Go ahead and pencil in Wisconsin as the preseason favorite to win the B1G West again. Actually, on second thought, grab a permanent ink marker and write it down in big, bold letters.
It’s as close to a guarantee as you’ll find in college football short of Alabama and its endless run of SEC titles. Four B1G Championship appearances and three division crowns is a testament to just how dominant the Badgers have been since the conference’s expansion.
Wisconsin was the only team from the West to be ranked in the Associated Press’ final poll (No. 9) and will likely be the only one to enter 2017 in the preseason top 25. Though they may not be recognized on the same national scale as a year ago, the Badgers are still the cream of the crop in the West. That’s what winning 32 games in the last three seasons will do.
Despite the deserved, heavy favoritism heading into the season, the Badgers are going to have a challenger to their throne. There’s one team in the division that should match Wisconsin punch-for-punch in 2017.
The Wildcats ended last season on a high note, defeating Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl and finishing with a 7-6 mark. Though the win pushed Northwestern just one game over .500, Pat Fitzgerald said it was a game that gave his team momentum heading into 2017.
“I think that was a really good snapshot of where we could go starting with the offseason,” Fitzgerald said at Northwestern’s spring game.
Northwestern has the best quarterback-running back combination in the B1G outside of Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. Clayton Thorson showed tremendous growth as a passer in his sophomore campaign, throwing for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 58.6 percent of his passes. Behind him, Justin Jackson notched his third 1,000-yard season, the first ball-carrier to accomplish that feat in the program’s history.
And Jackson will likely have a running mate this year in John Moten IV which should remove a portion of the heavy workload the Wildcats have saddled their primary back with over the last three seasons. Moten rushed for 340 yards and two touchdowns on 57 touches last season, but those totals should be increased.
Four starters return on the offensive line, too. Blake Hance, J.B. Butler Tommy Doles and Brad North should be able to protect Thorson in the pocket and open holes for Jackson, as well.
And with major contributors returning on the defensive line and in the secondary, Northwestern’s defense – which allowed just 22.2 points per game last season – should be a force again. Just ask Godwin Igwebuike:
Northwestern is the most complete team in the West not located in Madison. The Wildcats aren’t just a dark horse to steal Wisconsin’s throne, they’re a legitimate threat. On some level, it seems like Fitzgerald understands the potential of this team.
“We need to put our guys in position to make plays and take that next step and that’s to become a consistent contender to win the West,” he told BTN. “Tired of talking about it. We need to get it done.”
Other threats to Wisconsin’s pursuit of back-to-back division titles could emerge, too.
Iowa could make a strong case after a bit of a letdown last year. The Hawkeyes have a Heisman-caliber running back in Akrum Wadley and have a plethora of experience on the offensive line and all throughout the defense.
Minnesota could be in the conversation, too. The Rodney Smith-Shannon Brooks backfield combination could be as good as Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III were back in the mid-2000s. And P.J. Fleck’s boisterous enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air in Minneapolis.
The Hawkeyes and the Gophers will be ushering in new quarterbacks, though, which could be a steep hurdle for both programs to overcome. And neither team has had much success against the Badgers recently. Iowa has just one win against Wisconsin since 2009, while Minnesota hasn’t posted a victory over its rival since 2003.
Northwestern, on the other hand, has beaten Wisconsin twice over the past three seasons, the division foe to accomplish that feat. In fact, the only other team in the conference that has knocked off the Badgers twice in that span has been Ohio State.
That’s pretty good company.
Northwestern and Wisconsin open up conference play with the head-to-head matchup on Sept. 30. Though there’s still eight weeks of conference play afterward, that game will set the tone for the rest of the season. And it will be a proving ground for the Wildcats and an opportunity to shed the dark horse moniker and transition into a B1G contender. That’s what Fitzgerald wants for this program.
“We’re a consistent winner, now we need to be a consistent champion,” Fitzgerald said.
What better way to make that transition than by taking down the most consistent contender the B1G has had since 2011?