Big Ten West win total picks: Predicting one of the most unpredictable divisions
We can never really be sure what to expect in the Big Ten West, but that's not going to stop us from trying
When it comes to talking about Big Ten contenders for the College Football Playoff, the conference's West Division tends to be overlooked. It gets the same kind of treatment that the SEC East has in recent years. The "somebody has to win it and lose the conference championship game" treatment.
Which is why when a team like Iowa goes 12-0 during the regular season we're all caught off guard.
Iowa wasn't supposed to be good! Nobody from the Big Ten West is supposed to be good!
It's a narrative that's a bit off base. Somebody is going to be good in the Big Ten West every season. Things just get murky because we don't know who is going to be good from year to year. That's what makes the West one of the more entertaining divisions to follow on a weekly basis, because you never really know what's going to happen.
Before Iowa went 12-0 during the regular season last year, it was a team coming off a 7-6 record in 2014. Nebraska went 6-7 in 2015, but if it suddenly turns around and wins the division this season, it really won't be that much of a shock.
It's that unpredictability that makes the division fun, but also makes it difficult to predict how things are going to go down before the season begins. I'm going to try anyway, though. Using the Vegas Insider win totals for each team, I'm going to break down each Big Ten West squad's chances in 2016 to try and figure out whether or not they'll go over or under.
Iowa, 8.5 (Over -110, Under -110): As I wrote about above, nobody saw Iowa going 12-0 during the regular season last year. Judging by the total being set at 8.5 for 2016, it's safe to say that most believe Iowa won't be able to repeat the feat.
I tend to agree, but not because I think Iowa will take a large step back, but instead because it's really freaking hard to win 12 games. It isn't easy for Alabama to do it when the Tide put together top recruiting classes every year. So for a program like Iowa, it's damn near impossible.
Still, I expect Iowa to be one of the best teams in this division in 2016. The Hawkeyes also have something of a favorable schedule. The non-conference slate includes Miami (Ohio), Iowa State and North Dakota State all coming to Iowa City. North Dakota State is the toughest opposition of the three, though the Hawkeyes can never take Iowa State for granted. I still think they start 3-0, though, and 2-1 at worst.
In conference play, the Hawkeyes have a favorable draw from the East, getting Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers. The good news is Michigan will be at home, while the other two are on the road. Within the division, the three biggest threats to the division crown -- Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- all come to Iowa City as well, leaving the Hawkeyes with a reasonable road slate of Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois. All of those road games are winnable.
I wouldn't be surprised if Iowa gets off to a 7-0 start to the season, so nine wins seem very much in reach. In fact, I'm thinking 9-3 is the most likely finish line here. Pick: Over
Nebraska, 8.5 (Over -110, Under -110): Nebraska struggled a bit in Mike Riley's first season, as the team began to adjust to life under a new coach, and a transition into a new offense. As a result, the Huskers only managed to go 3-5 in conference play, though that doesn't tell the whole story.
Even with the losing records, Nebraska still out-scored opponents in Big Ten play 245-227. Its five losses came by an average of 4.6 points per game. The biggest loss -- amazingly -- was a 10-point loss to Purdue. In fact, that was the biggest loss Nebraska had all season, as its other two losses to BYU and Miami came by five and three points (in overtime) respectively.
So Nebraska was easily a team that, had a few plays here and there gone a different way, could have been looking at a nine-win season last year.
But can they get to nine wins in 2016?
I have some doubts. The schedule, while not a non-stop onslaught of pain, isn't the easiest in the division. The Huskers face Fresno State, Wyoming and Oregon in non-conference play, and I'm thinking 2-1 is the most likely outcome there. In conference play, they'll have to play Northwestern, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all on the road. I do believe that Nebraska can go undefeated at home against Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Maryland, but that leaves them at six wins on the season.
Can they go 3-1 in those four road games? I just don't think so. Pick: Under
Wisconsin, 7 (Over -110, Under -110): In last week's Friday Five, I wrote about the five teams with the most difficult schedules in the country this season. This Wisconsin team came in ranked at No. 1.
This schedule is just mean.
The Badgers will open the season against LSU at the "neutral" site of Green Bay's Lambeau Field. Still, even if it's just a modified home game, it's still LSU that the Badgers have to play.
LSU is followed with what should be easy wins against Akron and Georgia State, but then hell really begins for the Badgers.
The opening of the Big Ten slate is just murder. Wisconsin starts on the road against Michigan State, goes back on the road to face Michigan the week after that, and then has a bye. The Badgers will welcome Ohio State to Madison after the bye before hitting the road again for Iowa, coming home for Nebraska, and then finishing with another road trip to Northwestern.
The six teams Wisconsin plays in that seven-week stretch combined to go 62-18 last season, with Nebraska the only team that failed to win 10 games. It's as if there's somebody in the Big Ten's scheduling office that has a vendetta against the Badgers.
I don't know, maybe they're lactose intolerant.
Whatever the case, the fact of the matter is that by the time Wisconsin gets to the "easy" portion of the conference schedule (Illinois, at Purdue, Minnesota) it might be too beat up to win those three games.
All of which is why I think the Badgers will struggle just to get to 6-6 this year, and while 7-5 is possible, I'm not picking a push. Pick: Under
Northwestern, 6.5 (Over -120, Under +100): First things first, I did not expect Northwestern to win 10 games last year. It did. I do not expect Northwestern to win 10 games this season, either. Will it? No, I just told you it won't.
But it doesn't need to win 10 games to reach the over here, and I believe the Wildcats have a good chance to do it.
A non-conference schedule of Western Michigan, Illinois State and Duke is not going to be easy, but all three games are in Evanston, and I believe 3-0 is possible.
In conference play, the Wildcats get a bit of a rough draw in cross-divisional play, as they get both Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as Indiana. The silver lining there, though, is that the two games Northwestern probably isn't going to win anyway (Ohio State and Michigan State) are both on the road.
And while Northwestern will have to travel to play Iowa, both Wisconsin and Nebraska will be coming to the shore of Lake Michigan as well.
So when I go over Northwestern's schedule, even if we assume that the Wildcats get upset somewhere, 7-5 still seems like the most likely outcome, with 8-4 being a good possibility as well. Pick: Over
Minnesota, 6 (Over -110, Under -110): Minnesota's schedule isn't that difficult in 2016. The non-conference slate includes three winnable games against Oregon State, Indiana State and Colorado State, all in Minneapolis. I believe the Gophers could easily get off to a 3-0 start before conference play begins.
And when Big Ten play does begin, life could certainly be a lot worse. Minnesota's three cross-divisional foes will be Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers, which is just about as soft of a landing as you can ask for, though both the Penn State and Maryland games are on the road.
Where we run into some problems, though, is that the Gophers will play both Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road, but they do get both Iowa and Northwestern at home.
I definitely believe that Minnesota can get back to a bowl game this year, and this time do so with an actual 6-6 record (Minnesota was one of those 5-7 teams that got to go bowling last year). In fact, I think 6-6 is the most likely outcome for the Gophers in the regular season, but I'm not here to root for pushes. That's no fun.
If I have to decide between 7-5 or 5-7 for this year's Minnesota team, I'm sorry, Gophers fans, but I'm a bit skeptical. Pick: Under
Illinois, 4.5 (Over -110, Under -110): There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Illinois during the offseason following the unexpected hire of Lovie Smith, but the question is can Smith turn that positive energy into actual wins on the field. Or, more specifically for our purposes, enough wins to reach the over here.
I think so, but it won't be easy.
Illinois' non-conference games are against Murray State, Western Michigan and North Carolina. The Tar Heels beat the Illini by 34 points in Chapel Hill last season, and even if the game is in Champaign this season, I still have serious doubts about the Illini's chances. Western Michigan shouldn't be overlooked, either.
Further complicating matters, the Illini draw Michigan State, Michigan and Rutgers from the East, with Michigan State being the only one coming to Champaign.
In the West, the Illini will play Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern all on the road.
So I'm hovering between 4-8 and 5-7 here, which is exactly what Vegas expects! Damn them for knowing what they're doing.
It'll be the games against Western Michigan, Purdue, Rutgers and Minnesota that decide just how well Illinois plays, and in the end, what I keep coming back to is this: if last year's Illini team could manage five wins with all the turmoil surrounding the program, an excellent coaching staff led by Lovie Smith makes me think they can get at least five wins again in 2016. Pick: Over
Purdue, 4.5 (Over -110, Under -110): I'm sorry, Purdue. I don't want to be overtly mean here, but setting this total at 4.5 just seems like giving money away to me.
The Boilermakers have won six games total the last three years under Darrell Hazell, and I'm not sure what has changed with this roster to expect a team that hasn't won more than four games in a season since 2012 to suddenly do it this year.
The schedule doesn't do much to change my mind, either.
Purdue could easily go 1-2 outside of the Big Ten with both Cincinnati and Nevada on the schedule, and in conference play, Purdue's home games -- you know, the only place you really believe Purdue could win -- are against Iowa, Penn State, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Which one of those four games are they winning?
All the teams you'd think Purdue could beat -- Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana -- will get to host the Boilermakers this season. The same Boilermakers that have won exactly one road game in the last three seasons (2014, Illinois).
So, again, I'm sorry, Purdue, but there's no way in the world I see this team going 5-7 in 2016. Pick: Under
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