Our crew of Big Ten reporters will periodically offer takes on burning questions that face the league. We'll have strong opinions, though not the same view. We'll let you decide who's right.
We know that Ohio State is the favorite in the Big Ten East Division, with Michigan State a close second. But we turn to the wild, wild West for today's Take Two topic: Who should be the West Division favorite heading into 2015?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
I see the West as a three-team race between Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota -- Iowa has the schedule to be in the mix, but I don't trust the Hawkeyes to exhibit consistency. All three come with major question marks. The Badgers and Huskers have new head coaches, while the Gophers have to prove they can get over the hump.
I'm tempted to pick Minnesota, but the cross-division game at Ohio State provides a major obstacle. And even though Wisconsin comes to TCF Bank Stadium to close out the regular season, Jerry Kill's team needs to show that it can snap the 11-game Axe losing streak before I can fully get on board.
Nebraska also gets the Badgers at home but does have to play Michigan State in Lincoln and go to Minnesota. I also wonder about the transition to Mike Riley's system and whether Big Red has enough elite playmakers after Ameer Abdullah and Randy Gregory moved on. This another seeing-is-believing team.
So I think the defending West champs deserve to be a slight favorite in 2015, despite the coaching change and the loss of superstar Melvin Gordon. The core of Dave Aranda's outstanding defense remains in place, while new head coach Paul Chryst won't need to make too many changes on offense and may even be able to improve the passing game. Cross-division games against Rutgers and Maryland give a huge boost. The Badgers could afford to drop a road game against Nebraska or Minnesota and still make it to Indianapolis. Right now, I'll predict that's where they'll end up.
Take 2: Mitch Sherman
I'll see your temptation to pick Minnesota, Brian, and raise it by going all in on the Gophers. Minnesota hasn't won a Big Ten crown since 1967, and I'm not about to go there, but the West is ripe to be represented by new blood in the championship game.
This choice stems from the uncertainty that surrounds Nebraska and Wisconsin as much as my confidence in the Gophers to get over the top after consecutive eight-win seasons. Minnesota, despite wins over Nebraska the past two seasons, is fortunate to play the Huskers before the second half of the season. Position by position, Nebraska wins a talent comparison with any team in the division, but the Huskers, particularly on offense, will be more inconsistent early in the season than late.
If the Gophers get to the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a chance to win the division, unlike last season at Wisconsin, I think Kill's group gets it done in the Axe game. Gone is Melvin Gordon, of course, as the one player with an ability to take over in this rivalry. I like Mitch Leidner's experience here and the ability of the Minnesota secondary to eliminate the threat of an effective Wisconsin passing game. Against a one-dimensional Wisconsin offense in the cold -- and snow that I envision in the long-term forecast -- the Gophers win the race to 20 points and probable victory.
Remember, it's only May, and I reserve the right to revise this pick, based on summer developments involving any of the top three contenders. But I doubted the Gophers in 2014. No more. Matchups with TCU and Ohio State will only serve to prepare the Gophers for their crucial final stretch on the road to a first Big Ten title-game appearance.