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College Football Wins – Big Ten West

When the sportsbook posts regular-season win totals for college football teams, you know the season is just around the corner. We dive into the numbers and analyze each team’s chances to excel or disappoint. This time around, it’s the Big Ten West Division.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Expected wins: 3½ [Over -140, Under +110]

Spencer Petras of the Iowa Hawkeyes runs up the field on a keeper against Caesar Williams of the Wisconsin Badgers
Matthew Holst/Getty Images/AFP

The Lovie Smith era is over in Urbana-Champaign. The former Chicago Bears coach posted a dreadful 17-39 record, including 10-33 in Big Ten play, in five seasons at the helm. Former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema takes over after three years in assistant roles with the New England Patriots and New York Giants.

Transitioning from one coach to another is never easy, especially when a program is in shambles. Illinois was subpar on defense in 2020, allowing 467.3 yards and 34.9 points per game.

The Illini’s last winning season was in 2011 and they finished 2-6 in 2020. Sixth-year quarterback Brandon Peters will be back in 2021 but he posted just a 48.8 completion percentage in five games last year.

Illinois is returning a bunch of starters, which could be seen as either a good or bad thing given its recent history. However, Illinois was solid on the ground last season and returns its two lead backs in Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. The duo combined for 907 yards on an impressive 5.2 yards per carry.

Illinois will be facing both of the Big Ten squads that it beat last season, Nebraska and Rutgers, at home. In a relatively weak Big Ten West, Illinois is capable of snatching another win or two. There are also winnable non-conference games on the schedule vs UTSA and Charlotte.

When Bielema took over at Arkansas in 2013 he finished with a 3-9 record but I think he’ll do better than that in his first season at Illinois.

Iowa Hawkeyes

Expected wins: 8½ [Over Ev, Under -130]

Despite a racial bias scandal embroiling the football program, Iowa won its last six games in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The Hawkeyes finished second in the Big Ten West in 2020 at 6-2, after a 10-3 mark in 2019. If not for a blown 17-point lead vs Northwestern in its second game, the Hawkeyes would have booked a place in the Big Ten title game.

Iowa has the second-best college football odds to win the Big Ten West, behind Wisconsin, but lost some key players. It won’t be easy to replace 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Daviyon Nixon at defensive tackle or Alaric Jackson at left tackle. Iowa must also replace two key receivers in Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette.

Quarterback Spencer Petras returns for his junior season after taking over starting duties as a sophomore in 2020. A lot rests on Petras’ shoulders but he has a talented backfield mate in Tyler Goodson. The junior running back finished third in the Big Ten in 2020 with 743 rushing yards.

The defensive line will be inexperienced but Iowa projects to have a good defense once again. Iowa allowed just 16 points per game in 2020, which was sixth in the nation. With the exception of last year, Iowa has won at least eight games dating to 2015.

Iowa’s schedule isn’t as tough as it could’ve been but there are potential pitfalls looming at Iowa State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes also open up the season at home vs an Indiana team that finished 6-2 last year. Iowa’s total is a toss-up and one I’d stay away from.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Expected wins: 7 [Over -115, Under -115]

The Gophers were widely considered a prime candidate to win the Big Ten West in 2020 after a surprising 11-2 season in 2019. However, Minnesota’s season was marred by COVID issues and bad breaks. Minnesota had two games cancelled and at one point had 33 players out. The Gophers also lost two overtime games on its way to a disappointing 3-4 finish.

Star wideout Rashod Bateman’s midseason opt-out didn’t help matters. Bateman was later selected in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft and replacing him won’t be easy. The receiving corps is inexperienced in general, which could spell trouble for the passing game.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan had a breakout season in 2019 but struggled in 2020. While the passing game remains a question, the Gophers have the Big Ten’s 2020 rushing leader, Mohamed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim was the only Big Ten player to break the 1,000-yard rushing threshold and led the conference with 15 touchdowns from scrimmage. Twenty of 22 starters are returning along with eight incoming transfers, which makes this one of the Big Ten’s deepest teams.

The college football lines will almost certainly favor Minnesota in its three non-conference games. The Gophers should go 3-0 vs Colorado, Bowling Green and Miami (Ohio). If that’s the case, Minnesota will need to go 5-4 in the Big Ten for the over to hit. Like Iowa’s total, this one is hard to predict but P.J. Fleck has certainly overachieved with less talented rosters than this before.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Expected wins: 6½ [Over -120, Under -110]

Scott Frost’s time as Nebraska head coach certainly hasn’t come close to reaching the same heights he did as a Cornhuskers player. Frost won 13 games in Nebraska’s 1997 coaches national championship season as the starting QB, which is more games than he has won in three seasons as coach.

Frost has compiled a 12-20 record after Nebraska finished 3-5 in 2020. The Huskers struggled offensively in offensive coordinator Matt Lubick’s first season. Quarterback Adrian Martinez led the team in both passing and rushing but the Huskers posted a pedestrian 23.1 points per game. Nebraska finished fifth in the Big Ten West and hasn’t put together a winning season since 2016.

The pass rush was subpar in 2020 but defense was rarely why Nebraska lost games. The Huskers lost 2020 sacks leader Will Honas but will return nine starters. Led by defensive lineman Ben Stille and linebacker JoJo Domann, the defense should be the best of Frost’s tenure.

On offense, Nebraska has a slew of inexperienced backs and receivers, especially after 2020 leading wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson’s transfer to Kentucky. Martinez is Nebraska’s guy but needs to cut down on turnovers. Tight end Austin Allen is in line for a big season as well.

Bettors have been strangely bullish about the Huskers despite their recent history. The line stood at six wins a couple of weeks ago but moved to 6½. Nebraska has better implied odds to go over but this isn’t a team to be trusted.

Northwestern Wildcats

Expected wins: 6½ [Over -115, Under -115]

Pat Fitzgerald often seems to get the most out of his players and that was certainly the case in 2020. Northwestern went 6-1 in the Big Ten West and finished 7-2 after going just 3-9 in 2019. Virtually no preseason college football picks predicted the Wildcats to win a second Big Ten West title in three seasons.

The Wildcats won the division with a stout defense, which Fitzgerald teams have come to be known for. Northwestern had the fourth-best scoring defense in the country, allowing just 15.9 points per game. It also ranked 12th in opponent yards per play at 4.8.

Northwestern has some huge losses on defense, like linebacker Paddy Fisher and cornerback Greg Newsome, but its biggest loss may be defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Hankwitz put together consistently formidable defenses in his 13-year run as Wildcats DC but retired after the 2020 season. New defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has had high-profile jobs as a defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, but the Wildcats could take some steps back on that side of the ball.

Grad transfer Peyton Ramsey was the starter at QB in 2020 and the Wildcats will rely on South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski in 2021. Hilinski was put through the wringer as South Carolina’s QB in 2019 but like Ramsey, specializes in the short passing game. Northwestern lost its top four receiving targets from 2020, which could spell trouble.

I wouldn’t count anything out from a Fitzgerald coached team but it does appear to be an uphill battle to reach seven wins.

Purdue Boilermakers

Expected wins: 5 [Over -120, Under -110]

Purdue finished just 2-4 in Jeff Brohm’s fourth season. Brohm contracted COVID before the season started and his brother, Brian, took over in the game vs Iowa. Even so, the Boilermakers beat Iowa for the third time in four years and followed it up with a win vs Illinois.

Purdue then had its game vs Wisconsin cancelled and came out of its makeshift bye week with four straight losses. Purdue finished in the bottom three in the country in sack rate and has a new defensive coordinator in Brad Lambert.

Purdue will get defensive end George Karlaftis back from injury, which will certainly help a struggling pass rush. Junior QB Jack Plummer looked good in the three games he played in last season after Aidan O’Connell went down with an injury.

O’Connell is back for his senior season, so it’ll be interesting to see who wins the QB competition. With targets like David Bell and Milton Wright, the passing game should be fine either way. Purdue ran the ball at the second-to-last rate in the country last season and could benefit from a more balanced offense in 2021.

Purdue opens up 2021 with Oregon State and Connecticut, two games the Boilermakers should win. With Notre Dame on the schedule the following week, Purdue will most likely need to go 4-5 or better in Big Ten play to go over five wins. The Boilermakers did that in Brohm’s first two seasons but will need to win a couple games as an underdog to pull off a winning season.

Wisconsin Badgers

Expected wins: 9½ [Over -125, Under -105]

There’s rarely a year Wisconsin isn’t expected to be the class of the Big Ten West and 2020 was no differentm but the Badgers went just 4-3. Wisconsin had three games cancelled due to COVID outbreaks and went 3-3 in conference play. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from 2020 as the offensive line was decimated by COVID concerns.

The Badgers won 10 games in their last full season in 2019 and are expected to be right around that number in 2021. It’s easy to see why. The Badgers should have one of the best defenses in the country and will return the vast majority of their starters.

QB Graham Mertz was solid as a redshirt freshman and should only continue to get better, especially with a good offensive line around him. Sophomore RB Jalen Berger could be one of the conference’s breakout players after he averaged five yards per carry as a freshman.

Wisconsin clearly has the talent to win 10 or more games but its schedule could pose some challenges. In the first four weeks, the Badgers play Penn State, Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan. A 1-3 start is definitely not outside of the realm of possibility.

The scores and odds will favor Wisconsin in all of its remaining games but a good start to the season will be imperative for the Badgers. Personally, I’d stay away from this total and would lean toward the under.

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