Early 2014 Big Ten West power rankings: Wisconsin, Iowa will be tough to top

Joe Robbins

Wisconsin should compete for another Big Ten title, thanks once again to an irrepressible running attack led by Melvin Gordon. Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska have enough weapons to steal the West crown, however. Also, here's the Big Ten East.

It's far, far too early in the 2014 offseason to put out final predictions for division rankings, but here's a snapshot look at how the Big Ten West could stack up.

1) Wisconsin Badgers

2013 finish: 9-4, second in the Leaders division, No. 22 in AP, No. 21 in Coaches

Returning starters: 11

Wisconsin is losing critical pieces from a 2013 squad that was probably a little better than its record indicates. Gone are Jared Abbrederis, a first-team All-Big Ten performer and the Badgers' only consistent receiving weapon, and Chris Borland, the 2013 Big Defensive Player of the Year. Borland is one of six players graduating out of a stout front seven that formed one of the best run defenses in the country.

Wisconsin is still the favorite to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship game, and the reason is, yet again, the running game. Melvin Gordon has a strong case to make as the best running back in college football, and he will be playing behind an offensive line that returns four starters after paving the way for the nation's second-best per-carry rushing attack.

Whether the Badgers finish on a stronger note in 2014 may depend on the maturation of quarterback Joel Stave. He was wildly inconsistent during his sophomore campaign, often failing to take advantage of the opportunities play-action afforded him. Wisconsin may be headed for another open offseason quarterback competition. Uber-athletic Tanner McEvoy, strong-armed Bart Houston, and highly touted true freshman D.J. Gillins are all waiting in the wings.

2) Iowa

2013 finish: 8-5, second in the Legends division, unranked

Returning starters: 14

The 2013 Iowa team might have been the most prototypical Kirk Ferentz team yet. The offense strove for balance and achieved it, but only by passing and running at a relatively mediocre level. The defense was stout, however, thanks to a senior-laden linebacker corps.

The 2014 iteration of the Hawkeyes might need to rely on the offense more heavily. Iowa averaged just 5.3 yards per play last season, good for 10th in the Big Ten, but has a ton of returning starters, led by Jake Rudock at quarterback. If he can take the appropriate step forward, a good group of skill players -- featuring wide receivers Kevonte Martin-Manley and Tevaun Smith and running back/boulder Mark Weisman -- should follow in line.

Iowa is losing three starters at linebacker, so there is some wishful thinking here that the Hawkeyes will reload as usual. Thankfully for them, the entire defensive line returns. In the secondary, cornerback Desmond King is a star in the making after surpassing first-team All-Big Ten performer B.J. Lowery as the team's top DB.

Overall, there is plenty of reason for optimism for a team that improved steadily throughout the 2013 season, with a core of young players that should be even better after a full offseason. Whether the Hawkeyes will be good enough to take down the Badgers remains to be seen. They'll meet Nov. 22 at Iowa.

3) Minnesota

2013 finish: 8-5, fourth in Legends division, unranked

Returning starters: 15

Minnesota returns a whole lot from the 2013 squad that was able to crack the top 25 of the BCS rankings for the first time since 2008. That includes most of an offense that made a habit of demoralizing defenses with saga-length drives toward the end zone during a four-game winning streak from October to November.

Though the streak was impressive, the Gophers may have been something of a paper tiger, given that three of the wins came against demoralized Northwestern and Penn State teams, plus Indiana. A 34-23 win over Nebraska stands out as a jewel, however. The Cornhuskers had Taylor Martinez back behind center off of injury, but he could only manage 155 total yards on his own.

Quarterback Philip Nelson is headed out the door after announcing earlier this month that he would like to transfer "to play in a system that centers more around the pass." The announcement is a blow, but Mitch Leidner spent plenty of time behind center in rotation with Nelson last season. The Gophers' offense will lose a lot in the passing game, but the 6'3, 233-pound Leidner compensates by moonlighting as a moose-like substance in the running game. Minnesota should be the most manball team in the Big Ten.

Three straight losses to end the year brought the Gophers back to Earth, but not before they developed a taste for winning. The defense returns enough talent to remain respectable, and the offense returns all of its beef in a year when Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska have questions in the front seven. Don't be surprised if the Gophers make a serious run at the Big Ten West crown.

4) Nebraska

2013 finish: 9-4, third in the Legends division, unranked in AP, No. 25 in Coaches

Returning starters: 12

It's hard to know what to make of the 2014 Cornhuskers, because it is hard to know what to make of the 2013 team. A different squad showed up from week to week, in large part due to injuries. The same team that lost by double digits to UCLA and Iowa was also able to knock off a similarly injury-riddled Georgia team in the Gator Bowl.

The skill position talent on offense is outstanding. Running back Ameer Abdullah is back, and he proved this past season that he can pick up yards at will even behind a constantly reshuffling offensive line, which is good, because Nebraska loses senior starters up front. Wide receivers Jamal Turner and Kenny Bell return to give quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., an excellent pair of wideouts.

As for Armstrong himself, he will need to improve significantly from his redshirt freshman campaign (in which he completed 51.9 percent of his 131 passes), or else the Huskers could be in for another relatively ho-hum year offensively.

The defense loses five starters, but returns another five starters who had freshman or sophomore eligibility last season, so perhaps some progression should be expected.

Unfortunately for the Huskers, the schedule doesn't do them any favors. Nebraska drew a road game at Michigan State as one of its two cross-division matchups, and must travel to Wisconsin and Iowa for two late-season bouts sandwiched around a tricky home matchup against Minnesota.

5) Northwestern

2013 finish: 5-7, last in the Legends division, unranked

Returning starters: 16

Northwestern, on paper, looks like a team that could be pretty good. Kain Colter is gone, but Trevor Siemian should perform just fine as the full-time quarterback. The entire offensive line returns, as does super-scatback Venric Mark, who was granted a fifth year of eligibility after missing most of last season due to injuries. Damien Proby, Will Hampton, and Tyler Scott are major losses on defense, but every other player from the unit returns.

It's difficult to reconcile 2013's utter collapse, however. The team held so much hope entering the season, and seemed to be fulfilling it throughout a 4-0 start. Even a tight loss to Ohio State was taken as an encouraging sign. Then Northwestern was routed by Wisconsin and proceeded to suffer a string of excruciating losses, each seemingly devised by a malevolent power to needle the hearts of Wildcats fans in ever crueler ways.

The 2014 team may be as good, talent-wise, as the 2013 squad that climbed as high as No. 16 in the AP poll. It will need to get its psyche right, however, or else next season could feel even longer.

6) Illinois

2013 finish: 4-8, fifth in the Leaders division, unranked

Returning starters: 15

Northwestern beat just one Big Ten team last season. It was Illinois. The game was a back-and-forth affair until Northwestern scored two straight touchdowns to take a 10-point lead, and even then Illinois scored a touchdown to pull close with two minutes to play. The Wildcats held on and staked their proud claim as Not The State's Saddest Team.

It's hard to imagine things getting much better for Illinois next season, with the entire passing game heading out the door. Gone are quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and the Illini's top four wide receivers. A good group of running backs returns, as do nine starters off a bad defense (Illinois ranked 112th in FBS, giving up 481.5 yards per game.) That's the upshot for Illinois.

And somehow there's worse.

7) Purdue

2013 finish: 1-11, last in the Leaders division, unranked

Returning starters: 14

Meet the only team that Illinois beat in Big Ten play last season. We can't go any lower here. Purdue was the only team to go winless in conference play last season.

Purdue ranked 105th in FBS in total defense last season and 121st in total offense. The Boilermakers lost every Big Ten game they played by an average of 26 points. Their closest bout was that four-point loss to the Illini. This was a bad team that doesn't figure to be much improved.

The offense should take a step forward. First-year head coach Darrell Hazell made a mid-season decision to start freshman Danny Etling at quarterback, and a full offseason of reps as the presumed starter should help the sophomore-to-be improve significantly. Joining Etling are his most productive passing targets from last season, three-fifths of his offensive line, and two running backs who speared a dreadful ground game.

Unfortunately for Purdue, that offensive step forward may be offset by a big defensive step back. The front seven will have just a couple starters returning. Ricardo Allen, last year's defensive MVP, is gone, leaving a passable secondary to fend for itself without its biggest star.

In sum: things look bleak.

What do you think?

How do you rank the Big Ten West early on?

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