan State), the ‘Cats could be a factor in the West entering November.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Not much separates Northwestern, Nebraska and Iowa in the early Big Ten projections, but I give a slight edge to the Wildcats at No. 2 and as the biggest threat to the Badgers. Pat Fitzgerald’s team returns 16 starters, including an All-America candidate at running back in Justin Jackson and rising star quarterback Clayton Thorson. After an 0-2 start last season, Northwestern played better the rest of the 2016 campaign, with four of its five losses coming by 11 points or less. The defense must replace standout linebacker Anthony Walker and pass-rush specialist Ifeadi Odenigbo (10 sacks), but this unit is still in relatively good shape. If Thorson takes a step forward, it’s a huge boost for an offense that must replace receiver Austin Carr (90 catches). The addition of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown should help alleviate Carr’s departure.
Northwestern also has a significant schedule advantage. While the Wildcats have to play at Wisconsin and catch Penn State in crossover play, they will miss Ohio State and Michigan and have two very winnable games against Maryland and Michigan State. Additionally, Iowa visits Evanston this year, and the road trip to Lincoln comes after a two-game home stretch against Iowa and Michigan State.