Mills: Northwestern the team to beat in the Big Ten West

Forget Iowa and Nebraska. The team to beat in the Big Ten West this fall is Northwestern.

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Mills: Northwestern the team to beat in the Big Ten West

Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser is tackled by Iowa defense during the Iowa/Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 10, 2018. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 14-10. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser is tackled by Iowa defense during the Iowa/Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 10, 2018. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 14-10. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Lily Smith

Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser is tackled by Iowa defense during the Iowa/Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 10, 2018. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 14-10. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Lily Smith

Lily Smith

Northwestern running back Isaiah Bowser is tackled by Iowa defense during the Iowa/Northwestern football game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, November 10, 2018. The Wildcats defeated the Hawkeyes, 14-10. (Lily Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Pete Mills, Assistant Sports Editor

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The Big Ten West is set to have one of its most competitive seasons in modern history this season.

While Michigan is the clear favorite in the East, the West features several different programs that could make a run at the division championship. With veteran quarterbacks at Iowa and Nebraska, those two are dominating the conversation.

But while the preseason talk is largely centered on those two teams, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald has trouble understanding why his team — the defending division champion — is absent from the conversation.

“We’re not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn’t sexy,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s always fun to read this time of year how we stink. I should actually get better at golf because I don’t know why I coach.”

He has a point. Northwestern went undefeated against other Big Ten West teams last season, and the program has posted a 26-9 record in the last four years. What was once a backstop in the conference is now a perennial powerhouse.

Fitzgerald lost some key pieces from last year’s team, but the program could make greater strides this season. Northwestern graduated its quarterback with the most all-time wins — four-year starter Clayton Thorson went to the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. That absence will be felt.

But this could make way even brighter years in Evanston: Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson is eligible to take snaps for the Wildcats this fall. The five-star recruit ranked as the No. 2 quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class, according to Rivals. He’s fast, and he has a big arm. When Teddy Greenstein of the <i>Chicago Tribune</i> asked if he could’ve beaten out phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence had he stayed at Clemson, Johnson replied yes.

RELATED: Iowa special teams locked in position battles 

The Wildcats’ schedule will give them an edge in Big Ten play as well. Northwestern takes on Stanford right off the bat this fall, and the Cardinal are expected to be a strong contender in the Pac-12. While ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Stanford a 74.6 percent chance to take down Northwestern in Week 1, gaining top-notch experience right away could be a difference-maker for Fitzgerald and Company.

“It’s nothing new,” Fitzgerald said. “Last year, I stood up here, and we had to go on the road and play Purdue [in Week 1]. It’s nothing new for us to have a challenge in the opener.”

Iowa will head to Evanston on Oct. 26 to take on Northwestern this year. The Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West title at Kinnick Stadium a year ago, a fact Iowa fans would like to forget. A few costly mistakes — fumbles on the final two drives of the game — cost Iowa in the 14-10 loss. While the Hawkeyes need to move on from last season’s upsetting moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss Northwestern this season.

“We’re not where we want to be yet,” Fitzgerald said. “Getting to Indianapolis was the next natural step for our program … But to step into Lucas Oil for the first time was exactly what I had hoped it would be for our guys. And obviously, the goal is to eventually win it.”