Led by Iowa’s unexpected resurgence, the Big Ten West is challenging the popular narrative that the East would be by far the dominant division in the conference.
West teams combined to win four of five crossover games last weekend and are 6-5 against the East with two matchups left.
The West’s signature win is Nebraska’s 39-38 victory over Michigan State last week. The upset by what was then the 3-6 Cornhuskers put a huge dent into the previously unbeaten Spartans’ playoff hopes.
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The last of the crossover games are this week: Ohio State at Illinois and Nebraska at Rutgers.
A couple of West coaches don’t even acknowledge the division’s record. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz laughed when the subject was broached, and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald said he had given it no thought.
Ferentz told a reporter, ”You’re paying a lot closer attention to it than I am. We’re just trying to win the games on our schedule. That’s not easy. There are a lot of good football teams on both sides.”
The West got the best of the East last week, though, with Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska posting victories. The West’s only loss was by Minnesota, to Ohio State.
Fitzgerald, who played for Northwestern from 1993-96 and has been an assistant or head coach at the school since 2001, said he’s a Big Ten ”purist” and the whole idea of divisions is still new to him.
”I just look at it as one Big Ten. I don’t look at it as two divisions,” he said. ”I think it’s great for you guys to write about and fans to discuss it. I think the (players) look at in-division play or cross-divisional play the same – it’s Big Ten football.”
The fuel for the East’s preseason hype: Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State is defending national champion, Michigan State had won 24 of 27 games since 2013, Michigan made the biggest offseason splash by hiring Jim Harbaugh and Penn State was seen as a team on the rise under James Franklin. Maryland and Rutgers also were better than expected in their inaugural Big Ten seasons.
The West, meanwhile, had no clear-cut favorite. Wisconsin was beaten 59-0 by Ohio State in the 2014 conference championship game and, like Nebraska, was breaking in a new coach. Iowa had lost four of its last five games and Northwestern five of its last seven. Minnesota, coming off a couple eight-win seasons, was considered a dark horse.
No one foresaw Iowa’s rise. The unbeaten Hawkeyes are No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Wisconsin has overcome injury issues to win eight of nine since a season-opening loss to Alabama.
The crossover schedule itself can’t be overlooked. With each team playing six of its eight games within its division, that leaves only two crossover games, and some teams get more favorable draws than others. Iowa and Wisconsin account for four of the six West wins, against struggling Maryland (twice), Indiana and Rutgers.
The Big Ten will go to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016 with each team playing three crossover games.
The ultimate East-West matchup, of course, is the Big Ten championship game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis. The winner there likely will be one of the four College Football Playoff teams – and the one that will be most remembered.