Scott Frost took the reins as Nebraska’s football coach in December, tasked with the job of restoring glory to the Cornhuskers. Along the way, though, Frost added another motivation: He wants to help make the Big Ten’s West Division a major player on the national stage.
“If the West isn’t as good as the East, that’s why I’m here,” a confident Frost said during Big Ten media days in late July. “I want to do my part to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore.”
What has happened is this: Since the Big Ten ditched its Legends and Leaders divisions following the 2013 season and replaced them with East and West, the East has won all four Big Ten Championship Games. Three times the Big Ten has placed a team in the College Football Playoff, and all three — Ohio State in 2014 and ’16 and Michigan State in ’15 — came from the East.
The East boasts a powerful, top-heavy quartet featuring the Buckeyes and Spartans, along with Penn State and Michigan. The West, meanwhile, hasn’t displayed as much depth at the top. Wisconsin advanced to the title game and lost to Ohio State in 2014 and ’17 and Penn State in ’16, while Iowa fell to Michigan State in ’15.
Since the new division format was adopted, the East has had nine teams finish in the Associated Press’ final top 10 to the West’s three.
The West’s best bet this season to break through for a conference title — or more — is Wisconsin. The Badgers, whose only blemish last year was a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, are ranked No. 4 in the AP preseason top 25, the highest among Big Ten teams. They return a Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor, who will operate behind what’s widely regarded as the nation’s best offensive line. Throw in a third-year starter at quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, and a defense led by All-America linebacker T.J. Edwards, and Wisconsin checks enough boxes to be considered a playoff contender.
“You’re going to have to catch them on a bad day,” said Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, whose Boilermakers hung with the Badgers in a 17-9 loss in Madison last year.
‘Respect every opponent’
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who’s fashioned a 34-7 record in his three seasons as Badgers coach, didn’t want to make comparisons between the East and West divisions.
“My view is that I think there’s some really good teams in the Big Ten, and they’re in the East or in the West, and so don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out narratives,” Chryst said. “I know who we play this year. And you respect every opponent.”
The Badgers know that respect will come by winning a Big Ten title, which they haven’t accomplished in the East-West format, falling 59-0 to Ohio State in 2014, 38-31 to Penn State in ’16 and 27-21 to Ohio State last year. Wisconsin did win Big Ten Championship Games in 2011 and ’12 in the Legends and Leaders alignment.
“In the past, we’ve been a good football team and we’ve deserved the respect. But we’ve also been in those big games and we’ve lost,” Edwards said. “We need to go out and win those big games if we want to be in those conversations.”
Coaches bring promise
Before anyone declares the Badgers Big Ten West champs, they first must navigate an improving division. Northwestern has won 10 games in two of the past three seasons. Iowa, with veteran coach Kirk Ferentz, was a win away from the College Football Playoff in 2015. Brohm guided Purdue to a four-win improvement last year. Frost, the former national title-winning quarterback for the Huskers who led Central Florida to an undefeated season last year, has pumped life into Nebraska. And though P.J. Fleck’s 5-7 Gophers debut didn’t wow the masses, he has a track record of a Cotton Bowl berth at Western Michigan.
“Scott Frost just got hired. Immediately, Nebraska is going to be so much better. That’s a compliment to him,” Fleck said. “When you look at Coach Brohm, what he did at Purdue. Unbelievable, awesome. The league is better in the West.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald believes improved coaching throughout the West will help the division catch up to the East.
“As I look at where we’re at in the West right now, I think there’s incredibly well-coached football teams,” he said. “… You look at everybody in our conference, I think we’re as competitive as anywhere in the country. We’ve got a winning record in the last few years against the East, so we’re doing our part. We’ve just got to get to Indy [site of the Big Ten title game] to really do our part.”
“Northwestern was in the vicinity last year,” he said. “The rest of us need to pick it up and get closer.”
Don’t expect division realignment anytime soon. The Legends and Leaders divisions, adopted in 2011, were based on competitive balance over the previous 20 years. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said that format wasn’t popular with fans.
“To be honest with you, it wasn’t received that well,” Delany said. “I think the identification by fans, their desire to play geographic rivals and to really fully sort of reinforce the historical rivalries at the end of the day was more important.”
Instead, it’s up to the West to step up.
“The West has to start winning championships,” Frost said, “and I hope we’ll be part of it.”
Star Tribune College Football Preview Week:
• Sunday’s story was a look at how the Gophers’ long and often-disappointing history of quarterback play is running right up against a coach who has proved he can work some quarterback magic: Kirk Ciarrocca, the U’s offensive coordinator. Read the story here. Columnist Chip Scoggins also wrote about quarterbacks, and how the young Gophers will be guessing for quite some time as Zack Annexstad learns on the job.
• Monday’s edition was our small college preview.
• Additionally, declining ticket sales is a big story across the country and for the University of Minnesota. Our Rachel Blount wrote about this issue for the Monday morning front page. One of the many interesting threads of that story: amid the big declines, “nonrevenue” sports, including all Gophers women’s teams, have seen an increase in ticket revenue.