Power rankings

West

1. Wisconsin

After being a preseason top-10 team a year ago, the Badgers have flown under the radar this offseason. Going 8-5 with a relatively easy schedule will do that. However, there is a lot to like about this current team. 

Out of all of the teams in the division, Wisconsin returns more production than any other team. The Badgers have a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender about to enter his junior year in running back Jonathan Taylor. They return their top five receiving targets from last year, and also add junior Quintez Cephus to the mix. Cephus led the Badgers receivers in 2017 with 501 receiving yards despite missing the final five games of their 12-1 campaign with a broken leg. After being expelled by the university last fall, he was reinstated last week and is expected to play immediately.

Without a doubt, the biggest question mark on the Badgers is their quarterback. Sophomore Jack Coan will be the starter, but his four games as a starter last season ended with mixed reviews. With former starter Alex Hornibrook gone, it appears the ceiling on Wisconsin’s offense has been raised, but to what height will depend on the play under center.

There is a strong chance that Wisconsin will not win the West this year, especially with a schedule that features road games at Ohio State and Nebraska along with home battles against Michigan and Michigan State. However, it won the West three years prior with the same schedule. As of right now, the Badgers have the most talented and proven roster in the division, giving them this spot. 

Wisconsin opens its season Friday night at South Florida.

2. Iowa

The Hawkeyes massively underachieved in 2018, going 9-4 with home losses to Wisconsin and Northwestern despite having a roster that featured multiple first round NFL Draft picks. In 2019, expectations are still high thanks to the return of senior quarterback Nate Stanley and junior defensive end AJ Epenesa. With Epenesa leading what is expected to be another impressive defense, Iowa’s success will likely ride on the development of a young wide receivers group and a group of running backs that struggled at times last season. 

Junior Mekhi Sargent showed promise at the end of last season, rushing for 294 yards combined against Nebraska and Illinois. However, those performances were sandwiched around a 27-yard showing in a loss to Northwestern and a three-yard game against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. Fellow junior Toren Young will also be asked to carry a significant load for the Hawkeyes this year, while Michigan transfer Oliver Martin will try to spark a very young receivers group. 

Iowa’s schedule opens up with home contests against Miami (Ohio) and Rutgers, but gets more challenging with road games at Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska along with a home game against Penn State.

3. Nebraska

Nebraska has received a lot of hype over this past offseason after an impressive finish to last season. Winning four of six games to end the year was enough for the media to vote the Huskers No. 24 in the preseason AP Poll. Nebraska showed promise last year and has the highest ceiling in the division, but it’s hard to give them any high rankings until they figure out how to win on the road. 

With an explosive offense led by sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez and an experienced and conditioned defense, Nebraska certainly appears to be trending up. With a schedule that has games against Ohio State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa at home, along with crossover opponents Indiana and Maryland, the Huskers have an opportunity to win the West earlier than expected.

Nebraska opens its season Saturday against South Alabama.

4. Purdue

Purdue had its first signature moment under Jeff Brohm last season, dominating Ohio State 49-20 in a rare primetime showdown in West Lafayette. The performance was enough for Brohm to be considered for multiple high-profile jobs after the season. However, everything after that upset was a massive letdown. The Boilermakers lost three of their next four games and needed to beat Indiana in the final week of the regular season to attain bowl eligibility. They then failed to show up to their bowl game, giving up 56 points to Auburn in the first half of the Music City Bowl en route to a 63-14 loss.

Purdue has high expectations for this year with star wide receiver Rondale Moore back for his sophomore season and senior quarterback Elijah Sindelar retaking the starting position after getting benched last season. Sindelar led Purdue to a bowl victory in 2017, but lost the starting position after opening last season 0-2 with losses to Eastern Michigan and Northwestern.

The main concern for Purdue continues to be its defense, which has been wildly inconsistent during Brohm’s tenure. The Boilermakers also have another challenging schedule with no guaranteed victories, but with an offensive scheme that the conference has struggled to adjust to, they should cause more chaos this fall.

Purdue opens the season at Nevada on Friday night. 

5. Northwestern

Northwestern had an impressive 2018 season, winning the west despite losing star running back Jeremy Larkin to a career-ending injury. Along with consistent quarterback and defensive play, a huge reason Northwestern had the success it did was the impressive performance by now-sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser. Bowser ran for 864 yards after taking the starting spot for the final eight games of the season. The main question for the Wildcats this fall is at quarterback, where no starter has been named. Senior TJ Green and Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson were both listed as options in Northwestern’s week one depth chart. The Wildcats open their season Saturday afternoon at Stanford, and will start conference play with five consecutive games against ranked opponents. 

6. Illinois

Illinois has been picked last by nearly every publication and pundit this offseason, but people are ignoring a significant amount of progress made last year under Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini bounced back from going winless in conference play in 2017 to winning two conference games and going 4-8 overall in 2018, and playing competitively in losses against Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern. 

Illinois returns its star running back, Reggie Corbin, who ran for 1,085 yards last season. They upgraded at quarterback, adding Michigan transfer Brandon Peters. Peters threw for 672 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions in five starts in 2017 for the Wolverines. Picking Illinois sixth over Minnesota was a fairly easy choice, given its returning talent as well as remembering its 55-31 beatdown of the Gophers in November of last season.

The Fighting Illini open their season Saturday afternoon against Akron and have a challenging schedule ahead, but there is a path to bowl eligibility. If Illinois can take care of Akron, UConn, Eastern Michigan and Rutgers, it would need just two wins in games against Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue or an upset over Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State or Iowa. 

7. Minnesota

Minnesota has fallen to seventh by default. While it finished 2018 strong with wins at Wisconsin and over Georgia Tech, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the team going into PJ Fleck’s third season. Quarterback Tanner Morgan was impressive in his freshman year, taking over as starter in October and leading Minnesota to a 4-2 record with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. 

Running back Rodney Smith was granted a fifth season of eligibility after suffering a season-ending knee injury in week two of 2018, and will join sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim in a backfield of two 1,000-yard rushers. Whether they maintain similar production behind a very young offensive line remains to be seen.

Minnesota has a manageable conference schedule, getting Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin at home. The Gophers open their season on Thursday night against South Dakota State, which is ranked third in the preseason FCS poll.

sports@dailynebraskan.com