Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Schedules could be big factor in B1G West
By Adam Rittenberg
The division formerly known as the Legends has a new name (West), three new teams (Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin) and the same wide-open feel as its predecessor.
Last summer, before Michigan State ran away with the Legends title in dominant fashion, the division seemed there for the taking. Michigan was a popular pick, so was Nebraska, and Northwestern entered the season in the national rankings. Seasoned Big Ten observers knew better than to count out Michigan State. The Legends was pegged as a four-team race. As it turned out, the two teams generating the least buzz, Iowa and Minnesota, both ended up winning eight games.
The West has a similar look entering the 2014 season. There's no clear-cut favorite, and every team has some potentially fatal flaws.
Wisconsin: Loses 25 seniors and has issues at quarterback, wide receiver and potentially the defensive front seven.
Nebraska: Still a lot of youth at key spots and often plays sloppy; difficult to trust.
Iowa: Offense struggles to score; loses all three starters at linebacker, team's best position group in 2013.
Minnesota: Major quarterback issues, offense often struggles to score and several key defenders depart, including tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and do-it-all defensive back Brock Vereen.
Northwestern: Has lost its crunch-time mojo after a disastrous 2013 season, lingering questions about quarterback Trevor Siemian.
Illinois: Big Ten's worst rush defense still has major concerns, and four-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is gone.
Purdue: Do we need to recap last season? Didn't think so.
So there you have it. Is there a 2013 Michigan State in this bunch? Perhaps, but if so, it might qualify as an even bigger surprise than what the Spartans did this past fall.
If parity rules the West, the division title could come down to schedules. Not surprisingly, ESPN Insider's KC Joyner lists Iowa's schedule as a major reason why the Hawkeyes could win the division. Iowa doesn't play any of the big four in the East Division -- Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State -- and faces both Wisconsin and Nebraska at home. The Hawkeyes' Big Ten road schedule -- Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota and Illinois -- is extremely favorable.
Jake Rudock and Iowa could benefit from a less taxing schedule than their Big Ten West counterparts.
Here are the league schedules for the West teams:
Home: Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State
Road: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Northwestern
No plays: Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana
Home: Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Road: Purdue, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois
No plays: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Northwestern, Purdue, Iowa, Ohio State
Road: Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota
Road: Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State
Home: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Illinois
Road: Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue
No plays: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Ohio State, Rutgers
Home: Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Northwestern
Road: Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana
No plays: Maryland, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
Home: Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, Minnesota
Road: Northwestern, Rutgers, Purdue, Iowa
No plays: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State
Iowa and Wisconsin definitely have the edge with schedules. Neither plays any of the big boys in the East, something that thankfully will change with the introduction of a nine-game league schedule in 2016. The Hawkeyes' schedule is slightly more favorable because they get the Badgers at home.
Minnesota improved in Year 3 under Jerry Kill, but it could have a tough time making additional strides this fall. The Gophers have a challenging road schedule and only one potential gimme at home (Purdue). Northwestern also has a tough slate on its home field and misses three of the potentially weaker East teams, although the Wildcats also don't face either Michigan State or Ohio State.
Purdue is another team with some solid home opponents. The road schedule isn't overly taxing for Darrell Hazell's crew.
Nebraska and Illinois both have potentially favorable home schedules, especially Nebraska, but both squads will be tested plenty on the road.
Time will tell if the West actually becomes a logjam of comparable teams. If so, Iowa and Wisconsin should benefit, and there could be plenty at stake when the teams meet Nov. 22 in Iowa City.