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Christmas gifts for every Big Ten West division program

We hand out gifts to every Big Ten West division team during this holiday season. What did your favorite team get?

We here at talking10 hope you’ve found family, happiness and all you’ve hope for this holiday season. But, this is the season of giving gifts and receiving them too.

Gifts under the tree, the surprise of a favorite toy wanted and who can forget the pink bunny suit, right?

While we are all busy giving and receiving gifts amongst our families, we thought it time to also hand out gifts to every team in the Big Ten.

We started with the East division, now its time to head to the West for some equally awesome gifts.

 

Illinois Fighting Illini

Growth…growth…and more growth.

There’s little doubt that Lovie Smith decided to tear down the rickety house he inherited and start building something of his own in 2017. On the field, the results were less than pretty, but that’s not what this season was about for Illini football.

After all, they played the most freshman in the country this year. So, as we head to 2018 we’re going to give the gift of growth for all that youth Smith decided to play.

It’s one thing to play young players and expect a bad season, but it has to lead to growth for the next year or the Smith era could come to an abrupt end. The good news is that I believe Smith and the coaching staff are in a good position to take advantage of the experience the young players got.

Some extra time in the weight room and in the film room is going to do a ton of good this offseason. Does Smith have the quarterback he needs in Cam Thomas? He certainly wasn’t ready in terms of the pass game, but there’s no denying he’s a dynamic threat with his feet.

Thomas should grow leaps and bounds as a passer this offseason. We should also see growth from talented freshman running back Mike Epstein and perhaps most importantly an offensive line that started three freshmen as well.

Defensively, end Bobby Roundtree has the potential to be great and it showed up on the stat sheet this season. He was sixth on the team with 50 tackles and put up 4 tackles for loss to go with 4 sacks as well. On a team that only mustered 19 sacks in total, that’s a dominating number and certainly a good base to build on.

We’re guessing Illinois gamble on freshmen pays off in 2018 with a bowl berth, as Smith will take this past season and mold this young team in the offseason. So, how is that for a present under your tree?

Iowa Hawkeyes

Having the longest-standing head coach in Big Ten football, it’s hard to get this program anything it hasn’t already gotten.

So, we’re actually going to re-gift something to the Hawkeyes this year. That gift will be quarterback Nate Stanley.

As far as first season’s go, it is hard to say this wasn’t one that gives confidence for the future. Yes, there were inconsistent performances, but Stanley also showed a lot of promise. He finished the season completing 56 percent of his passes for 2,338 yards and 25 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions.

The good news is that he took care of the football and could go off in big games. The bad news is that he also struggled mightily against some really good defenses. That whole 8 of 24 for 41 yards day against Wisconsin sticks out like a sore thumb.

Luckily, all of it happened in his first season and it was a great one to build on. The offensive line will get better and it appears the wide receiver group is going to receive a boost thanks to a good recruiting crop over the past two cycles.

It all adds up to the Hawkeyes offense having the pieces to help reverse a trend of mediocrity following the heights of a West division title two seasons ago now.

Minnesota Gophers

This one is easy — a 26-man recruiting class should be all the Gophers faithful need to see under their tree this season. Amazingly, that’s exactly what they got.

Well that and the highest ranked recruiting class in school history, as P.J. Fleck’s first full class sits at No. 30 as we head towards February’s signing day. He’s gotten a hold of some of the best recruits in Minnesota after seeing plenty of them leak away during the Jerry Kill era.

It all started with landing a late commitment from No. 1 ranked JUCO quarterback Vic Viramontes from Riverside Community College. He should take over the starting role immediately and to top it off, Fleck got the starting quarterback at IMG Academy, Zack Annexstad, to take a preferred walk-on role in order to return home to the state of Minnesota.

Fleck got his immediate answer and long-term help at quarterback alone.

But, the fun didn’t stop there as Fleck went out and got two quality options at wide receiver in Rashod Bateman and speedster Jornell Manns. Add in two of Annexstad’s blockers at IMG Academy and you have the makings of a transformed offense in the coming years.

Defensively, the Gophers added some real talent in 3-star defensive end Alex Reigelsperger along with Chicago defensive tackle Elijah Teague. As you can see, this class hit all the needs in the best possible way. The only question is just how quickly can Fleck get these kids up to speed and in to the mix.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

Just like the Gophers, we’re pretty sure you already know your gift well here. His name is Scott Frost and the prodigal son has returned to the Huskers program to save it from near obscurity.

We really don’t know what else to get you that will bring back the glory days you, as Huskers fans, have been desperate for for nearly 20 years now.

Of course, just bringing in Frost won’t guarantee all will be right with the Huskers wold in 2018. But, his hire is a step in the right direction towards healing a frustrated fan base and bring in innovative football that will change things on the field.

Can Frost immediately challenge the likes of Northwestern and Wisconsin at the top of the division? That certainly would be a great gift to give, but there are so many holes to fill that it’s hard to see a one-year turnaround happening. That doesn’t mean things won’t head in a positive direction though.

Northwestern Wildcats

We’ve talked a ton of football and handed out football gifts so far. That stops here, as Northwestern fans unwrap a brand new basketball-themed gift.

That gift is a consistent basketball team in Big Ten play.

Expectations have never been higher in Evanston regarding basketball. That was bound to happen when you not only get to your first NCAA tournament, but reach the round of 32 in the process. Oh, and when most of that team returns for another go at it.

The results against those expectations have been mixed at best. While a 9-5 record is a far cry from what NU teams of the past may have produced in non-conference play, Northwestern wants to be in the hunt for a Big Ten title this year.

So far, they’ve failed against every big challenge faced — losing to Creighton, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech, Purdue and Oklahoma. Only an overtime win against Illinois stands as a somewhat quality win for this program.

There’s a long way to go towards proving last season wasn’t a fluke. Luckily there’s the talent around to right the ship. We fully expect we’ll see a team that makes a run towards a second-straight NCAA berth, as conference play will be kinder to them than the non-conference season.

Purdue Boilermakers

One starting quarterback. That should do it for the gifts under the tree in Boilermaker land. Well, that and perhaps a Big Ten basketball championship. Unfortunately, I don’t see the latter happening and we wouldn’t want to give a gift you’d have to take back only to find out it is beyond its refund time, now would we?

So, we’ll stick with football and the Brohm era kicking off to a great start. Going 6-6 and making a bowl game in your first year? It had the attention of so-called bigger programs in the SEC, but Brohm wasn’t going anywhere and may not for awhile if the rebuild goes as smoothly as the first season did.

One area that could’ve actually helped the program move forward would’ve been the ability to find a starting quarterback and stick with said player. Whether it was through bad play, injuries or feel of the game, Purdue’s two-quarterback system just didn’t work as well as there was potential for the pass game to work.

Things should settle down at the quarterback position in 2018 though, as David Blough graduates and Elijah Sindelar will be a redshirt junior in 2018. It should be his job to lose, but Sindelar needs to improve if the Boilermakers want to really compete in a wide-open West division next year.

Sindelar completed just 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,703 yards and 14 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. There’s certainly room for improvement and there could be a challenge from Brohm’s first hand-picked quarterback in 3-star freshman Jack Plummer (no relation to former Denver Broncos QB Jake Plummer).

It is Sindelar’s job to win, but if he can’t show more consistency, then we may see a challenger jump up to take the job.

Wisconsin Badgers

Jack Coan at quarterback, that’s what we’re giving to Badgers fans this Christmas.

While Alex Hornibrook has been serviceable, he isn’t the quarterback that will get the Badgers to the next level. That level is winning a Big Ten championship and competing for a national title.

Hornibrook completed 61.6 percent of his passes, which was nice. But, he only threw for 2,386 yards and had 21 touchdowns to a whopping 15 interceptions. That last stat was the biggest problem, as a number of them stopped promising drives and/or ended up in pick sixes.

By the end of the season Hornibrook couldn’t be counted on to win a game on his own. He was just 19 of 41 for 229 yards no touchdowns to 2 interceptions in the Big Ten title game alone. It was a microcosm of a season where he played well at times and nearly cost his team games at other times.

It wasn’t a one-year trend either, as this has been Hornibrook’s trend for the past two seasons. At this point, he is who is is and he certainly isn’t the answer…unless he finds a way to immediately fix things that have been long term problems.

That brings us to finding a better answer.

Is Coan that guy? He showed a strong arm and some big time confidence in his first season in the program. Enough of it that head coach Paul Chryst didn’t redshirt him and got him some game experience in his true freshman season. He was 5 of 5 for 36 yards in limited action, but looked good when asked to throw the ball.

We’ll give the Badger faithful the gift of a quarterback battle that Coan ultimately wins for Christmas this season.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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