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Who is Wisconsin’s toughest challenger in the Big Ten West?

Our latest roundtable looks down the road at rivals who could give the Badgers fits.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Though Wisconsin was picked overwhelmingly by the media to win the Big Ten West, which division challenger could give the Badgers a run for their money?

Owen Riese: To me, it’s between three teams. I know, what a cop out. While I’d love to include Iowa, they simply lose too much from an offense that was pretty inadequate a year ago to truly contend. Nebraska is switching to the 3-4 defens, and will have a competent thrower at quarterback this year in Tulane transfer Tanner Lee. They could be sneaky good. Northwestern will continue to be a pain in the butt for Wisconsin, as the Wildcats have future NFLers at quarterback and running back. However, the biggest pain is going to be the Ski-U-Mah Boatrowers. PJ Fleck, as easy as he is to hate, is a good coach. The Gophers will enter the 21st century in offensive philosophy, and I expect Minnesota to be scrappy as all hell, week in and week out. Go Skol yourselves, Minnesota, imo.

Ryan Mellenthin: I have to go with Northwestern. Year after year, they prove to be a huge thorn in Wisconsin’s side, and given the weapons they have returning, Jim Leonhard’s defense will have to be up to task to take them down. The Wildcats are returning the Big Ten’s fourth-leading passer in Clayton Thorson and the Big Ten’s leading rusher in Justin Jackson. However, Austin Carr has left Evanston, so the passing lanes will be slightly easier to defend. Wisconsin is 2–2 against the Wildcats over the past four seasons but squares off against them at home in 2017 following a Northwestern bye week. Apart from Northwestern, Minnesota could be on the rise, but I think they will be rowing their boat for a bit before they reach open water.

Kevin O’Connell: As is the case almost every year, Northwestern will be a very tough out for the Badgers. The game is played at Camp Randall this year, which is good news, but the Wildcats return a 3,000-yard passer in Thorson and Jackson, the Big Ten’s leading rusher in 2016. Even with the departure of Anthony Walker, Pat Fitzgerald’s defense returns eight starters and will be a challenge for Wisconsin’s offensive attack. It is also worth noting that “Chicago’s Big Ten team” has the luxury of a bye week before traveling to Madison on Sept. 30.

Neal Olson: Typing the following is like an Axe in the back, but I have to say Minnesota. The Gophers have a pretty talented roster, and as much as I cannot get behind their outboard-motor-challenged, huckster head coach, there seems to be a different feel to the program. All the Minnesota players at Big Ten media days downplayed questions about the Axe, noting the lesser importance of one rivalry game compared to an entire season. The Badgers would be wise to not overlook the Gophers in the final regular-season game in which they will hopefully have a lot more on the line than retaining the Axe.

Ryan Timmerman: You know how during political debates, candidates are asked questions but don’t necessarily answer the question asked as much as they answer the question they want to answer? That’s what I’m gonna do here. The answer is Iowa. The Hawkeyes probably won’t challenge for the top spot in the division... but for the rest of eternity, I will answer this question (or, you know, questions that I turn into this question) the same way. It doesn’t matter how good or bad either Wisconsin or Iowa is, it’ll always be one of the biggest game on the schedule. It always seems to be a tough, tense game. If you boil a Wisconsin sports season down to its most concentrated level, there are three games that matter: the Wisconsin/Iowa football game and the two Wisconsin/Iowa basketball games. If Bucky’s only football win was against Iowa, there’s still reason to get out of bed in the morning. Conversely, if the Badgers were to win a national championship but somehow lose to Iowa that season, you might as well give them a big, shiny asterisk as their championship trophy. So, yeah, the Iowa game matters a little bit.