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Big Ten Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for West Division

Andrew CoppensContributor IJanuary 14, 2014

Big Ten Football: Way-Too-Early 2014 Power Rankings for West Division

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    With the offseason upon us, the Big Ten is going through a ton of changes. However, the only thing that's changing for most schools in the new West Division is just that—it's a new division. 

    Unlike out East, the West division foes are all very familiar with each other and house two of the biggest rivalries in the Big Ten. 

    So, while the East is seen as stronger, the West could be the more competitive side of the B1G in 2014. 

    It also will house the best running backs in the conference, which means these two divisions could develop some very big contrasts in styles this upcoming season.

    We started our way-too-early power rankings with a look at the East Division, so now it's on to the group that houses the other two big names in the conference—Nebraska and Wisconsin. 

    The question is, will those two dominate the division or can Northwestern, Iowa or Minnesota become true contenders? 

    Come on inside and find out who sits atop the West Division here in January. 

     

    (all stats courtesy team sites)

7. Purdue

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    Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    You know your season is going bad when you can purchase tickets to a Big Ten game in your home stadium for 50 cents. Yes, that happened when Iowa came to Ross Ade Stadium this past season. 

    Purdue needed to hit rock bottom before it hopefully makes a climb back up, and switching an offense from the spread style under Tiller and Hope to the pro-style system Darrell Hazell and John Shoop forced that to happen. 

    The good news going forward is the Boilers got a great look at their future in freshman quarterback Danny Etling and a pair of freshmen receivers in DeAngelo Yancey and B.J. Knauf. 

    Etling's stats won't jump off the page (55.8% comp. rate, 1,690 yards, 10 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 211.3 yards per game) from 2013, but considering the disaster that was the rest of the offense around him, he provided a glimmer of hope. 

    His relationship with Yancey was also a sign of good things to come, as Yancey led the team in receiving yards with 546 yards on 32 receptions for the season. 

    Those two can form a good nucleus for this team in 2014, but the offensive line (which gave up a B1G worst 38 sacks in 2013) needs a lot of work. To that end, the Boilermakers are adding two new faces in this upcoming class. 

    With all three members of the interior on the line being freshmen or sophomores, improvement should be, and needs to be, expected. 

    Purdue should be able to get to four wins thanks a much softer schedule in 2014, one that features Western Michigan and Central Michigan instead of Northern Illinois and Cincinnati. 

    It could be tough sledding in the Big Ten, but expect them to be a much better competitor at the very least.

6. Illinois

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Nathan Scheelhaase and Bill Cubit saved Illinois and head coach Tim Beckman from complete embarrassment in 2013. The Illini doubled its win total, finishing the year 4-8 and showing signs of life on offense. 

    The defense still isn't there, and the hopes of bowl eligibility will rest on that side of the ball putting things together. It won't be easy with star linebacker Jonathan Brown gone and only one name, Mason Monheim, which most fans would even know. 

    Illinois' defense was perhaps the youngest of any in the Big Ten last season, with 13 of 22 in the final two deep being freshmen or sophomores. That very well could be the reason why Tim Banks kept his job after leading the worst overall defense in the Big Ten over the past two years. 

    That youth needs to show progress and quickly or it won't matter what happens on the other side of the ball. 

    Speaking of offense, change will be a big theme with star quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase finally graduating. Replacing him will not be easy, but there will be a good battle between Aaron Bailey and Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt. 

    The bigger issue is who the heck will those two have to throw the ball to, as all three starting wide receivers from 2013 were seniors. In Cubit's offense, having capable wide receivers is the only way it works. 

    Unless Cubit turns to running back Josh Ferguson, who showed glimpses of being very good. He rushed for 779 yards (5.5 average) and seven touchdowns on just 141 attempts last year. 

    Look for an increased role for him in 2014 as the Illini ease in to a new passing game. 

    Getting Ohio State and Penn State from the East Division won't help the Illini's chances of getting to a bowl game, but an easier non-conference schedule featuring Youngstown State, Western Michigan and Texas State does help. 

    This season will be make or break for Beckman at Illinois, and anything short of a bowl game could spell doom for a regime that's struggled to keep the fanbase's interest.

5. Northwestern

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    No team in the Big Ten wants to put 2013 behind them more so than Northwestern. If it weren't for bad luck, the 2013 Wildcats would've had no luck at all. 

    Injuries to key players devastated this team all season long, and the Wildcats went from ranked and hosting ESPN College GameDay to winning their final game of the season to avoid a winless Big Ten season.

    Northwestern will graduate its do-everything quarterback Kain Colter, and that means this team is likely to be Trevor Siemian's all to his own in 2014. While Colter's loss will be felt, just about everyone else of importance will be returning.

    Wide receivers Tony Jones and Christian Jones became very good weapons for this offense last year and with a more pass orientated quarterback in Siemian, the wide receiver group could be in a for a big year.

    It also appears that Venric Mark will be back and his backup, Treyvon Green saw extensive minutes last year as his main replacement. Green rushed for 736 yards (5.4 average) and eight touchdowns in 2013. 

    The real issue for the 2014 team comes in the form of losing the two best defensive playmakers in end Tyler Scott and linebacker Damien Proby. Northwestern has talented players across the board on defense, but it had just a few true playmakers, and Scott and Proby were those guys. 

    Replacing them won't be easy, and it will be key to getting a defense that was mediocre at best last year to be anything but that again in 2014. 

    Dates with Michigan and Notre Dame in November will be a huge challenge to this team, but a return to bowl eligibility should be a bare minimum as long as the injury bug is purged from the program. 

4. Iowa

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    Iowa found an offense in 2013, resulting in an 8-5 season and one of the best turnarounds in the country last season. Now, what can the Hawkeyes do with some expectations behind them?

    One thing is for sure, Jake Rudock and the offense will need to step up its game just a bit more because there will be a massive transition occurring on defense. 

    Gone will be the three starting linebackers and their combined 322 tackles from a season ago. That means Iowa must find a way to replace just over 35 percent from those three alone. 

    The good news is freshman Reggie Spearman looks like he could be an instant playmaker for this defense at outside linebacker in 2014, but the rest of the group has a long way to go to fill the shoes of the departed. 

    Offensively, this team got great news when left tackle Brandon Scherff decided to return for his senior season in Iowa City. That means only two offensive linemen will need to be replaced, and at Iowa, that just means "next man up." 

    Rudock won't have to carry the offense on his back alone as both Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock return in the backfield behind him. The two combined for 1,342 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.

    There are some very impressive parts to this team all over the field and it makes them a contender, but once again, the schedule could be its biggest obstacle. The nonconference slate is pretty tough with an underrated Ball State, Iowa State and trip to Pittsburgh on the docket. 

    At least they caught a break and will face Maryland and Indiana from the East Division. 

    Overall, this is a team capable of contending, but if they want to reach the top of the West, Iowa must show they have the playmakers up front on defense. Otherwise they will be looking at another season closer to .500 than 10 wins.

3. Minnesota

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Who saw Minnesota being an actual contender for a division title in 2013? That's exactly what happened until the final couple of weeks of the season, and heading in to 2014 Jerry Kill and his staff have this team trending in a very positive direction. 

    Minnesota's positive trend will be put to a severe test in 2014, with the season ending against the who's who of the Big Ten—Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. If the Gophers can't win one of those four games, there's no way it tops the 8-4 record from this past season.

    However, helping those positive feelings is the fact that this team loses just six of 22 starters from the end of the 2013 season. Of course, the devil is in the details, and two of those losses are going to be major ones in defensive leaders Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. 

    Outside of those loses though, Minnesota proved it has the depth to overcome the rest of the losses, and that's a testament to Kill's recruiting and the coaching by the staff. 

    Minnesota will need to replace two of three starting linebackers, but freshman Nick Rallis came on strong as the year went along and could be a star-in-the-making for the Gophers. He finished his first campaign in Minneapolis with just seven tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss, but showed promise in his playing time. 

    He'll have a good mentor in middle linebacker Damien Wilson, who was second on the team in tackles with 78 and also added 5.5 tackles for loss. 

    Offensively, at least the Gophers know they'll have a potent run game with David Cobb, who emerged as a go-to back thanks to his 1,202 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. 

    What will be key to really becoming a contender and not sliding back towards .500 will be finding a pass game out of either Philip Nelson or Mitch Leidner. Neither impressed there in 2013, and watching for improvement will be the biggest storyline of the upcoming spring camp. 

2. Nebraska

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Nebraska got the other win in the Big Ten's terrible 2-5 bowl season record, but that wasn't the best bit of news heading in to 2014. 

    That distinction belongs to Ameer Abdullah, who announced his return to the team late last week, according to Brian Bennett of ESPN.com. He led the conference last year with 1,690 yards, but had just nine touchdowns. 

    The 2014 campaign could be one of growing pains though, considering the Huskers need to replace Spencer Long and four other starters from the end of the season on the offensive line. Thankfully, the line saw a lot of players get playing time, and Long's replacement at guard, Jake Cotton, saw enough action to be the anchor of the 2014 line.

    What Nebraska needs to take the next step is a quarterback with a bit more in the passing game, if for no other reason than the Huskers are loaded at wide receiver. They will see Kenny Bell, Jamal Turner, Jordan Westerkamp and Alonzo Moore all return, and the Huskers are only adding to that group in the 2014 recruiting class. 

    Tommy Armstrong Jr. threw two touchdowns in the Gator Bowl win, but he was uninspiring with a 42 percent completion rate. With that kind of performance, you bet the staff is looking for a strong challenge from now-redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton this spring. Watching to see who can spark this offense will be key in the spring.

    The Huskers will also have a defense that could be one of the better ones in the Big Ten coming back, for the most part. Sure, it will have to replace three-quarters of its secondary and half of its defensive line, but thanks to injuries and need, there was plenty of playing time for backups this past year. 

    Randy Gregory will be back for his junior year and is an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten coming in to 2014. Outside of him there are plenty of returning parts to think the defense could still be better than it was in 2013. 

    If so, this team will be a true contender and perhaps favorite, but the parts they are missing right now are vital to a team's success, and we need to see the players on the field before giving them the top spot.

1. Wisconsin

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    Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

    For the fourth straight year, the Badgers went bowling on New Year's Day in 2013, and for the fourth straight year, Wisconsin lost. 

    Now the Badgers will face life without six of it's front seven on defense and its only true pass catching threats on offense. 

    That's right, no more Chris Borland, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and no more Jared Abbrederis at wide receiver. Also gone will be defensive linemen Pat Muldoon, Ethan Hemer, Beau Allen and tight end Jacob Pedersen. 

    No doubt, replacing that many players on the defensive side of the ball will be a challenge, but it appears with the likes of Warren Herring, Vince Beigel, Leon Jacobs and Joe Schobert, there is plenty to like heading into 2014. 

    It just may be a different and more appropriate looking 3-4 scheme that's ahead for the Badgers. 

    While the defense will need to adjust, the Badgers offense will have one of the nation's top running backs to lean on in Melvin Gordon, who finished 2013 with 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging a crazy 7.8 yards a carry.

    That was with James White splitting carries and in 2014 Gordon should see more carries and thus more yards. 

    The Badgers do have to find more at quarterback, and an open battle between three or four guys will tell us a lot about where Wisconsin is heading. If they go away from Joel Stave, look for Wisconsin to try and be even more explosive on that side of the ball. 

    Wisconsin's season hinges on four games, because the rest of its Big Ten slate and non-conference schedule is simply laughable for a team at the level that UW is at. 

    Those four games are the season opener against LSU at Reliant Stadium in Houston and then a season-ending stretch against Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. 

    Wisconsin gets the lead position almost by default because of its talent and the fact that Nebraska needs to fill some major missing pieces along the offensive line and defensive secondary, as well as figuring out its quarterback position. 

    This will be a close battle and the Nov. 15th game between the two could be the deciding factor in the West Division race.

     

    *Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens

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