- The Big Ten West is a lesser entity than the Big Ten East. But lesser entities can still be interesting entities, with a fascinating end-of-season finish still in store.
Year after year, the Big Ten’s best teams come out of the East division. In the four seasons since the Big Ten switched from the Legends and Leaders divisions to the current geography-friendly format, the East champion has won all four conference title games. This decade, the league has been dominated by five schools—Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State—and four of those programs are lumped together in the East.
There might not be a better way to split the conference’s 14 teams. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a criminal imbalance between East and West, an imbalance accentuated by lean years at Nebraska. In order for the two divisions to be anywhere close to equal, Nebraska needs to be as good as Penn State, and they’re nowhere close.
The Big Ten West doesn’t have the national title race stakes of the Big Ten East, but you don’t need playoff stakes to be interesting. At the midpoint of the conference schedule, four teams have a realistic chance to represent the West in the conference championship game, and the next few weeks will answer big questions surrounding each of them.
This summer, Wisconsin was expected to be the class of the division, but a buzz-killing home loss to BYU changed the narrative surrounding this year’s team before conference play even started. The Badgers bounced back with an impressive 28–17 win at Iowa the next week and handled Nebraska back at Camp Randall a week later. All the sudden, order was somewhat restored ahead of a marquee matchup under the lights at the Big House ... where Wisconsin was summarily steamrolled by Michigan in a 38–17 loss.
Sitting at 4–1 in conference play, Paul Chryst’s team still controls its own destiny thanks in large part to the win at Iowa. But getting to Indy will be anything but a cakewalk. Wisconsin travels Northwestern this week for one of those dicey 11 a.m. CT starts in Evanston. Two weeks later, the Badgers play at Penn State before another road game at Purdue, another team that suddenly has a shot to win the West (more on that later). There’s still time for this team to regain its grip on the division, but a win in Evanston on Saturday is an absolute must.
The Hawkeyes are arguably the most under-the-radar one-loss Power 5 team. Why? Their best win so far is probably Maryland. Iowa has won its last three conference games by a combined 66 points, but we still don’t have a very good idea of how good this team is.
We’ll get a better idea this week, as Iowa travels to Happy Valley for a pivotal clash with Penn State. Should the Hawkeyes win Saturday as 6.5-point underdogs, they would have a great chance to run the table over their last four games: at Purdue, vs. Northwestern, at Illinois, vs. Nebraska. They’d still need Wisconsin to lose at least once, to negate the tiebreaker from that Week 3 thriller in Iowa City. But Iowa’s path to a second Big Ten championship game in four years is relatively straightforward. It does, however, require a win over Penn State.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team got off to a 1–3 start that included the following oddities: a now-significant win at Purdue on the opening night of the season; a listless 21–7 home loss to Duke; a 39–34 home loss to Akron in a game the Wildcats led 21–3 at halftime; and a massive missed opportunity to upset Michigan in which they blew a 17–0 lead to lose 20–17. Through four games, Northwestern had scored a total of 13 second-half points. The offense, led by a senior quarterback in Clayton Thorson who was getting first-round NFL draft buzz, was toothless. The defense was meh. The season was doomed.
Then something funny happened: Thanks to a drop in opponent quality and Thorson’s growing comfort with his surgically repaired ACL, the Wildcats got hot. They bounced back from the Michigan disappointment with an upset of Michigan State in East Lansing. The next week, they took advantage of some late-game ineptitude from Nebraska to come back from 10 down with three minutes to play. That set up a trip to New Jersey to play Rutgers, the worst team in the Power 5. Northwestern made an absolute mess of things but, as Fitzgerald loves to put it, managed to go 1–0 in an 18–15 win that was even uglier than it sounds.
The three-game winning streak hasn’t been easy on the eyes, but it’s still a three-game winning streak. All of a sudden, Northwestern has a massive game on its hands on Saturday as Wisconsin comes to town—with a win, it would control its own destiny. Of course, a Nov. 10 trip to Iowa looms large, and as last week showed, this is a team that could lose to anyone on any day.
If the Boilermakers had not lost to Northwestern in maddening fashion to start the year, they would be leading the West. After coming up with a third-down stop late in the game, an inexplicable roughing the passer penalty gave the Wildcats the first down and the game. Purdue followed that up with two more tight home losses, to Eastern Michigan and Missouri. Jeff Brohm’s team has turned it around with four straight wins, including last weekend’s beatdown of Ohio State, and now looms as the team no one wants to play. The offense has scored at least 30 points in five straight games, paced by electric receiver Rondale Moore, a leading candidate to win Big Ten freshman of the year. West Lafayette is buzzing for the first time in a long time.
The problem for Purdue—and this is a sizable problem—is it lost to Northwestern and still has to play the other two teams on this list, although it does get both at home. But before that happens, the Boilermakers get Michigan State on the road this weekend in a must-win game if they intend to stay in this race.
In all likelihood, Northwestern and Purdue won’t factor much into the home stretch of this race. But in the muddled mess that is this year’s—and recent years’—Big Ten West, you just can’t count anyone out.