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The Big Ten West gets started a little bit earlier than the rest of the country, as Nebraska heads to Champaign to take on Illinois in the “zero week” on August 28th. Week one consists of Minnesota trying to topple the top five Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin hosting the Penn State Nittany Lions. Also, Iowa has arguably the toughest start to their season in all of college football, hosting Indiana week one and heading to Ames week two to play rival Iowa State.
The western division is not only trying to get past some of these powerful out-of-conference foes, such as Iowa State and Notre Dame, but the eastern division squads as well. Since the formation of the east and west divisions in 2014, no team from the west has won the Big Ten Championship Game. That has to be a hard pill to swallow for schools like Northwestern and Wisconsin, who have been stonewalled by Ohio State twice each in the last four years.
It is imperative for these squads to come out of the gate hot and carry that momentum onward. With this piece, we’re going to look at some players who will play critical roles in helping the Big Ten West up to the mountaintop.
Illinois Fighting Illini: QB, Brandon Peters
The entire Illinois quarterback room was underwhelming last season. Only one player completed 50% of his passes, and that was Coran Taylor, who is now officially a defensive back. Peters has never been one for incredible accuracy, but he did throw for 18 TDs in 2019.
Head coach Bret Bielema will try to replicate his prior Big Ten success by instilling a solid power run game, just like he did at Wisconsin. This pro-style under-center scheme, with a nice play-action package, should really benefit Peters. If he can effectively strike the ball down the middle and to the sidelines on these play-action looks, the run game will become even more efficient. The Illini offense really hinges on his efficiency in 2021.
Iowa Hawkeyes: C, Tyler Linderbaum
Behind every great quarterback, figuratively not literally, there always seems to be a center who is the controlling authority in the trenches. That quarterback and center relationship goes beyond a between-the-legs exchange, as the two always have to be on the same page. Just look how Tom Brady specifically recruited Ryan Jensen and how Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday always had the Indianapolis Colts one step ahead. Not to mention, the Green Bay Packers lose Corey Linsley and immediately draft the next best center for Aaron Rodgers, Josh Myers.
Linderbaum will not only be the anchor on the interior for the Hawkeyes but the voice for the offense. Don’t get it twisted because he’s an absolute mauler and a fortress in pass protection. Though if Iowa wants to be anything greater than a 7-5 or 8-4 football team, Linderbaum will have to show up big, hence the “make or break” for the offense.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: WR, Chris Autman-Bell
This was a tough choice here, but when looking at X-factor players, one of my evaluation criteria is what had to be replaced. Now that Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman have gone off to the NFL in back-to-back seasons, it’s Autman-Bell’s time to shine. Quarterback Tanner Morgan returning to Minneapolis will pay dividends to Autman-Bell’s hopes of getting to the league.
He’s a physical receiver who isn’t afraid to block anybody, including linebackers. Also, he’s one of the better receivers I’ve seen in traffic, seeing how almost all of his catches are contested downfield or bang-bang plays going over the middle. Even though he doesn’t really have that desired breakaway speed, Minnesota’s ability to run effectively with Mohamed Ibrahim could provide plenty of one-on-one opportunities outside on play-action shot plays. I’d take my chances on jump balls with Autman-Bell on the receiving end almost every time.
Nebraska Cornhuskers: QB Adrian Martinez
After a strong freshman season in Lincoln, all we heard from the Cornhuskers was how special Martinez was going to be. It wasn’t hard to buy into the hype because after all, seeing another Martinez behind center really did excite the fan base. Taylor Martinez got the Cornhuskers to Indianapolis in the past, and the big red faithful were hoping Adrian could do the same.
However, turnovers and bad decision-making have really cost this team heavily over the last two seasons. That’s why he’s tabbed as the make or break player here, because when he is throwing well and making teams worry about his feet, Nebraska can play with anyone. In all honesty, Martinez may not be fighting only for his job, but for head coach Scott Frost’s job as well.
Northwestern Wildcats: LT Peter Skoronski
I already covered Skoronski in my sophomore standouts piece back in May, but he’s the most important part of the Wildcats’ offense. Without him holding down the fort on Peyton Ramsey’s blindside last season, Northwestern doesn’t go to Indianapolis. Obviously, their defense was incredible and a massive part of that, but his run and pass blocking abilities are crucial to Hunter Johnson, who takes the reins this season.
Purdue Boilermakers: WR David Bell
No shocker here, as Bell was the man who kept the Boilermakers’ attack afloat following Rondale Moore’s injuries in 2019. For 2020, there was so much hype surrounding the possibility of getting those two skilled players together, but the shortened season and Moore partly sitting out never allowed that to happen. Now with his partner in crime gone to the NFL, it’s time to ring the bell in West Lafayette.
In only six games played last season, Bell racked up 625 yards on 53 catches and cashed in six TDs. That means he’s averaging about 104 yards, nine catches and one score per game. Forecast that out with a full season and we’ll likely see him eclipse 100 catches, 1,200 yards and grab double-digit TDs.
What is really wild is that Bell isn’t really the flashiest wideout. He can make plays in traffic and runs crisp routes, but honestly, his top speed is lacking. If he put in the work to improve that in the offseason, we may see a whole different animal for the Boilermakers.
Wisconsin Badgers: WR Danny Davis III
I went back and forth so much on this pick, between tight end Jake Ferguson and Davis III, ultimately choosing the latter. Ferguson has been a constant through his career, hauling in at least 30 passes each season and sitting at 99 for his career currently. What I really looked at is why Wisconsin struggled on offense at times last year, coming to the conclusion that they didn’t have a ball-winner on the outside.
That “ball-winner” ability should be pinned to the top of Davis III’s resumé, as he learned from former teammate and Detroit Lion, Quintez Cephus. He plays way bigger than he is at only 6’0” 193 lbs, and is a ferocious competitor on the edge. After an astounding freshman year where he caught 26 balls for 418 yards and five TDs, Davis III was going to be the next big thing in the Badger receiving room. Last season’s injury derailed any chance of a huge season, but he can definitely right the ship this year.