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**2021 Previews: ESPN/Bill Connelly SP+ Big Ten West preview **

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Big Ten West college football offseason preview: A nod to Wisconsin
Wisconsin plays Wisconsin football. Iowa is Iowa. Northwestern does Northwestern things. Minnesota is increasingly Minnesota. The Big Ten West might have more proven entities than any other division in college football. But for such a reliable division, the West has been pretty difficult to forecast of late.

In 2018, defending champion Wisconsin was voted a runaway favorite to repeat, with only Iowa likely to offer major resistance. Northwestern won the division by three games. In 2019, turnover prompted a shakeup, and with Scott Frost seemingly ready for a UCF-like second-year leap, Nebraska was voted a slight favorite over Iowa. Wisconsin and Minnesota tied for the title. In 2020, Wisconsin and Minnesota were picked to once again lead the way. Instead, Northwestern beat out Iowa by a half-game.

We'll see who ends up the media favorite soon enough. My guess is that, with most of last year's starters returning -- and with both Iowa and especially Northwestern losing quite a few key contributors -- Wisconsin will again get the nod. SP+ projects the Badgers and Iowa as the most likely teams to make a run.

Congrats in advance, then, to Purdue for winning the division. Let's preview the Big Ten West!





In 2020, Nebraska looked good for a while against Ohio State, beat Penn State ... and got blown out by Illinois. It's been "two steps forward, two back" for Scott Frost's entire tenure.

2021 Projections

Projected SP+ rank: 30th

Average projected wins: 7.0 (4.9 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: Fordham (99%), Buffalo (86%), Northwestern (85%), at Illinois (79%), Purdue (67%)

Relative toss-ups: at Michigan State (65%), Michigan (53%), at Minnesota (45%), Iowa (43%)

Likely losses: Ohio State (31%), at Wisconsin (26%), at Oklahoma (17%)

The Huskers are projected favorites in six of their first seven games ... and one of their last five. Recommendation: Start quickly.


What we learned about Nebraska in 2020

There might be hope for the defense. NU jumped from 63rd to 38th in defensive SP+ thanks to the combination of disruptive run defense and strong red zone execution. There were still weaknesses -- a nonexistent pass rush and the resulting inefficient pass defense -- but it was a start.

Nine starters return, but linebacker Will Honas, NU's best pass-rusher, is potentially lost for the season (knee). End Ben Stille and LB JoJo Domann are solid run defenders, while safeties Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams and corner Cam Taylor-Britt give the secondary potential. But until the pass rush improves, cracking the top 30 will be difficult.


What we didn't learn about Nebraska in 2020

Will it ever click for Adrian Martinez? In two years under Frost at UCF, McKenzie Milton went from solid true freshman starter to one of the best players in the country. That set an unfair bar for Martinez, who became the day-one starter when Frost arrived in Lincoln. He hasn't cleared it.

Martinez has battled injuries and inconsistency -- in 20 games in 2019-20, his passer rating was above 140 10 times and below 105 seven times -- and with the departure of leading rusher Dedrick Mills and leading receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, he'll again deal with uncertainty in the skill corps. There's efficiency potential with receivers Zavier Betts and Levi Falck, tight ends Austin Allen and Travis Vokolek and USC RB transfer Markese Stepp, but big plays were minimal last year. A few chunk plays and easy scores would work wonders for a team that has lost six of its past eight one-score games.

Will it ever click for Frost?After what he had done at UCF, Frost, the former NU quarterback, coming home to turn the program around felt like one of the most no-brainer hires of the past decade. Three years in, he's got a 0.375 win percentage. As long as you're still employed, you can still turn things around, but Frost probably shouldn't wait much longer.

Nebraska's history in one chart



1. When Bob Devaney arrived in 1962, NU had enjoyed one winning season in its past nine years. In 11 seasons he would win two national titles with seven top-10 finishes.

2. After going 12-8 in 1967-68, Devaney promoted Tom Osborne to offensive coordinator to spruce things up. They went 42-4-2 with two national titles over the next four years.

3. Osborne was the obvious choice when Devaney retired in 1972. He would engineer 14 top-10 finishes in his first 21 seasons but constantly fell short of a national title ...

4. ... until 1994. His Huskers broke through to win the title that year, won a second with one of the best teams ever in 1995, then won a third in 1997, his final season.

5. Osborne successor Frank Solich enjoyed three top-10 finishes in six years, but he was fired. NU has zero top-10s since and hasn't finished ranked at all since 2012.





In 2016, Lovie Smith's first year in charge, Illinois ranked 94th in SP+. In 2020, his last, the Fighting Illini ranked 89th. They were starting over then, and they're starting over now.

Projected SP+ rank: 83rd

Average projected wins: 3.9 (2.2 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins*: Charlotte (81% win probability)

Relative toss-ups: Rutgers (65%), UTSA (60%), Northwestern (53%)

Likely losses: at Virginia (28%), Maryland (24%), at Purdue (21%), Nebraska (21%), at Minnesota (14%), Wisconsin (10%), at Iowa (8%), at Penn State (7%)


Much of FBS returns record levels of production; Northwestern does not. If Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats challenge for another West title, it'll be his most impressive coaching performance yet.

Projected SP+ rank: 75th

Average projected wins: 4.9 (2.7 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: Indiana State (94% win probability), Rutgers (68%)

Relative toss-ups: Ohio (65%), at Duke (63%), at Illinois (48%), Michigan State (43%)

Likely losses: Purdue (33%), Minnesota (24%), at Nebraska (16%), Iowa (15%), at Michigan (14%), at Wisconsin (7%)



Since famously destroying Ohio State in 2018, Jeff Brohm's Boilermakers are just 8-16. They are constantly competitive but are no closer to turning a corner than they were three years ago.

Projected SP+ rank: 40th

Average projected wins: 5.8 (3.9 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: at UConn (95% win probability), Illinois (79%), at Northwestern (67%), Oregon State (66%)

Relative toss-ups: Michigan State (65%), Minnesota (45%), Indiana (43%)

Likely losses: at Nebraska (33%), at Notre Dame (31%), at Iowa (22%), at Wisconsin (18%), at Ohio State (14%)


PJ Fleck's Golden Gophers were two scores from 5-2 and two from 1-6 last season. They aren't far from West contention, but only if the defense rediscovers consistency.

Projected SP+ rank: 31st

Average projected wins: 7.3 (4.7 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: BGSU (98% win probability), Miami (Ohio) (96%), Illinois (86%), at Northwestern (76%)

Relative toss-ups: at Colorado (62%), Maryland (59%), at Purdue (55%), Nebraska (55%), at Indiana (42%), Wisconsin (36%)

Likely losses: at Iowa (31%), Ohio State (30%)


After an 0-2 start, Iowa won its last six games and jumped to 10th in SP+, its best ranking since 2008. Should we be talking more about the Hawkeyes as legit Big Ten contenders?

Projected SP+ rank: 16th

Average projected wins: 8.3 (6.0 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: Kent State (98%), Colorado State (96%), Illinois (92%), at Northwestern (86%), Purdue (78%), Minnesota (69%), Indiana (67%)

Relative toss-ups: at Maryland (61%), at Nebraska (57%), Penn State (54%), at Wisconsin (38%), at Iowa State (37%)

Likely losses: none


New quarterback ... injuries ... more COVID problems than most ... we might have learned less about Wisconsin than any other FBS team in 2020. At least, the Badgers hope so.

Projected SP+ rank: 9th

Average projected wins: 9.4 (6.8 in the Big Ten)

Likely wins: Eastern Michigan (98% win probability), at Rutgers (94%), Northwestern (93%), Army (93%), at Illinois (90%), at Purdue (74%), Michigan (71%), vs. Notre Dame (67%)

Relative toss-ups: at Minnesota (64%), Iowa (62%), Penn State (60%)

Likely losses: none



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Based on the win probabilities we have about a 37 percent chance to beat all four of Illinois, Northwestern, Buffalo, and MSU to get to 5-1. Seems like what happens in these four games is going to be the key to our season. Win them all and eight wins are on the table. Drop one or two and you're flirting with bowl eligibility.  

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5 minutes ago, Saunders said:

Yup. I was shocked to see the Win Expectancy so high for that, and the Northwestern games.


Same, and honestly OSU. I know they've got an unproven QB, but a 1 in 3 chance there? Seems high, IMO we have a much better chance of beating Wisconsin than OSU. 

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1 minute ago, Husker in WI said:



Same, and honestly OSU. I know they've got an unproven QB, but a 1 in 3 chance there? Seems high, IMO we have a much better chance of beating Wisconsin than OSU. 

That was the biggest outlier in my eyes as well. Wisconsin is squarely a toss up to me. OSU a loss. 


Honestly don't hate this schedule. We play 2 of the toughest teams in the nation, but no one is expecting us to win those. Every other game is winable. Win the games you are suppose to win early - and this team could be dripping with confidence down the stretch. 

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@FrantzHardySwag TBH, that reminds me of what people were saying in 2016, which is kinda scary. Out of our first seven games, only Oregon (#22) was expected to be a tough game. Felt good when we beat Oregon, but they turned out to be a paper tiger, with Helfrich getting the axe at the end of the season. And the remaining year and a half of Riley's tenure from there, well, we all know how that went....

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There was a thread I think asking what was our most important game this year (I think) and I believe I chose OSU.  The Illinois game is going to be huge if more than anything from a confidence perspective just thinking about it. Man am I excited for this game.  Also a little nervous.  I think it is a crap shoot trying to predict this teams record.

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59 minutes ago, Saunders said:

Yup. I was shocked to see the Win Expectancy so high for that, and the Northwestern games.

I think what it shows is just how bad Illinois is, that was a huge upset last year and there was no reason for it to have happened.


NU's DL is geared to stop the run now, they are massive upfront.  If Illinois is not average over 4 yards a carry for the game, it will be a blowout.

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Seems fair. Maybe even a little generous.


I don't put a ton of stock into it, but I wonder how the odds of winning percentages are determined. I feel like our odds against Iowa should be a little better, given our odds against Michigan. The Ohio State and Wisconsin percentages are a little surprising to me too. 

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If Frost and Adrian are truly who we thought they were back in 2018, we will be fine. 8 wins out there for the taking for a good, not great team with upperclassman leadership on both sides of the ball. If not, doesn't much matter anyway.. Either the light is at the end of the tunnel this year or we find out we are truly in the dredge. 

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