The Big Ten conference will turn 120 years old next year, but its great, great grandchildren — the Big Ten East and West football divisions — are still toddlers in their second season.
The conference itself is laced with history and ancient rivalries that help shape any prediction for what’s going to happen each fall. The divisions might have early tendencies, but in some ways, they are as unpredictable as a 2-year-old in a corn maze.
The West certainly has that crazy, wide-open feel as conference play cranks up this week. The division has five seemingly legitimate contenders: Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska and the Gophers.
The East boasts the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in Ohio State and Michigan State, respectively. While everyone waits for that showdown — coming Nov. 21 in Columbus — Jim Harbaugh’s 22nd-ranked Michigan squad also is quickly rebuilding, hoping to derail both rivals’ national title hopes.
Overall, it’s a pretty exciting time for the oldest Division I conference in the nation, which enjoyed a late-season surge last year with a 6-4 bowl record and Ohio State’s triumph in the first College Football Playoff.
The Big Ten has five ranked teams — including No. 16 Northwestern and No. 19 Wisconsin — with the Gophers and Iowa both receiving votes. The Gophers could enter the top 25 this weekend with a victory at Northwestern, and the Hawkeyes could do the same by winning at Wisconsin.
“I have never been one to make too many judgments on anything in September,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “I think you really have to get into October. There are a handful of teams out there that we all know are really good, and really veteran and really talented. After that you never know what is going to happen.”
That’s the beauty of it, of course.
The West looked like a four-team race last Nov. 1 when Iowa destroyed Northwestern 48-7. The Gophers leveled the Hawkeyes 51-14 one week later, then came from behind to win at Nebraska 28-24, setting up a winner-take-all rivalry showdown at Wisconsin.
The Badgers handled the Gophers, just as they have every year since 2003, and briefly celebrated the first West division title. The prize was a trip to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, where Ohio State was waiting to trample Wisconsin 59-0.
Most prognosticators predicted the West would be three-team race between Wisconsin, Nebraska and the Gophers. But all three showed significant flaws in September, while Iowa and Northwestern each had nearly flawless 4-0 months.
A good case could be made for all five of these teams to win the West. And an equally strong case could be made for each one going 4-4, or worse. Ultimately, it will come down which team can stay healthiest and improve the most, with the schedule always playing a part. Here’s a closer look at each contender and whether they can win the division:
Yes because: It has played in three of the first four Big Ten title games and has the most favorable inter-division matchups, against Rutgers (home) and Maryland (road).
No because: Tailback Corey Clement is out at least four weeks for sports hernia surgery, and the Badgers don’t appear to have their usual stalwart offensive line.
Yes because: C.J. Beathard has injected life at quarterback. The Hawkeyes are clicking on offense, defense and special teams, and they draw Maryland (home) and Indiana (road) from the East.
No because: They could be a September mirage waiting to evaporate in conference. The Hawkeyes have two Power Five victories, but Iowa State (2-10 last year) and Pittsburgh (with 1,700-yard rusher James Connor injured) aren’t exactly powerhouses.
Yes because: The Cornhuskers have the division’s most explosive offense and draw Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State at home.
No because: New coach Mike Riley has the nation’s worst pass defense, which led to heartbreaking losses against BYU and Miami and nearly cost them against Southern Miss.
Yes because: The Wildcats have the nation’s third-ranked scoring defense, with victories over Stanford (home) and Duke (road). Justin Jackson might be the division’s best running back.
No because: The offense hasn’t looked much better than the Minnesota’s. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson figures to keep going through growing pains.
Yes because: Mitch Leidner has been clutch, and their defense should keep them close in every game. They also get Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin at home.
No because: Too many holes on offense, and they have the toughest schedule by far, with interdivision games against Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road).
• The Big Ten did Michigan a favor, allowing quarterback Jake Rudock to compete this year after transferring as a graduate student from Iowa. Athletes who transfer within the conference normally must sit out a season. In Rudock’s case, there wasn’t much uproar over the waiver, probably because he’d struggled at Iowa. The tone will change if Rudock keeps playing well. He threw three interceptions against Utah, but has completed 63 percent of his passes with two picks in his past three games.
• In inter-division play, Wisconsin faces Maryland and Rutgers, two teams that are an absolute mess. Payback comes next year. The Badgers draw Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State from the East in 2016. The Gophers get Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State from the East next season, when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game conference schedule.
• With three consecutive three-point wins, the Gophers have been too close for comfort against Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio. The Gophers are now 9-3 in games decided by four or fewer points under Kill. As CBSSports.com noted this week, Kirk Ferentz is 20-30 at Iowa in games decided by four points or fewer.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Ohio State (4-0): The Buckeyes are 24-0 in regular-season Big Ten games under Urban Meyer. Next up: 4-0 Indiana.
2. Michigan State (4-0): Central Michigan outgained the Spartans 340-324 last week. Mark Dantonio wasn’t happy.
3. Northwestern (4-0): No bandwagon yet. The Wildcats’ average attendance is 31,754 at 47,130-seat Ryan Field.
4. Michigan (3-1): The Wolverines rank fourth nationally in scoring defense (9.5) and held BYU to 105 total yards.
5. Iowa (4-0): C.J. Beathard completed his first 15 passes against North Texas. The junior is 5-0 as a starter.
6. Wisconsin (3-1): Twelve consecutive quarters without allowing a TD — against Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii.
7. Gophers (3-1): Minnesota is 9-5 in its past 14 Big Ten games, the league’s fourth-best mark in that span.
8. Penn State (3-1, 1-0): The Nittany Lions have held opponents to less than 320 yards in 11 consecutive games, the longest such streak in nation.
9. Nebraska (2-2): A chance to right the ship at Illinois on Saturday before Wisconsin visits Lincoln next week.
10. Indiana (4-0): Close wins over Southern Illinois (48-47), Western Kentucky (38-35) and Wake Forest (31-24).
11. Illinois (3-1): Needed a 51-yard field goal from Taylor Zalewski to beat Middle Tennessee State 27-25.
12. Rutgers (2-2, 0-1): Hoped to forge a rivalry after beating Penn State last year, but got rolled 28-3 this time.
13. Purdue (1-3): Impressive debut for freshman QB David Blough (29-of-39 for 340 yards) in loss to Bowling Green.
14. Maryland (2-2): The Terps had six turnovers in blowout loss to West Virginia, giving them 14 on the season.