In that wacky Big Ten West, the Big Ten’s less-talented division, you never know what will happen next. Many people had thoughts about how this division would shake out in the offseason, but those thoughts are probably wrong by now.
Iowa, for instance, had a division crown to defend, with experience coming back. The unfortunate thing about that is the Hawkeyes just lost to North Dakota State, an FCS team. They are not the first and will probably not be the last team to have this happen to them.
As for Illinois and Northwestern? Well, the Chicago geographic footprint has not exactly covered itself in glory. The Wildcats lost to the MAC’s Western Michigan on opening weekend, 22-21, and Saturday, the Illini lost to the Broncos, 34-10. Not great.
So who actually wants to win the West?
Wisconsin shocked us in Week 1 with a win over LSU. If you know anything about the Badgers’ schedule, you know there’s a five-week stretch coming up that is pure hell. In order: Wisky goes at Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Ohio State, at Iowa, and home against Nebraska. There’s a BYE in there too, but that’s tough for any team. If you can beat LSU (no matter how anemic the Tigers offense was that day), you are more than capable of winning this division. But the schedule, man. The schedule is just a monster.
Nebraska is a bit of a wild card, with a really nice guy as its coach still. The Huskers haven’t played a conference game yet, but they’ve dominated two non-conference opponents and squeaked past Oregon, 35-32, taking advantage of bad extra point strategy. I’m proudest of the Cornhuskers because throughout last season, close games didn’t go so well for Big Red. Nebraska was 3-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer in 2015, and one of those losses was against Purdue. Essentially, this didn’t happen in a close game Saturday, and that’s good.
I also love the fact that a team can come together after losing one of their own and rally as a family to do something great. Getting to the Big Ten Championship would be a pretty great reward, if Nebraska can make it through.
Purdue (despite being the QB Minor Leagues to the SEC’s MLB) is still Purdue.
Minnesota and the aforementioned Illinois/Northwestern combo are also teams that play football in the division. There, I said something nice about them, just like my mom taught me.
Let’s jazz things up a bit. We need to create some more competition in the Heartland.
There are under-the-radar squads that no one saw coming. I was not at Big Ten Media Days, but I did not see much attention paid to North Dakota State or Western Michigan. The conference doesn’t let the media pick division winners or a conference champion, but I’m confident neither team would have gotten any votes, since they are not in the conference.
I would like to submit NDSU and WMU as potential Big Ten West champions, because why not? Let’s just pretend they’re already in.
With a 2-0 mark in Big Ten Conference play, the Broncos are a cut above the West. The Illinois score was one thing, but this shows a much clearer picture of dominance over a lesser in-conference foe:
Running back Jamauri Bogan ran behind those hosses to the tune of 189 yards, a high for any Big Ten player in Week 3, on a 7.9-yard average. He also added two TDs.
If you do not know wide receiver Corey Davis’ name, it’s time to do some learnin’. He’s tied for the Big Ten’s lead in receptions (18), leads the conference in total receiving yards (317), and receiving yards per game (105.7). He also has three touchdowns, although they came in non-conference play against North Carolina Central.
Coach P.J. Fleck is a noted eccentric person ...
... who’s also a really hotshot young coach and gets his players to buy in wholeheartedly to his “Row the Boat” philosophy. He’s got my vote for Big Ten Coach of the Year already, and he’s already outshining his contemporaries.
P.J. Fleck has as many Big Ten wins this season as Darrell Hazell has had at Purdue since 2013.— Brian Bennett (@BennettESPN) September 17, 2016
He coaches a well-disciplined bunch that does something important: it doesn’t beat itself. The Broncos have not lost a turnover all season (one of three teams that can say that up to this point). Offers from bigger schools will surely come Fleck’s way this season, but if you can compete in a Power 5 league, why leave Kalamazoo?
North Dakota State
The Bison went to Iowa and marched out with a last-second victory to open their conference slate. Credit to North Dakota State for also rubbing Iowa’s face in it; division rivalries are good for the sport.
We joke a lot here that teams should stop scheduling North Dakota State, but we understand that when the Big Ten office sets the schedule, you have to play the teams as they show up. Nothing the Hawkeyes could do.
In proper B1G fashion, the Bison aren’t going to unleash an aerial assault to beat you. They’re going to run the ball and do so effectively. Multiple players chipped in for a team rushing total of 239 yards. NDSU also absolutely mashed Iowa with its rush defense, holding the Hawkeyes to only 39 yards rushing on an abysmal 1.4-yard clip.
When the pressure was on, kicker Cam Pedersen put an earlier missed 50-yarder out of his head and nailed the game winner.
If the Bison want to win the West, I’ll have to see if they can throw the ball against other opponents. They’re certainly off to a good start.
See, Jim Delany, I’ve solved your problem.
You’ve got a stubborn division that can’t get on the right foot. Let’s up the competition level and throw in two Midwestern teams that have already proved themselves superior to some of what you already have on that side of the conference.