Mandel’s Big Ten picks: Expect an ugly but damn entertaining West race

Surely it’s no surprise I’m picking Ohio State to not only win the conference but run the table, with Michigan State right behind the Buckeyes. The more interesting question in the Big Ten is who will win the less-glamorous West.

I do fear the Badgers might take a step back in coach Paul Chryst’s first season. Gary Andersen made some structural and philosophical changes to the program that Barry Alvarez/Bret Bielema disciple Chryst is now attempting to undo. His offensive line and defensive front are both inexperienced. Still, with a schedule that includes Maryland and Rutgers as crossover opponents it’s hard to envision the Badgers losing more than two conference games.

Minnesota, which went 5-3 in league play last season, has improved every year under coach Jerry Kill, and I initially thought this year might be his best opportunity to win the division, what with Nebraska and Wisconsin both undergoing coaching transitions. But an already limited offense must replace 1,600-yard rusher David Cobb and stud tight end Maxx Williams. The Gophers may plateau a bit.

And then there’s Nebraska. I have the utmost respect for coach Mike Riley, but he seems set up for a rough first season. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong does not possess the skill set of Riley’s customary pro-style protégés. The defense lacks obvious playmakers outside of tackle Maliek Collins. With non-conference games against BYU and Miami and early-to-mid October dates with Wisconsin and Minnesota, it’s not inconceivable the Huskers will start 3-4.

So I’m going with a fairly unoriginal pick: Wisconsin. But I expect the West champ won’t finish better than 9-3.

ALSO: Bruce Feldman’s Big Ten preview and picks

A few other thoughts:

–Unless Iowa transfer Jake Rudock comes in and makes a mammoth development step, expectations for Jim Harbaugh’s first Michigan season are modest. A tough non-conference slate of Utah, Oregon State and BYU might keep the Wolverines from cracking .500.

POWER 5 CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

–Penn State should improve in coach James Franklin’s second season, and a comical early schedule makes a 6-0 start possible. (I have the Nittany Lions losing at Temple.) But this is still a sanction-depleted roster that could wear down late.

–Northwestern, coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons, could be a surprise team. The Wildcats might go 2-2 in non-conference play, what with Stanford and a trip to Duke, but all five Big Ten home/neutral games — Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State, Purdue and Illinois — are winnable.

–The season could well end with as many as four Big Ten coaches — Illinois’ Tim Beckman, Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, Purdue’s Darrell Hazell and Maryland’s Randy Edsall — losing their jobs. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz hits the 7-win mark he needs to prolong his tenure for eternity.

Predicted standings:

EAST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Ohio State 12-0 (8-0)
Michigan State 11-1 (7-1)
Penn State 7-5 (4-4)
Michigan 6-6 (4-4)
Rutgers 6-6 (2-6)
Maryland 5-7 (2-6)
Indiana 5-7 (2-6)

WEST

TEAM RECORD (LEAGUE)
Wisconsin 9-3 (6-2)
Minnesota 8-4 (5-3)
Northwestern 7-5 (5-3)
Nebraska 7-5 (4-4)
Iowa 7-5 (4-4)
Purdue 4-8 (2-6)
Illinois 4-8 (1-7)

Championship: Ohio State over Wisconsin

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.