With Big Ten West in flux, Wisconsin embraces its identity
CHICAGO (AP) While the Big Ten East gets all the attention, with the defending national champions at Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh-mania at Michigan, the conference's western division is mostly in flux.
Perennial powers Wisconsin and Nebraska have new coaches. Longtime coaches at Northwestern and Iowa are trying to rediscover their mojo. Illinois is rebuilding while dealing with off-the-field issues. Purdue is practically starting from scratch and Minnesota is trying to show it can maintain its status as a division contender under coach Jerry Kill.
''No one really knows what to expect from anyone in the West,'' Illinois offensive lineman Ted Karras said Thursday during the first round of Big Ten media days.
Well, not exactly. Despite a new coach, the departure of a record-breaking running back and rebuilt lines, the Badgers still know exactly what they want to be. And they are still the favorites to repeat as division champions.
''There is no, just, cookie-cutter way you go recruit, but I think it is important to have an identity,'' new Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. ''And kids, when they know what that place is about, stands for, even the style that they play, if they like it they come. It's about fits.''
The Madison-native and former offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema spent three seasons at Pittsburgh before returning home to replace Gary Andersen, who abruptly left Wisconsin for Oregon State.
During Chryst's time at Wisconsin, the Badgers produced six of the 10 best offenses in school history in yards per game.
''The transition back to Coach Chryst into the program, it's been smooth, because that's his philosophies. He molds his coaching philosophies off the traditions he learned at Wisconsin,'' safety Michael Caputo said.
The Badgers bring back starting quarterback Joel Stave, who overcame a case of the yips last year to regain his throwing touch, and Corey Clement, who replaces Melvin Gordon as the Badgers' next star running back. Clement has averaged 7.0 yards per carry in two seasons as a backup.
Both the offensive and defensive lines will need to plug in new starters, so the Badgers might have a tough time repeating last year's 11-3 season. Still, there are plenty of reasons to believe they will avoid a major drop off.
There is less certainty at Nebraska, where Mike Riley is now the coach after a long run at Oregon State.
At Iowa, Kirk Ferentz enters his 17th season, six years removed from the last time the Hawkeyes won double-digit games.
During the best seasons of Ferentz's tenure, Iowa's identity has been similar to Wisconsin's. The Hawkeyes were rugged, efficient and built on a sturdy group of three-star recruits.
Ferentz said that without overwhelming depth and talent, Iowa will usually play with a relatively small margin for error. Last season, while going 7-6, he said the attention to detail was lacking.
''At our place, pretty much week in and week out, we need to be on task,'' Ferentz said.
Pat Fitzgerald is in his 10th season leading his alma mater Northwestern, which is coming off two straight losing seasons. The Wildcats were among the first Big Ten teams to dedicate themselves to an up-tempo style. That along with an uncanny ability to win close games helped the Wildcats go to bowls five straight years under Fitzgerald, including a 10-3 season in 2012.
The Wildcats have won 10 games since and last season the offense was among the worst in the Big Ten.
''That type of offense, when it works it's a Picasso,'' Fitzgerald said in an interview Wednesday. ''But when it doesn't work, it is as ugly as ugly can be.''
Fitzgerald said Northwestern needs to be able create more big plays, get its quarterback more involved in the running game and win more of those one-score games that have gone the other way the past two seasons.
''You win those games in the offseason,'' Fitzgerald said.
And by knowing who you are and what you do best - the way Wisconsin does.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP