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Big Ten West stock watch: Wisconsin strengthens its status at the top

Alex Hornibrook and Wisconsin have the look of a division favorite heading into the summer. Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire

It’s been more than four months since the last college football game of the season was played in Tampa, Florida, and plenty has happened since then. Through signing day, offseason roster changes, injuries and some spring practice development, most teams look a bit different as college campuses start to clear out for the summer.

With that in mind, it’s time to take stock in how the last third of the calendar has changed the Big Ten programs. Which of them will be a worthwhile investment heading in 2017? After examining the East earlier this week, we turn to the West Division today:

Wisconsin: Buy. Despite losing another defensive coordinator at the end of 2016, the Badgers don’t appear to be headed for any setback on that side of the ball. Promoting Jim Leonhard makes for a smoother transition. The front seven should remain stingy with the number of players returning and additions such as junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel. Alex Hornibrook gives the offense a reliable and strong passer to match its running game.

Iowa: Sell. The Hawkeyes should be strong in the run game and in stopping the run. That alone won’t cut it anymore in the Big Ten. C.J. Beathard’s departure left a question at quarterback that went unanswered this spring. Wide receivers and tight ends weren’t a picture of consistency, either, according to those who saw the Hawkeyes practice. Coach Kirk Ferentz expected newcomers arriving this summer to get a shot to compete for spots at both receiver and defensive back.

Nebraska: Hold. The Huskers returned to their nine-win plateau in Mike Riley’s second year. At the end of spring, they haven’t provided many reasons to believe they’ll reach double digits in 2017, especially with cross-divisional games against Penn State and Ohio State on the schedule. Tanner Lee won the quarterback battle in the spring, but there is still some uncertainty about the full cast of receivers he’ll be targeting. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco might need a couple years to recruit the ideal players for his 3-4 alignment.

Minnesota: Buy. Minnesota’s stock took a nose dive in December when players revolted against administration, which led to Tracy Claeys’ ouster as head coach in January. New coach P.J. Fleck’s infectious energy and his track record at Western Michigan are reasons enough to make the Gophers a more attractive pick than at the end of last year. Fleck needs to identify a quarterback and his team needs to get healthy, but he didn’t show up to a program void of talent. The offense quietly finished fourth in the league last year in points scored. The biggest problem after how last season ended was cultural, not talent-based, and that plays into Fleck’s strengths.

Northwestern: Buy. The Wildcats return a seasoned backfield duo in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. They also added Oregon grad transfer Jalen Brown at wide receiver to help mitigate the loss of Austin Carr. The school has cemented its intent to invest more heavily in football by adding a long-term contract for coach Pat Fitzgerald this season to match the sparkling new football facility on the edge of Lake Michigan. The results are starting to show in recruiting already, where the Wildcats have the 13th-best class in the nation early in the 2018 recruiting cycle. After a rough start to 2016, Northwestern has been on a fairly steady upward trajectory.

Illinois: Sell. Lovie Smith’s second team in Champaign didn’t look significantly different from his first at the end of their early spring workouts. A healthy combo of quarterback Chayce Crouch and wide receiver Mike Dudek was an optimistic sign, but the Illini’s problems went deeper than the injury bug during their 3-9 season in 2016. With Western Kentucky and USF on the nonconference schedule next fall, the road ahead doesn’t look any easier.

Purdue: Hold. Jeff Brohm and a new staff provides reasons for optimism in West Lafayette, Indiana. The school also appears to be willing to invest a little more in football after collecting only three league wins in the last four years. Brohm fortified his roster with a few solid transfers, but he said himself that he doesn’t yet have the pieces to run the offense he wants. To compete in the West, Purdue will have to use a different approach than Wisconsin and Iowa, who can recruit a different caliber player. For now, they’re still a run-first team in transition. Results might have to wait.