clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Making Sense of the Muddled Big Ten West

Somebody has to win the West. Why not Iowa?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing how much can change in two weeks. Two Mondays ago, Iowa was sitting pretty in the Big Ten West after the Hawkeyes’ 15-6 victory over Wisconsin left them in first place in the division. With Iowa holding the tiebreaker over Wisconsin and having knocked the Badgers’ starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai out for the foreseeable future with a broken hand, Iowa appeared to have a stranglehold over a West division without another team capable of mounting a real challenge, even with Iowa being extremely one-dimensional thanks to its defective offense.

Two weeks later, Iowa’s standing in the West is significantly less certain. The Hawkeyes’ loss to Minnesota has thrown them back into a four-way tie for first place in the division, with one of those contenders (the Gophers) now holding a tiebreaker over Iowa by virtue of winning Floyd of Rosedale. Additionally, Wisconsin does not appear to be fading despite losing their quarterback to injury. The Badgers completed a furious 4th quarter comeback to beat Illinois two weeks ago and managed to play a surprisingly competitive game against Ohio State during Week 10. The more reps freshman quarterback Braedyn Locke takes in as the leader of Wisconsin’s offense, and the formidable the Badgers look as a potential contender to win the division.

Iowa also faces unexpected competition from Nebraska, a team who most people wrote off after blowout losses to Michigan and Colorado and yet another late-game collapse in their season opener against Minnesota. The Huskers are currently riding their first three-game win streak since 2016 on the strength of one of the best rushing defenses in the country and have looked like a completely different team over the past month. Whether this turnaround can be attributed to the team maturing under Matt Rhule’s leadership or the Huskers benefitting from playing the three weakest programs in the Big Ten West during this stretch, Nebraska has earned its way into the conversation of contending teams for the divisional title. Finally, while Northwestern remains a longshot to win the West, the Wildcats are a surprisingly frisky 4-4 on the season and are only one game back in the division after their upset victory over Maryland on Saturday. Iowa’s upcoming game against Northwestern in Wrigley Field, which most analysts viewed as a near guaranteed victory for the black and gold, may end up being far more competitive than Hawkeye fans would prefer.

The Big Ten West is undoubtedly having a down year, and it’s unlikely that any team in the division could beat one of the top three teams from the East in the conference title game without catching several lucky breaks. However, the race to win the West should at least provide some significant drama in the waning weeks of the season. Looking at the schedules of the remaining teams that can still reasonably be said to be in contention (apologies to Illinois and Purdue), it is easy to picture a world where Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska each lose one more game before the end of the season, producing yet another four-way tie that will have to be untangled to determine which team will represent the division in Indianapolis.

Remaining Games of Big Ten West Contenders

Team Week 10 Opponent Week 11 Opponent Week 12 Opponent Week 13 Opponent
Team Week 10 Opponent Week 11 Opponent Week 12 Opponent Week 13 Opponent
Iowa @Northwestern Rutgers Illinois @Nebraska
Minnesota Illinois @Purdue @Ohio State Wisconsin
Nebraska @Michigan State Maryland @Wisconsin Iowa
Northwestern Iowa @Wisconsin Purdue @Illinois
Wisconsin @Indiana Northwestern Nebraska @Minnesota

Iowa is certainly capable of beating all the remaining teams on its schedule, but another offensive performance similar to what Iowa showed against Minnesota could also make any of these games losable as well. Minnesota is basically guaranteed a loss when they travel to Columbus in Week 12 but should be favored in each of their next two games, with their home tilt against Wisconsin serving as the Gophers’ most pivotal game remaining. Nebraska has as much variance as any team in the division with their remaining schedule; if the Huskers are as good as their past three games suggest, they could end up with three or four wins in the month of November. However, if their recent turnaround is fool’s gold rather than a sign of genuine improvement, a three-game losing streak to end the season is also very much in play. Northwestern will likely struggle on the road against Wisconsin, but if they can find a way to beat the Badgers or defeat Iowa in their neutral site game this week, they could still make a run at the divisional crown, though earning bowl eligibility would frankly be an impressive feat for the Wildcats given the turmoil their program experienced this offseason. Finally, while Wisconsin may have the easiest schedule of the five since it gets both Nebraska and Northwestern at home, they do have a road game at Minnesota to end the season, which is the same game that ultimately cost them a Big Ten West championship in 2021.

Ultimately, Iowa’s best chance to win the West is just to win out, though that may require them to make some meaningful strides on offense. Nothing about Kirk Ferentz’s 25 years as Iowa’s head coach suggests that the team made wholesale changes on offense during its bye week, and the coaching staff’s comments on the quarterback situation don’t make a Joe Labas appearance appear likely barring an injury to current starting quarterback Deacon Hill. However, Iowa would still benefit immensely if it can improve on the margins. Iowa’s running game propelled the team to much-needed victories against Purdue and Wisconsin, and finding a way to get the ground attack going again after a poor performance against Minnesota would at least give Iowa a chance to sustain a few drives per game, which may be enough to win most matchups given the strength of the Hawkeye defense. Meanwhile, while Deacon Hill is not likely to transform in Caleb Williams or Michael Penix Jr. overnight, Iowa fans can hope that his week off game him a chance to step back and reevaluate some of his recurring mistakes, including his struggles identifying pressure and tendency to get through his reads too slowly. Iowa’s coaches also would benefit from scheming up passing plays which cater to Hill’s strengths and give him opportunities to make more easy throws. While Hill has been extremely inefficient this season, he has looked better throwing to the middle of the field than trying to hit receivers on the sidelines, which is something Iowa’s coaches could potentially look to capitalize on by dialing up more slant or drag routes against Northwestern.

Iowa’s chances of winning the West may be worse than they were two weeks ago, but this goal is by no means out of reach. If the Hawkeyes can win their remaining four games, they should have an extremely good chance punching their ticket to Indianapolis. One more stumble akin to the Minnesota loss, however, will leave Iowa hoping the chaos and unpredictability of the West happens to break in their favor.