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How Northwestern’s returning starters compare to the rest of the Big Ten West

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To make a repeat appearance in Indianapolis, the Wildcats will have to fend off plenty of talent in their own division.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With Big Ten Media Days in the rearview mirror, the 2019 college football season is officially on the horizon. And in one of the most competitive major conference divisions in college football, Northwestern will have plenty of contenders to deal with as they attempt to repeat as Big Ten West champions.

The Wildcats will need to retool successfully to do so, having to overcome myriad important losses to graduation. As former SBNation (and current ESPN) college football writer Bill Connelly has detailed through the use of advanced metrics, loss of production is one of the most telltale signs as to whether a team will be able to continue or even improve their level of play across multiple seasons.

NU, despite gaining talent like Hunter Johnson, loses six offensive starters and four defensive starters, along with their punter. That certainly seems a hefty price to pay, but will it keep them out of the division title race? Let’s take a look at the same numbers from their Big Ten West foes to find out.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin lost 12 starters from last season and the challenges surrounding their rebuilding effort are plentiful. Offensively, the Badgers lost starting quarterback Alex Hornbook, tight end Zander Neuville, and the starting offensive guards and tackles. They have a rich history of building elite offensive lines in Madison, but this could prove one of head coach Paul Chryst and co.’s toughest tasks to date in that regard.

This transition could create significant issues for whoever the starting quarterback will be and running back Jonathan Taylor. Jack Coan ended last season on a high note against Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl, but it is certainly not ideal for the Badgers to have to replace 80 percent of the unit keeping their young, inconsistent starter upright.

Defensively, Wisconsin needs to replace six starters, with arguably the team’s biggest question residing right in the middle of that typically tenacious group. Three of the four starting linebackers from last season should reach NFL rosters next fall, with Zack Baun the only returning starter. Wisconsin also lost hard-hitting safety D’cota Dixon. Chryst tends to develop great defenses and offenses that are at least passable, but with their immense turnover the Badgers could find themselves in uncharted territory.

The ‘Cats meet Wisconsin in Madison on September 28th.

Iowa

Similarly to Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes find themselves in a tough predicament. Iowa will need to replace 11 starters from last year’s team. The offense lost five of those 11, with T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant serving as their two biggest losses. Both were first round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft. The Hawkeyes do bring back senior quarterback Nate Stanley and junior wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who could turn into one of the best QB-WR connections in the Big Ten.

Defensively, Iowa faces much bigger issues. Last season the team allowed the 7th fewest rushing yards in all of college football. Now, the Hawkeyes will be without their starting front four defensive linemen from last year, marking them as a sure candidate for regression.

The secondary faces its own issues. Last season, the Hawkeyes had one of the best safety tandems in the country in Jake Gervase and Amani Hooker. Both, however, will play in the NFL this season. Head coach Kirk Ferentz has plenty of holes to fill this season, and it is hard to see this Iowa team contending for the Big Ten West with all of the departures.

The Hawkeyes visit Northwestern on October 26th.

Nebraska

Even though Nebraska lost nine starters from last year, the Cornhuskers have exciting prospects. Scott Frost’s first season as head coach started out poorly,finished the year looking much better than they did at its beginning. Frost hopes to continue that momentum into his second year, potentially allowing Nebraska to contend for the Big Ten West title.

The Cornhuskers will rely on sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, who may well be a First Team All-Big Ten candidate after an up-and-down 2018 flashed plenty of potential. Martinez will have offensive help from up-and-coming stars J.D. Spielman and Maurice Washington. Those two replace wide receiver Stanley Morgan and running back Devine Ozigbo, respectively.

But if Nebraska hopes to win the West, this year’s defense will have to significantly improve compared to last year’s squad. It will not help that the Huskers lost two of their best defenders in defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun and outside linebacker Luke Gifford. Both provided great leadership, allowing UNL to turn their season around after starting 0-6. Overall, the explosive trio of Martinez, Washington and Spielman should make Northwestern’s early-season matchup with the Huskers a referendum on two definite conference contenders.

Purdue

Purdue has its own human highlight reel in sophomore wide receiver Rondale Moore. Northwestern may have beaten Purdue in last year’s opener, but few fans will forget Moore’s performance any time soon. He finished his first collegiate game with 313 all-purpose yards en route to being named the most versatile player in all of college football at the end of the season, earning the Paul Hornung Award.

Moore’s explosiveness will be put to a test this season as the offense loses some key players, including quarterback David Blough and both starting running backs (Markell Jones and D.J. Knox). There will be an adjustment period, but with head coach Jeff Brohm’s brilliant offensive coaching and a playmaker the caliber of Moore, the Boilermakers should have an explosive offense relatively quickly.

Defensively though, the team struggled last season, and not too much help is on the horizon. They return their two best defensive players in nose tackle Lorenzo Neal and outside linebacker Markus Bailey, but an already-porous secondary lost two starters to graduation. Overall, the team has an interesting makeup, but Brohm’s squad still seems a season or two away from contending for the Big Ten West. Nonetheless, the November 9th game in Evanston between NU and Purdue should be an exciting rematch with plenty of ramifications for bowl games.

Minnesota

Second-year head coach P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers enter the 2019 season coming off of a solid first year that ended with a blowout bowl win over Georgia Tech. Minnesota boasts a good-looking foundation, and the team certainly has the ability to grow over the course of 2019.

Offensively, the Gophers lost just two starters — both on the line. The team will keep its nucleus intact with quarterbacks Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.

The team lost three defensive starters in defensive tackle Gary Moore, linebacker Blake Cashman and cornerback Jacob Huff. Cashman is the key loss for the Gophers: the talented middle linebacker, who showed out last season against the ‘Cats, was drafted by the New York Jets in the fifth round. Overall, Minnesota returns enough talent to compete for the Big Ten West Championship. If the team is able to get consistent quarterback play out of either quarterback, the Golden Gophers could be a dark horse in the Big Ten West.

Minnesota plays at Northwestern on November 23rd.

Illinois

Entering 2019, Illini fans are starting to question whether Lovie Smith is the right coach in Champaign. During the past three seasons, Smith has won a total of nine games. But the Illini lost only four starters from last year, and while significant success remains unlikely, they could surprise some teams. Illinois is focusing its attention on five star recruit Isaiah Williams, the heavily-recruited potential starting quarterback from St. Louis, and Brandon Peters, the highly-touted Michigan transfer in competition with him.

Illinois hosts Northwestern for the last regular season game of the year on November 30th.