clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

THE RACE IS ON: BREAKING DOWN THE BATTLE FOR THE BIG TEN WEST

New, 16 comments

Taking a look at the four teams vying for the Big Ten West crown.

Matthew Holst

The Big Ten West title race is everything the Big Ten dreamed it would be when they set up the new divisions and crafted this year's schedule.  Entering the final four weeks of the regular season, four teams are basically neck-and-neck in the race for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis a month from now: Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  Each team has one loss and each team has at least three wins (Nebraska has four, giving them a slight edge on the other challengers).  That the four challengers are all part of the Big Ten's new quadrangle of hate (Nebraska-Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota) just makes things even better -- there's plenty of history and bad blood between most of these teams already; adding a potential Big Ten Championship Game to the mix is only going to make the games even better.

The Big Ten schedule was also set up in such a way that none of the contenders have played one another in a game yet this season, thus loading up November with critical head-to-head clashes.  The first showdown is this weekend, with Iowa facing Minnesota.  Wisconsin hosts Nebraska next weekend and the winner of those two games will have pole position in the West race.  But with a total of four more games in the round robin challenge between these four teams, there will still be opportunities for shake-ups -- or spoilers -- in the race to Indianapolis.  Let's break down the four challengers for the Big Ten West crown.

Most stats drawn from cfbstats; Sagarin rankings available here and F/+ rankings available here.

NEBRASKA (8-1, 4-1)

Sagarin: 17
F/+: 24.4% (14)

OFFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 7.50% 32
PPG 40.4 12
YPG 490.6 21
Pass YPG 209.9 83
Rush YPG 280.7 8

DEFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 13.20% 16
PPG 19.7 16
YPG 339.8 25
Pass YPG 216 48
Rush YPG 123.8 25

SPECIAL TEAMS

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 3.70% 7
FG 10/15 83
Punting 40.7 77
KO Ret 19.9 78
Punt Ret 13.6 17
Opp KO Ret 20.2 55
Opp Punt Ret 8.1 67

TURNOVERS

CAT TOTAL RANK
Fumb Forced 6 84
Fumb Recov 3 107
Fumb Lost 7 76
INT Forced 11 16
INT Thrown 8 65

THE SCHEDULE

DATE OPP
11/8 BYE
11/15 at WIS
11/22 MIN
11/28 at IOWA

WHY THEY COULD DO IT

Unlike Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, Nebraska already has another win in the bank -- and it's always nice to have that win in hand, rather than still needing to go out and secure it.  Nebraska also might have the best player in the Big Ten this year (RB Ameer Abdullah), which is always a nice ace in the hole.  They also have a pretty stingy defense (they've only given up more than 17 ppg twice in Big Ten play).

WHY THEY WON'T DO IT

Having the best player in the Big Ten is only a plus if you're able to use him effectively -- and Abdullah's health is a concern after he was forced to leave last week's game with Purdue with an MCL strain.  Pelini said that he expects Abdullah to be back at full strength when Nebraska plays Wisconsin next weekend, and he'd better be right for Nebraska's sake.  The schedule is also a bit unfriendly to Nebraska, as their two toughest remaining games (against Wisconsin and Iowa) are both on the road.

IOWA (6-2, 3-1)

Sagarin: 37
F/+: 8.9% (41)

OFFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ -1.30% 68
PPG 29.6 65
YPG 400.5 70
Pass YPG 244.9 57
Rush YPG 155.6 72

DEFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 9.90% 24
PPG 20 18
YPG 322.8 18
Pass YPG 185.4 16
Rush YPG 137.4 38

SPECIAL TEAMS

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 0.30% 59
FG 9/13 74
Punting 38.4 112
KO Ret 26.5 5
Punt Ret 4.1 116
Opp KO Ret 16.3 7
Opp Punt Ret 7.4 58

TURNOVERS

CAT TOTAL RANK
Fumb Forced 4 105
Fumb Recov 3 107
Fumb Lost 7 76
INT Forced 10 27
INT Thrown 4 15

THE SCHEDULE

DATE OPP
11/8 at MIN
11/15 at ILL
11/22 WIS
11/28 NEB

WHY THEY COULD DO IT

The efficiency rankings are not especially bullish on Iowa because they've been so inconsistent (and downright poor at times), but there have been glimpses of a very good team at times (especially last week).  If Iowa can prove that last week's level of play wasn't a fluke, they're going to have an excellent shot to claim a spot in Indianapolis.  Iowa's pass defense has evolved into a very solid unit and it's unlikely to be challenged much by upcoming opponents.  The schedule is also relatively kind to Iowa -- Illinois is one of the best non-round robin opponents Iowa could have drawn for their remaining game and they get their two toughest opponents (Wisconsin and Nebraska) at home and with no travel between those games.

WHY THEY WON'T DO IT

"Glimpses" of a very good team do not a very good team make and this Iowa team has to prove it's put its inconsistency behind it if it's going to mount a serious challenge for the Big Ten West crown.  We're in "wait and see" mode on that front.  The inconsistency issue is most pressing on offense because Iowa figures to face its stiffest tests of the year with their upcoming opponents (namely, Wisconsin and Nebraska) and if the offense isn't able to move the ball or score points there, things could get ugly.  Speaking of inconsistency... Iowa's run defense still has a good ranking overall, but memories of the rushing clinics that Indiana and Maryland put on Iowa are still fresh and Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska will all be bringing high-caliber running attacks to bear on Iowa's defense.

MINNESOTA (6-2, 3-1)

Sagarin: 49
F/+: 6.2% (45)

OFFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ -2.00% 70
PPG 28.1 76
YPG 356.5 108
Pass YPG 140.5 122
Rush YPG 216 32

DEFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 5.90% 43
PPG 22.3 37
YPG 351.6 36
Pass YPG 207.4 40
Rush YPG 144.3 49


SPECIAL TEAMS

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 2.30% 19
FG 8/11 64
Punting 44.1 19
KO Ret 24.4 14
Punt Ret 10.3 40
Opp KO Ret 19 32
Opp Punt Ret 7 53

TURNOVERS

CAT TOTAL RANK
Fumb Forced 10 21
Fumb Recov 8 32
Fumb Lost 7 76
INT Forced 11 16
INT Thrown 7 55

THE SCHEDULE

DATE OPP
11/8 IOWA
11/15 OHIO ST
11/22 at NEB
11/29 at WIS

WHY THEY COULD DO IT

David Cobb gets possessed by the ghosts of Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber III and runs for 200 yards per game, allowing the Gopher offense to play an elaborate game of keep-away from opposing offenses?  Mitch Leidner gets possessed by the ghost of Fran Tarkenton and he becomes a running, throwing dual-threat whirling dervish behind center?  The Gophers use superior punting and timely turnovers to force some surprising upsets?  This is tricky...

WHY THEY WON'T DO IT

...because the reality is that the Gophers just don't appear to be as good as the other three teams in this round robin title chase.  In a lot of ways, the Gophers look like a worse version of Iowa, albeit with better special teams and a stronger running game.  But they're worse on defense in every category, despite playing a schedule that rates out even easier than Iowa's schedule.  And the passing game is a glaring red flag for Minnesota -- if the Gophers are forced to throw the ball, it's impossible to have much confidence in Leidner.  The schedule does the Gophers no favors, either -- after this weekend's home game with Iowa, the Gophers host a very good Ohio State team in their home finale, then head on the road to face Nebraska and Wisconsin in their final two games.  That's brutal.  It's a credit to Jerry Kill & Co. that he's been able to keep Minnesota in the title race this late in the season, but it's hard to imagine them keeping pace with the leaders for very much longer.

WISCONSIN (6-2, 3-1)

Sagarin: 14
F/+: 18.9% (24)

OFFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 5.10% 39
PPG 37.1 17
YPG 477 25
Pass YPG 143.6 121
Rush YPG 333.4 3

DEFENSE

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ 14.20% 12
PPG 14.1 3
YPG 253.8 1
Pass YPG 150.9 3
Rush YPG 102.9 11

SPECIAL TEAMS

CAT TOTAL RANK
F/+ -0.40% 81
FG 10/13 48
Punting 37.9 116
KO Ret 22.5 41
Punt Ret 12 25
Opp KO Ret 20.5 60
Opp Punt Ret 11.9 112

TURNOVERS

CAT TOTAL RANK
Fumb Forced 5 95
Fumb Recov 5 76
Fumb Lost 3 8
INT Forced 5 101
INT Thrown 9 77

THE SCHEDULE

DATE OPP
11/8 at PUR
11/15 NEB
11/22 at IOWA
11/29 MINN

WHY THEY COULD DO IT

No matter who the coach is, no matter who the big uglies up front are, no matter who the guys running behind them are, Wisconsin just keep doing what Wisconsin do: running the dang ball.  And this year they do it better than anyone (non-triple option teams division).  The only game the Badgers have run for less than 200 yards was, bizarrely, against Western Illinois -- let's just assume they ate some bad cheese that day.  They've run for more than 250 yards in every other game this season, eclipsing 300 yards on three occasions (and coming damn close two other times). Standing in the way of another trip to the Big Ten Championship Game are three run defenses that are good, but not elite.  The Badgers also boast some sterling defensive stats -- teams haven't been able to move the ball on them, let alone score points.  A stout defense and a strong running game will win you a lot of games in football.

WHY THEY WON'T DO IT

Those defensive stats are eye-popping, but they should also be taken with a grain of salt -- Wisconsin has played a weaker schedule than any of the other round robin teams to this point and they haven't exactly faced many fearsome offenses.  The best offenses they've seen were probably a very callow LSU outfit in the season opener, a Wes Lunt-less Illinois squad, and the Terps.  They've looked good in mauling Maryland and Rutgers over the last two weeks and they may be trending up, but there are still question marks here.  And atop that list of question marks -- the passing game, which is as bad as Minnesota's.  The Badger special teams haven't been anything special this year, either.  If you can slow down their running game -- an admittedly big if -- the Badgers can be beaten.

THE PICK

Nebraska has a win in hand on the rest of their challengers and Iowa has the best remaining schedule (by a hair), but Wisconsin looks like they're rounding into top form at the best possible moment.  Weak competition or not, their defense has been downright beastly and their running game is terrifying (as usual).  They host two of three games in the round robin challenge and on paper match up very well against Iowa, their road opponent (Wisconsin's rush offense versus Iowa's rush defense?  Gulp).  That's enough for me to tab them the favorites in the West -- for now.