As Spring Practices across the country begin to wind down, we start to get a better picture at what rosters and lineups will look like for every team. We also get a little peek into the attitude coming out of every program. Some are confident, while others seem to be weathering an unproductive 15 spring practices that left more questions than answers. A lot of confidence was pouring out of most B1G camps this spring, in what I think could be the conference's strongest season in some time, but there has to be a winner and a loser in every contest, and we will look to forecast each contest of the 2023 season.
This may be the most difficult division in football to forecast. There was a possibility of a 4 way tie for 1st place going into the last week of the 2022 season, and in late October, a 4-8 division champion was a real possibility. Now, with Wisconsin hiring Luke Fickell, and Nebraska hiring Matt Rhule, a new life has been injected into the definition of mediocrity that is the B1G West. Let's take a crack at how it will shake out starting with 7th place.
7th - Northwestern: 2-10 (0-9)
After getting 2 B1G Championship Game berths in a 3 season span, things have taken a horrible downward turn for the Wildcats since the end of the 2020 season. They are 4-20 in their last 24 games, with a 1-11 record from a season ago. With most of their top players from a season ago exiting the program, and no influx of talent coming in for Pat Fitzgerald, I don't see Northwestern fielding a great team this season. Even though 2-10 would technically be an improvement over last season, the program is in a tough spot. Fitzgerald is the best coach in program history, but he may not even be able to survive this. With a brand new $800 Million Stadium on the way, football is no longer overlooked in Evanston. With some of the best facilities in football, Fitzgerald will need to perform soon, or he will be looking for a new job.
6th - Purdue: 5-7 (2-7)
Purdue finds itself in an interesting spot after winning the B1G West division in 2022. Jeff Brohm, who stabilized the program, has left for the head coaching job at his Alma Mater in Louisville. His air raid style of offense was accompanied by a porous defense, and the Boilermakers are looking in the opposite direction with his successor. Ryan Walters was brought in after leading a stifling Illinois defense last season that was 1st in the FBS in Points Allowed (12.3 ppg) and 2nd in Yards Allowed (263.8 ypg). Bringing in Hudson Card from Texas at the QB position will be a huge boost to the offense having an experienced Signal Caller, and the defense should hope to improve under Walters' tutelage. Drawing both Michigan and Ohio State is tough, and making a Bowl Game would be a win, but this is a team no one will want to sleep on when they match up with them this season.
5th - Illinois: 5-7 (3-6)
Coming off of a 2022 season that saw the Illini climb as high as #14 in the AP Poll, I fully expect Illinois to come back down to earth this season. Stellar Defensive Coordinator Ryan Walters has left to take the Purdue job, and a number of standouts on both sides of the ball declared for the NFL Draft. New QB Luke Altmyer will look to take the reins of the offense that relied heavily on the run game a year ago, and take it to new heights with an improved passing game. Even with a favorable draw with B1G East matchups, as they only play one of the Big 3, conference play will be rough sledding. The West isn't what it was a year ago, and teams like Wisconsin and Iowa will be looking to avenge losses from a year ago. Going from Hunter to Hunted can be tough for mid-level teams, and Illinois will be no exception in 2023.
4th - Minnesota: 5-7 (3-6)
Betting against PJ Fleck may turn out to be a bad move on my part, as he is 29-10 in his last 3 full seasons as the head coach of Minnesota, but portal attrition and loss of veteran playmakers are tough to overcome. An opening matchup against an improved Nebraska squad to start off the season will be a tough way to introduce a lot of new starters at key positions, and the overall talent gap between the programs may prove to be too much. Drawing both Ohio State and Michigan from the East is as bad as it gets, as those are two guaranteed losses. Wisconsin and Iowa can be penciled in as losses as well, and a trip to Chapel Hill to play North Carolina likely won't go their way either. Taking these into consideration makes it hard to find 6 wins on the Gophers schedule. If Fleck can get this team to a bowl game, it should be considered a win as they look to be more competitive in 2024.
3rd - Iowa: 9-3 (6-3)
Picking the Hawkeyes to go 9-3 always feels like a pretty safe bet. Some years they'll swing down to 8-4, and other years they swing up to 10-2. Erick All transferring in at TE feels like a big win for that offense, and Cade McNamara is likely their most competent quarterback in the last few seasons. Both will need to have significant impacts, as the offensive product last year was so bad, it is hard to put into words. The most frustrating part about this team, is how good the defense plays opposite of the abysmal offense. If they can find some magic on the offensive side of the ball, then this could easily be an 11-1 team that can find themselves in Indianapolis playing for a B1G Championship, but that is a big if. The only loss on their schedule I consider a "Lock" is a trip to Happy Valley on September 23rd.
2nd - Nebraska: 10-2 (7-2)
This is by far the biggest gamble in the predictions so far, but I really believe in Matt Rhule, and Jeff Sims is going to be a hell of a QB. Opening on the road against a conference opponent isn't what any team wants, but the Huskers will be eager to prove that they are on the path back to relevancy. With 11 one-score losses in the last two seasons in B1G play alone, simple adjustments and talent improvement may be enough to make this team win 6 more games than a year ago. An interesting story to watch will be if this team is able to start off 4-0, how they handle a home game against Michigan, who very well could be the #1 ranked team in the country at the time of the game. With amazing facilities, and a rabid fanbase, if Nebraska can pull off the year I have predicted above, they will be perfectly situated heading into the era of the 12-Team Playoff.
1st - Wisconsin: 11-1. (8-1)
If you want to talk about coaching hires that were perfect fits for the schools that they went to, look no further than Luke Fickell's hiring at Wisconsin. The man that took the only Power 5 school in history to the College Football Playoff is now ready to take the most consistent program in the B1G West to new heights. Recruiting is higher than ever for Wisconsin, and the program absolutely killed it in their transfer portal additions. The offensive line will be solid as always, and Braelon Allen may be the best RB in the conference. Will Phil Longo coming in at Offensive Coordinator, look for the Badgers to mix that power running game with a potent passing attack involving transfer Wide Receiver C.J. Williams (USC). In my opinion, every single game on the schedule is winnable for the Badgers. The matchup with Ohio State will by far be the most challenging, but they will get some refuge with that game being at Camp Randall. I have Luke Fickell's first year at the helm ending with a trip to Indianapolis, and taking on the winner of the gauntlet that is the B1G East.
Tune in Tomorrow morning to see how we have the B1G East playing out.