- Sep 30, 2001
Big Ten 2022 Predictions
West Division1. Wisconsin
There’s no clear favorite to win the Big Ten West in ’22 and a strong case could be made for a couple of teams here. The Badgers return only eight overall starters, but the guess here is the defense remains among the best in the conference with a quick reloading effort behind coordinator Jim Leonhard, and the offense does just enough behind rising star running back Braelon Allen. Wisconsin isn’t without question marks, however. Quarterback Graham Mertz averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and tossed eight touchdowns to six interceptions in conference play last fall. Complicating efforts to spark the passing game is the turnover at receiver (Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor are gone), and tight end Jake Ferguson is off to the NFL. The schedule features crossover matchups at Ohio State and Michigan State, with a trek to Iowa also on tap.
Related: Big Ten 2022 All-Conference Team
Last year’s 9-4 record was Purdue’s highest win total under coach Jeff Brohm and the program’s best season since 2003. The Boilermakers have a few concerns to address, namely how the defense improves under a new coordinator, but contending for the Big Ten’s West Division title is within reach. A favorable schedule sees Purdue miss Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan in crossover play, and Penn State visits West Lafayette in the season opener. Aidan O’Connell ranks among the Big Ten's top signal-callers after throwing for 3,708 yards and 28 touchdowns last fall. A better rushing attack (2.8 yards per carry) is needed, and some retooling is needed in the trenches with two starters departing. O’Connell’s supporting cast at receiver is in transition after David Bell went to the NFL and Milton Wright was ruled academically ineligible. Iowa transfer Charlie Jones and Broc Thompson are likely to be the go-to options on the outside. New defensive signal-caller Ron English inherits a group that limited teams to 5.5 yards per play and 22.4 points a game last season, but ends DaMarcus Mitchell and George Karlaftis, safety Marvin Grant and linebacker Jaylan Alexander departed.
A repeat of last year’s Big Ten West Division title will hinge on one thing for Iowa: Offensive improvement. In conference games last season, the Hawkeyes averaged only 4.5 yards per play and 23 points a game. Also, this unit struggled to generate big plays and ranked near the bottom of the league in third-down and red-zone offense. Adding to the challenges of generating improvement is the departure of running back Tyler Goodson and standout center Tyler Linderbaum, along with an ongoing quarterback battle between Spencer Petras and Alex Padilla. Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams should be a capable one-two punch on the ground, and there are capable options in the receiving corps, including tight end Sam LaPorta and receivers Nico Ragaini and Keagan Johnson. Even with Linderbaum leading the way last season, Iowa’s line was not a strength in ’21 and needs to play a lot better this fall. Despite a few departures, the Hawkeyes should have one of the top defenses in college football. Jack Campbell and Seth Benson lead a strong linebacker unit, while Riley Moss is one of the top cornerbacks returning in college football. Logan Lee, Noah Shannon and Lukas Van Ness are back to anchor one of the Big Ten’s top defensive lines. Forcing 31 turnovers again is a tough ask for this defense, adding to the urgency of finding improvement on offense in preseason practices this fall. Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska come to Iowa City next year, but coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad gets Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota away from home.
Although the Golden Gophers are picked fourth here, not much separates coach P.J. Fleck’s team from the top three in the division. The return of Kirk Ciarrocca as coordinator provides optimism for improvement on an offense that averaged only 5.45 yards per play and 25.5 points a contest last fall. Ciarrocca's return is also good news for quarterback Tanner Morgan, who threw for 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns under his watch in ’19. A deep stable of running backs has been trimmed due to transfers, but the return of Mohamed Ibrahim from a torn Achilles gives Minnesota one of the top rushers in the Big Ten. The top five statistical receiving options are back, including Chris Autman-Bell (36 catches last year) and Dylan Wright (20.3 per catch). Center John Michael Schmitz is one of the top interior linemen in college football, but he’s the only returning starter up front. Restocking the trenches is also a concern on defense following the departure of Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Nyles Pinckney and Micah Dew-Treadway. The rest of the defense is in better shape, especially with Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker and the secondary led by cornerback Justin Walley and safeties Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden. Minnesota ranked second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (17.3 points a game) and fourth in yards per play (4.86). Some retooling is obviously needed, but a good foundation is in place.