Wisconsin has played in three Big Ten championship games and two Rose Bowls the last four years, and Nebraska has won 70 percent of its games since 2008.
Both have new coaches who’ve spent the spring getting to know their players and teaching them new ways of doing things. Unlike most first-year coaches who are tasked with rebuilding downtrodden programs, Paul Chryst and Mike Riley are expected to keep the wins coming at a high rate without missing a beat.
Does that make the job more difficult?
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”You can look at it that way, and I get that,” Wisconsin’s Chryst said Wednesday.
Chryst, offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2005-11 before going to Pittsburgh as head coach for three seasons, returned after Gary Andersen left for Oregon State. Chryst said he can’t allow himself to get caught up in what happened in the past.
”Good coaching,” he said, ”is finding a way to help this group of players, this team, be the best it can be.”
Riley left Oregon State to take over at Nebraska, where Bo Pelini never won fewer than nine games in his seven seasons. Riley was hired with the hope he can take the program to a higher level and bring home a conference title for the first time since 1999.
”You don’t go into this thing naive about what Nebraska football means and what the expectations are,” Riley said.
A look around the West, in order of 2014 finish:
WISCONSIN (11-3, 7-1 Big Ten)
What we know: QB Joel Stave will be the starter going into the fall and RB Cory Clement is a more-than-capable replacement for 2,500-yard rusher Melvin Gordon.
What we don’t know: If the offensive line will be as dominant as usual with three new starters and a returning center (Dan Voltz) who’s coming off injury.
Coach Paul Chryst says: ”I’ve personally enjoyed being back here. We’re going with these players, and really spring is about us getting a chance to get to know them and them getting to know us.”
NEBRASKA (9-4, 5-3)
What we know: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. looks to have the No. 1 job locked up and De’Mornay Pierson-El is a big-play threat every time he touches the ball as a receiver or return man.
What we don’t know: Is RB Terrell Newby the heir apparent to Ameer Abdullah, how long will it take for the offensive line to come together and can depth be built at LB and DL?
Coach Mike Riley says: ”In general, it’s a happy group, fun to work with. We had a productive spring. It gives us a lot of information to use as we go forward.”
MINNESOTA (8-5, 5-3)
What we know: Rodrick Williams is a physical runner who’s first in line to replace David Cobb, and the secondary is the strength of a defense that was second in the Big Ten in forced turnovers.
What we don’t know: Will QB Mitch Leidner improve as a passer, and how effective will the up-tempo offense implemented this spring be in the fall – or will it be used at all?
Coach Jerry Kill says: ”Coming off the (Citrus) bowl game, we had some momentum even though we lost the game. I think the momentum came with the disappointment of not winning and getting close.”
IOWA (7-6, 4-4)
What we know: QB C.J. Beathard is the starter and has no serious competition now that two-year starter Jake Rudock has transferred to Michigan.
What we don’t know: How much will the offensive line drop off with the loss of Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff, and is Jordan Canzeri ready to carry the load at RB?
Coach Kirk Ferentz says: ”We’ve had some good teaching. Our older guys are doing a good job of leading. They’ve done it in the out-of-season and they’ve done it on the field.”
ILLINOIS (6-7, 3-5)
What we know: QB Wes Lunt can be really good when he’s healthy. WR Mikey Dudek and RB Josh Ferguson are productive players, but the Illini need more of them.
What we don’t know: Will the defense be good enough to make this a team that can win more than six games? Illini were 112th in total defense and 118th against the run.
Coach Tim Beckman says: ”We’ve got to get better in every category. We’re trying to build this program to become a champion.”
NORTHWESTERN (5-7, 3-5)
What we know: Justin Jackson, who had knee surgery and missed the spring, ran for nearly 1,200 yards and heads a deep group of RBs, and LB Anthony Walker is a rising star.
What we don’t know: The identity of the starting QB. Clayton Thorson, Zack Oliver and Matt Alviti are the candidates.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald says: ”I don’t think anybody separated himself playing head and shoulders above the other two or so poorly that he won’t be considered for the starting (QB) job. Hopefully two, three weeks into camp we’ve got it solidified.”
PURDUE (3-9, 1-7)
What we know: The offensive line returns all five starters and will be the strength of the team. The defensive line must find a way to get more pressure on the QB.
What we don’t know: Who’s the QB? Danny Etling was replaced by Austin Appleby after five games last season and no one has emerged this spring.
Coach Darrell Hazell says: ”We’ve improved in all areas. We’ve become more of a football team. We have guys all going in the right direction. I couldn’t say that the first two years.”