The Big Ten West is a few years behind the East in terms of becoming a nationally recognized powerhouse. Wisconsin has been and always will be an excellent program despite how boring their brand of football may seem. Minnesota and Purdue are coming off of effervescent coaching hires with bright futures on their respective campuses; Iowa and Northwestern are 8-win stalwarts with potential to pull off big upsets (Iowa over OSU and Northwestern over MSU) but also equally embarrassing losses (Northwestern’s 24 point loss to Duke and Iowa losing to NDSU in 2016), and then there’s Illinois.
The recruiting classes in this division aren’t great in the grand scheme of things, but they are better than a year ago, and to a certain extent, the B1G West never shows up in the top 25 on Signing Day; it is especially Wisconsin tradition to take whatever corn- and cheese-fed 300-pound linemen within the state and coach them up to a first round pick. The futures are bright in West Lafayette and Minneapolis; Lincoln’s newest pseudo-mayor Scott Frost feels like Ann Arbor did when Harbaugh came back, and longest tenured coaches Kirk Ferentz and Pat Fitzgerald will pretty much do the same thing they do every year.
|Nebraska||22 national (4 conference)||21 (3)||21 (4)|
|Minnesota||35 (7)||42 (9)||30 (5)|
|Iowa||40 (8)||T39 (T7)||39 (8)|
|Wisconsin||44 (9)||T39 (T7)||43 (9)|
|Purdue||49 (11)||49 (11)||46 (10)|
|Illinois||54(12)||50 (12)||54 (13)|
|Northwestern||59 (14)||59 (14)||49 (12)|
Illinois (118th S&P+, #124 O, #89 D)
And then there’s Illinois. They were the conference’s punching bag this year, losing ten straight games after a 2-0 start to the year; to make matters worse, their “best” loss was by a touchdown to Minnesota. Other than that, they lost every other game by double digits. Their woes came mostly on passing downs last season (117th Passing S&P+); though their yards per game ranked middle of the conference, their efficiency and sack rate numbers (on both rushing and passing downs) were some of the worst in the country (on both sides of the ball). 48th in the country and 12th in the conference may not seem great but after back-to-back classes ranked in the 70s, this is a move in the right direction.
- Top Recruit: Calvin Avery, DT. Avery is the first 4-star to commit to Illinois since 2015 and a huge get for one of the country’s least intimidating defensive lines.
- Biggest Need: Defensive Line/pass rush. Illinois was 126th in the country as a defensive line in Power Success Rate (basically – they allowed their opponents to achieve their yardage goal 81% of the time), and 126th in passing down sack rate.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Avery. Although after Avery and DE Ezekiel Holmes, there isn’t anyone else on the line in the class.
- Class Darkhorse: MJ Rivers, QB. At 6’ 4” and 213 pounds, Rivers is huge for a dual-threat quarterback. That said, he is lightning quick when running, with long strides and sharp cuts. He needs to put his whole body into most longer throws, which slows down his release time and exposes the play call, but for the most part, he comes with size and speed which should fit Smith’s system.
- Best Name: Jordyn Slaughter
- Bottom Line: Lovie Smith’s NFL resume is showing itself in this class as he has signed 10 players from the state of Florida, and they have addressed their glaring needs relatively well, specifically in terms of 5 offensive linemen. Last year, Illinois nearly fell off the map, but this year they have fought their way to a few four star signees and the #48 class.
Iowa (49th S&P+, #106 O, #24 D)
It felt to me that Iowa played to the level of their competition last year. They crushed Ohio State and took Penn State to the final seconds, but also barely snuck out a win against Minnesota and lost to Purdue. I credit much of that to the weird Ferentz-gonna-Ferentz playcalling, given that they are 106th in S&P+ overall offense, but a closer look at offensive S&P+ numbers show top 50 success rate and IsoPPP+; put differently, when the opponent expected a certain play, Iowa usually ran that exact play to just enough level of success to keep the game close. The 40th ranked class in the country and 8th in the conference is right where Iowa usually is.
- Top recruit: Dallas Craddieth, S. Iowa has become something of the Great Plains DBU with Desmond King and now Josh Jackson as top draft picks. Craddieth joins the club in Iowa CIty as the team’s highest recruit.
- Biggest need: Creativity? Not quite that, but I will say offensive skill positions. Iowa returns a lot of production, but the two big ones, Akrum Wadley and Matt Vandeberg are graduating. That said, Nick Easley and Noah Fant will return, the two team leaders in TD catches, as do rising sophomores Ihmir Smith-Marsette and TJ Hockenson.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Tyrone Tracy, RB
- Class Darkhorse: Dillon Doyle, OLB. An outside linebacker version of Jozy Jewell. Smart, quick, aggressive, and just boring enough to be perfect for Iowa.
- Best Name: Samson Evans (not much to work with in this class)
- Bottom Line: Even though Iowa only has 3-star recruits, it’s a higher ranked class than last year’s, which brought consensus 5-star AJ Epenesa. They went hard in the trenches on both sides of the ball; 7 of the 23 commits are on the offensive and defensive lines.
Northwestern (45th S&P+, #82 O, #23 D)
Fitzgerald put together another 10 win season in Chicago, and another impressive defensive unit despite hardly any blue chip recruits. Although program legend Justin Jackson is graduating, rising sophomore Jeremy Larkin should be a worthy heir; he actually averaged a yard more per carry than Jackson. Fitzgerald’s teams are notorious for starting slow and ending strong, but he’s starting to coach with some momentum, winning 10 games in 2 of the past 3 seasons. At 59th in the country and last in the conference, this class won’t blow you away but it has some good building pieces for a team that returns a lot of talent.
- Top Recruit: Devin O’Rourke, SDE
- Biggest Need: Pass rush. Although Northwestern was one of the best defensive teams in the country, their sack rates were in the bottom third of the country, 91st in the country on passing downs to be exact.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: O’Rourke and Andrew Leota, WDE. Leota isn’t as large as O’Rourke but his quickness off the ball and relentless pursuit will make him a good addition to the defense.
- Class Darkhorse: Khalid Jones II, ILB. Jones can afford to tighten up his footwork; he moves his feet a lot at the snap without gaining any ground and he is not always direct to the ball, but – when he diagnoses the run properly, he explodes and absolutely crushes the ball carrier. A coach like Fitzgerald is just the guy he needs.
- Best Name: Isaiah Bowser
- Bottom Line: This is a well rounded class with players at every position except defensive tackle and from and 11 different states. Like Wisconsin, Northwestern is never at the top of the rankings, but a dip to 59th has to be frustrating.
Nebraska (103rd S&P+, #81 O, #110 D)
Mike Riley out. Scott Frost in. With a lot of similarities to Michigan hiring Harbaugh, Scott Frost returns to his alma mater with massive expectations as he brings his offensive creativity that bested Auburn in the Peach Bowl and finished second in S&P+. Last year’s okay-ish offense will change guards (not in the literal sense of guard) along with their head coach as Tanner Lee decided to go pro, but last year’s terrible defense will need a shot in the arm: 2017 Nebraska was dead last in DB havoc and in the bottom ten of success rate and overall havoc. Probably why they allowed 36 points a game in the Big Ten West. The recruiting class coming in has 8 players from the state of Florida, an evident result of Frost’s success at UCF last season, and also 5 JUCO transfers. Coming in at 23rd in the country and 4th in the Big Ten, Nebraska’s class is a testament to make their offense creative.
- Top Recruit: Adrian Martinez, QB. Tanner Lee led the conference in interceptions last season, so it might not be the worst thing in the world that he’s leaving. Martinez committed to Nebraska before Frost was hired, but his dual-threat upbringing makes him a good fit for the offense.
- Biggest Need: Secondary or Quarterback. Quarterback aside: Nebraska was worst in the conference in opposing completion percentage (64.5%), yards per attempt (7.3), opponent passer rating (138.26), and DB Havoc with only 3% of plays resulting in TFL, PBU, INT, or FF. Yikes.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Cam’Ron Jones, S. At 6’ 3” and 200 pounds, Jones signs with Nebraska very large for a safety. A Top 300 4-star player, Jones is as good in space reacting to passing plays as he is diagnosing run plays from deep in the secondary. He will be valuable against quicker teams that spread out like Minnesota and Purdue.
- Class Darkhorse: Jaron Woodyard, WR. Much of the passing game will go through rising senior Stanley Morgan (who caught almost half of Nebraska’s receiving touchdowns last year), so Woodyard might see time in the slot as defenders leak outside to cover Morgan.
- Best Name: Katerian Legrone
- Bottom Line: A little bit of everything and not much drama given Frost only had a few weeks to recruit actually as Nebraska’s head coach. With 9 offensive skill positions, it is fitting given Frost’s creative offense.
Minnesota (97th S&P+, #120 O, #46 D)
PJ Fleck, college football’s most infectious personality, delivered some intriguing schemes at Minnesota in Year One. Although they missed bowl eligibility, a quarterback with some passing prowess will fix a lot of the problems they had last year (124th in IsoPPP but 11th in Adjusted Run Rate). Because of their inability to throw the ball effectively (they only attempted 233 passes the whole season), teams feasted on the run game and stacked more and more players in the box. The Michigan game film is a testament to that when Khaleke Hudson basically lined up in the backfield and set the conference record for single game tackles for loss; he didn’t need to worry about a downfield threat. As the 35th ranked class in the country, it won’t be making national headlines, but it is very smart and acknowledges the gaps in their game.
- Top Recruit: Curis Dunlap, OG. The 6’ 4” and 368-pound IMG Academy product is the #8 guard in the country, mostly because you just don’t find 18-year olds that size. He’ll need to refine that weight a bit but he’s a good prospect to help in pass protection (sidenote: Minnesota also landed human giant Daniel Faalele, a 6’ 8” and 400-pound tackle).
- Biggest need: Quarterback. Fleck just missed being able to coach Mitch Leidner, and Demry Croft probably isn’t the answer. You know who is?
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Victor Viramontes. After briefly committing to Michigan and then flipping to Cal after Michigan wanted him to play linebacker, Viramontes transferred to a junior college before finally deciding to play for Coach Fleck. He’s an insane athlete and has an incredible arm for a dual-threat; he’s as close as you can get to ‘franchise quarterback’ in college.
- Class Darkhorse: Bryce Williams, RB. Despite the lack of passing game, Rodney Smith still rushed for 977 yards and will return for his senior year. Williams has a similar running style; a speedy step and slash running back who doesn’t slow down when he makes his cuts.
- Best Name: Alex Reigelsperger
- Bottom Line: Despite having a relatively good offensive line last year (sack rate on passing downs wasn’t great, but teams could blitz everyone with little concern of being burned), Minnesota’s recruitment of seven offensive linemen and a stud dual-threat quarterback are signs that the boat is getting off the dock in Minneapolis.
Purdue (40th S&P+, #60 O, #35 D)
Purdue’s stats were mostly average but it was a massive leap forward for the program. Jeff Brohm made a previously terrible Boilermakers team competitive week-in and week-out and returned them to the bowl season. They are virtually starting from scratch on defense, returning a nationally fifth-worst 41% of last year’s production, but return 77% on offense. The metrics indicate that Purdue was best when Purdue was weird: 13th in adjusted line yards but 120th in power success rate. Although the class is 49th in the country, it is an incredible advancement from being in the mid-70s the past few years.
- Top Recruit: Rondale Moore, WR. Though not even 5’ 9”, Moore was a US Army All-American and the #1 player in Kentucky (one of five players from the Bluegrass State in this class). He makes sense in Brohm’s system because when Purdue throws the ball, it isn’t always vertical – Purdue finished 92nd in yards per passing attempt last season. Height won’t be a problem because he won’t be fighting for jump balls.
- Biggest Need: Outside linebacker or Safety. Purdue loses a lot of production. A lot.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Cory Trice, S. The #7 player in Kentucky, Trice knows how to lay the wood. He isn’t extremely fast and sometimes moves with some stiffness, but he can really make a receiver think twice about running over the middle.
- Class Darkhorse: Branson Deen, DT. This dude is strong. Although most of his film was on offensive line (he’s a teammate of Cam McGrone’s), he pushes linemen to the ground like they are half his size.
- Best Name: Payne Durham
- Bottom Line: Brohm’s old Western Kentucky pipeline is redirected to West Lafayette as he takes 5 from Kentucky and 4 from Ohio. They recruited to stay weird on offense (5 pass catchers but only 1 running back) and to satisfy some of the attrition in the defensive backfield (5 defensive backs).
Wisconsin (6th S&P+, #41 O, #3 D)
Paul Chryst continues to win with the most basic gameplan possible: run the football between the tackles and play good defense. They came within a touchdown of winning the conference title last year, but the fact of the matter is they were one of the best rushing games in the country: 13th in Success Rate+, 16th in IsoPPP+, and 24th in Rushing S&P+. Jonathan Taylor broke Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing record, collecting 1977 rushing yards on 299 attempts. The defense is about as good as a college defense can get, and TJ Edwards decided to come back for his senior year. Wisconsin stayed true to form in 2018, finishing 44th in the country and only signing one four-star player, but their results have proven that we shouldn’t pay attention to their recruiting rankings.
- Top Recruit: Jack Sanborn, ILB. Oh, great, Another extremely talented middle linebacker for Wisconsin.
- Biggest Need: This might sound odd, but I’m saying defensive front seven. Last year’s group was best in the country in Front 7 Havoc, but with where Wisconsin is currently, it’s about the long con. They’re returning only 42% of their production on defense, so a solid class now will reap another top defense nationally in a few years.
- Top Recruit to Fill Need: Boyd Dietzen, DE. The #1 player in the state of Wisconsin and somehow the most Wisconsin name ever, Dietzen joins the team at the right time with senior defensive ends Alec James (8 TFLs in 2017) and Connor Sheehy (5.5 TFLs) set to graduate.
- Class Darkhorse: Michael Furtney, OT. He’s a 6’ 5”, 280-pound tackle going to Wisconsin. Of course he’s going to be good.
- Best Name: Rachad Wildgoose, Jr.
- Bottom Line: For as long as I’ve paid any attention to recruiting, Wisconsin has never finished higher than 30th in the country, yet Paul Chryst is 34-7 in his first three years. Don’t get too hung up on rankings when talking about the Badgers.
Check out the Big Ten East’s National Signing Day 2018 Recap.
There’s plenty of competition for the best class in the Big Ten West. Who do you think has it? Who has the worst class? Let us know what you think about the Big Ten West’s incoming prospects in the comment section below!
Photo Credit: BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD