The next college football season has a number of division races in which the division favorite is overwhelmingly clear. The Big Ten West doesn’t quite fit that description. There is a likely favorite, but that’s not the same as a runaway choice who has greatly distanced itself from the field. Very few aspects of last year’s pandemic season suggested that the 2021 Big Ten West has a very clear hierarchy. We can guess the order, and that order might even turn out to be true, but there is no stone-cold lock to win this division.
The Wisconsin Badgers lost tackle Cole Van Lanen and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk to the NFL, but on balance, they didn’t lose very many key starters. What is also notable about Wisconsin is that receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor both decided to return this year. They were injured for a majority of last season, when the Badgers’ offense plummeted. Wisconsin clearly missed the speed Davis and Pryor brought to the offense. With both players back this season, the Badgers should – if they stay healthy – have a highly productive offense. Last year, they didn’t have the depth they needed at wide receiver to spread out opposing defenses. Opponents crowded the tackle box and played the running game, betting that freshman quarterback Graham Mertz would not be able to find open receivers downfield. That was the right way to play Wisconsin’s offense in 2020, but with Pryor and Davis now healthy and back in the fold, the Badgers’ passing attack should be miles better. That is probably going to catapult Wisconsin back to the top of the Big Ten West.
The big concern, however, is that Mertz won’t be ready to thrive. If he doesn’t become a far better quarterback than he was last year, this team will still struggle, and it will leave the door open for another team to step through and claim the division.
Odds To Win National Championship: +9000
The Hawkeyes lose defensive end Chauncey Golston and running back Mekhi Sargent, among others. They did, however, get a boost when cornerback Matt Hankins chose to return to school instead of going to the NFL. The one main position group the Hawkeyes have to replenish is the defensive line, where starters other than Golston also left (though not as good or prominent). The other really big question facing this team is if quarterback Spencer Petras can make significant improvements from 2020. He did not play nearly as well as his team and his offense needed. Iowa has built itself as a program to be sturdy on defense and solid in special teams, so that it is not overly reliant on the offense for its success. That might still be true this year, but Iowa has to get enough out of the QB position in order to be a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Right now, it’s hard to know with certainty if the Hawkeyes and Petras are going to be sufficiently prepared.
Odds To Win National Championship: +20000
The Wildcats are a legitimate division championship contender, but they did lose a lot of personnel. Offensive lineman Rashawn Slater, cornerback Greg Newsome, defensive end Earnest Brown, linebacker Paddy Fisher, quarterback Peyton Ramsey, tight end John Raine, linebacker Blake Gallagher, wide receiver Riley Lees and offensive lineman Gunnar Vogel have all left the program to pursue professional opportunities. Slater and Newsome were first-round draft picks, and Brown got drafted as well. The other players on the above list were undrafted NFL free agents. Receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman is an undrafted free agent who hasn’t yet signed with an NFL team. He might get a second look from a team over the summer.
The Wildcats are still a viable contender, however, because head coach Pat Fitzgerald regularly gets the most from his defenses. Northwestern rarely has a flashy or successful offense, but it puts the clamps on the opposition and wins without getting high-end statistical production from its skill-position players. This is why losing Ramsey at quarterback is not a huge blow for the team.
Northwestern is still going to reload on defense and shut down opponents. Getting enough from the offense will be the challenge this year and that’s why they’re a longer shot in the sportsbook.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The Gophers return a lot of starters from last year’s team but lose two very important players. Receiver Rashod Bateman was a first-round NFL draft pick. He gave the team high-end skill and an ability to stretch the field. Cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste shrank the field for opposing offenses. Minnesota will need to find significantly good replacements on the edges to supplement a veteran offensive line this season.
Odds To Win National Championship: +25000
The Huskers lose running back Dedrick Mills and wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. It was stinging for the Huskers to lose Robinson via transfer to Kentucky. The Kentucky program has recruited better than Nebraska in recent years, a cause for the ‘Huskers’ woes. Nebraska’s skill-position talent is highly suspect and with the schedule being very difficult, there are widespread questions surrounding the ability of this team to reach expected standards under embattled head coach Scott Frost. Nebraska loses two starters on its offensive line and has to fill a few gaps in its secondary. It is hard to see how this team can reach a high ceiling this year. A .500 season would seem like an achievement at this point.
Odds To Win National Championship: +30000
The Boilermakers lost Rondale Moore, an electric receiver, to the NFL draft. That is a significant blow for an offense which has been conspicuously inconsistent over the past several years under head coach Jeff Brohm. Purdue is regularly competitive but often falls apart in the fourth quarters of games. Being able to find a replacement for Moore at receiver is a foremost priority in 2021.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Odds To Win National Championship: +50000
The Illini welcome head coach Bret Bielema, the former head coach at Wisconsin in the Big Ten West, to Champaign. Bielema is known for promoting a smash-mouth style of offense built around the running game. This would be a change from the finesse offense the Illini have used in recent seasons. Illinois loses tight end Josh Imatorbhebhe from 2020. The offense will need to find creativity and inspiration along with physicality. Expect tough sledding in 2021. The hope is that this offense can grow and enter 2022 in position to do something special.