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Big Ten West preview: Top may be hurt by bottom

Running back Ameer Abdullah figures remaworkhorse for Nebraska. | Nati Harnik/AP

Running back Ameer Abdullah figures to remain a workhorse for Nebraska. | Nati Harnik/AP

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Updated: September 14, 2014 6:40AM



The Big Ten is broken into two divisions now, but it might as well be broken into two conferences. That’s how far the East is ahead of the West.

That won’t exclude West Division teams from the newly formed College Football Playoff. If a West team goes undefeated, it surely will be among the four chosen to vie for the national title. But a weak division leaves no room for mistakes.

The West has the three worst teams conference-record-wise from a season ago — Purdue ­(0-8), Illinois (1-7) and Northwestern (1-7). That puts wannabe national-title contenders Nebraska and Wisconsin at a deficit.

Might there be a dominant team in the West, just as there could be an undefeated team in the East? Sure. But that’s the only scenario in which the West has a prayer of sending a team to the playoff.

Northwestern will be better this year simply because the team will be healthier. And Illinois could see an uptick in wins with a number of junior-college transfers ready to make an impact.

But that’s unlikely to convince the College Football Playoff committee that a West team has a difficult schedule.

During media days, coaches acted as apologists for the division, pointing to tradition and padded nonconference schedules to spin the division’s strength. But records are reality.

Regardless, one of the seven teams in the West will play for the conference title Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. Whom might that be?

1. Nebraska

The division might not have the best team in the conference, but Nebraska has the Big Ten’s best player in running back Ameer Abdullah. Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini will ride Abdullah and his best defense since taking over, earning him some moderate job security.

2. Wisconsin

Though the Badgers have an incumbent starter in Joel Stave, the coaching staff believed it needed to hold a quarterback competition. Stave looks to be the starter anyway after performing well in a scrimmage Sunday.

But dual threat Tanner McEvoy could see snaps in a run-oriented package that might make the Badgers’ offense more dynamic.

3. Northwestern

With most of their starters returning from a season ago, the Wildcats are somewhere between the team that some picked to win the conference last season and the team that ended up winning one Big Ten game.

Returning 18 starters will help the cause, but questions about the offensive line will not. Though all five starters return, the line was the biggest reason the Wildcats’ season was turned on its head.

4. Minnesota

Typically when talking about the health of a team, the focus is on the players. But in the Gophers’ case, it’s on the coach.

There are lots of reasons to root for Jerry Kill, who struggles with epilepsy. His presence — or lack thereof — affects the entire program.

Kill is a program builder who has had success everywhere he has gone, but he’ll need to rebuild this Minnesota team. He needs players at every level of the defense, and he has only two impact skill-position players returning on offense.

5. Illinois

Get to know these names: Quarterback Wes Lunt and defensive lineman Jihad Ward.

Lunt sat out last season after transferring from Oklahoma State, and Ward is a junior-college transfer who Beckman hopes can improve what was a horrendous defense last year.

Both players have high-end talent, and if Beckman’s job is safe after 2014, he’ll have them to thank.

6. Iowa

A fresh-faced defense might have trouble as Big Ten offenses get more dynamic. The Hawkeyes have only five starters returning and none at linebacker.

The winning formula: Put up points. But that might be tough for an offense that was inconsistent last season.

7. Purdue

The only thing that might change for the Boilermakers at the end of 2014 is their coach. Don’t expect Darrell Hazell to last if he turns in another winless Big Ten season, which is likely for the least talented program in the conference.

Thursday: Big Ten East preview

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen



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