Minnesota's gold team running back Rodney Smith looked for an opening in a spring NCAA college spring football game in Minneapolis on Saturday, April 9, 2016. (Jim Gehrz/Star Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
AP Photo
April 13, 2016

Iowa began 2015 as an afterthought in the Big Ten West. The Hawkeyes will begin next season as the early favorites in an uncertain division.

Iowa appears primed to push for a second straight division title in 2016, with standout quarterback C.J. Beathard and Desmond King, winner of the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back, headlining the list of returning players.

But Northwestern made strides in 2015 with a 10-win season, and marked improvement from sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson could put the Wildcats in position to steal the West.

Wisconsin will again be a threat to win the division, and Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota will bring back experienced quarterbacks.

A look around the West, in order of 2015 finish:

IOWA (12-2, 8-0 Big Ten)

What we know: Beathard is arguably the best returning quarterback in the Big Ten outside of Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, and Iowa's defense should be stout despite the loss of defensive end Drew Ott. His appeal for an extra year of eligibility was recently denied by the NCAA.

What we don't know: The Hawkeyes controlled most of their games last season with a punishing inside running game. But star running back Jordan Canzeri, center Austin Blythe and guard Jordan Walsh have graduated, and replacing those players won't be easy.

Coach Kirk Ferentz says: ''My biggest concern is replacing 21 outstanding seniors. Those guys really did a great job - and we don't have a first-round pick.''

NORTHWESTERN (10-3, 6-2)

What we know: Northwestern has holes to fill at wide receiver, where it lost three starters, and at defensive end. But the Wildcats will bring back a veteran offensive line, which should be great news for star running back Justin Jackson.

What we don't know: Can the Wildcats recover from an embarrassing 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl? Northwestern can look to .... Iowa, which won the West title last year after the Volunteers humiliated the Hawkeyes in a bowl game.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald says: ''Clayton had a great first chapter of his career. I just look forward to him continuing to grow, continue to get better.''

WISCONSIN (10-3, 6-2)

What we know: The Badgers, long known as one of the nation's best running teams, finished without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in over a decade last season. Wisconsin is hoping a healthy Corey Clement can help it get back to its roots.

What we don't know: Is Bart Houston ready to lead the Badgers' passing attack? The senior quarterback looked decent in a win over Illinois last October, throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns. But if Houston struggles early, look for redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook to get a look behind center. A starter likely won't be named until just before the season.

Coach Paul Chryst says: ''Can you lead a team? Both (Houston and Hornibrook) have had a good spring in that regard. They're working and they are getting better and not worrying about being the starters right now.''

NEBRASKA (6-7, 3-5)

What we know: Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will be back. Armstrong's penchant for turnovers, including a four-interception performance against Iowa in the season finale, hurt the Cornhuskers in 2015. The key to a revival for Nebraska could very well center on Armstrong's ability to protect the ball.

What we don't know: Running back Terrell Newby will likely get as many carries as he could ask. An ankle injury slowed his production in the second half of last season, and the Huskers will need to keep the versatile Newby healthy next season.

Coach Mike Riley says: ''I think the sophomore year of a coach is probably like a player. Much more comfortable. It was a much smoother start in spring ball.''

MINNESOTA (6-7, 2-6)

What we know: Tracy Claeys did an admirable job replacing Jerry Kill in the middle of last season, which the Gophers acknowledged by making him the full-time coach. But Claeys will have to replace five starters on each side of the ball, including wide receiver KJ Maye (73 receptions in 2015).

What we don't know: Mitch Leidner will return as the starting quarterback after an up-and-down junior year. Leidner threw for 14 touchdowns with 11 picks, and now he'll have to adjust to losing Maye.

Coach Claeys says: ''Very pleased with the way spring ball went. We avoided any major injuries, and we're looking forward to getting the season started.''

ILLINOIS (5-7, 2-6)

What we know: Wes Lunt established himself as the starting quarterback, throwing for 14 touchdowns against six interceptions. But Lunt failed to throw a TD pass in half his Big Ten games, and his completion percentage (56) will have to improve next fall.

What we don't know: The Illini was largely lauded for bringing coach Lovie Smith in from the NFL. But can Smith make the transition to the college ranks after two decades in the NFL? Smith last worked in college ball in 1995 as the defensive backs coach at Ohio State.

Coach Smith says: ''To come in and have a player like Wes - he's poised, under control, he can throw the football, he's had success in our conference - has meant a lot.''

PURDUE (2-10, 1-7)

What we know: The Boilermakers have given coach Darrell Hazell plenty of time to rebuild the program. Purdue is just 2-22 in Big Ten games under Hazell and the Boilermakers' offensive and defensive coordinators will be in their first seasons in those roles.

What we don't know: Purdue brings back 19 starters, including promising quarterback David Blough. But will those players improve enough in the offseason to turn things around? The defense gave up at least 40 points in four of the final five games.

Coach Hazell says: ''This spring has been about learning the new system, and making sure we simplify things so guys can plan faster and harder.''

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