We expected a competitive race in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota had decent cases for why they might come away with the division. Wisconsin still had running back Corey Clement and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Nebraska had new blood in the head coach's office and the pieces for good pass offense and defense and Minnesota had improved for three consecutive years under Jerry Kill and expected to have an excellent defense.
Indeed, five weeks in, with everybody having played one conference game, we have the makings of a fantastic jumble ... and Iowa and Northwestern might instead be the major players. The Hawkeyes made a series of red zone stops to upset Wisconsin in Madison and move to 5-0. The Wildcats have played shockingly great defense in moving to 5-0 themselves.
Three West teams are 1-0: Iowa, Northwestern and Illinois, each a victor over one of the division co-favorites. We're only beginning to grasp how this race might play out; what can win probabilities tell us?
S&P+ win probabilities have overperformed so far this season. Using S&P+ ratings to project the likelihood of Team A beating Team B has produced this record. Ideally, the on-field winning percentage falls in the middle of the projected win probability range, but a few are a bit too high.
|Win probability range||Record||On-field winning %||Last Week|
That's a little too good, and one would expect regression, but if you have to perform outside of the range, you'd prefer to overshoot on the high side.
We'll see what happens now that preseason projections have been phased out and the data is now standing on its own. But erasing preseason preconceptions means an even more interesting race than we thought, in both divisions.
S&P+ rankings after five weeks
Wisconsin blew countless opportunities to move ahead of Iowa last Saturday, but the Badgers grade out well because they were reasonably competitive against Alabama, treated three non-conference lightweights as they should and created three more scoring opportunities than Iowa. That leads to a win about 90 percent of the time. Even without the injured Clement, the Badgers are still strong. The problem is that they've dug themselves a hole.
Iowa and Northwestern have played at top-30 levels with good defense and timely, if unimpressive, offense. Offense is holding back a lot of Big Ten teams, but the fact that each holds a one-game advantage over UW is a boon.
Minnesota hangs around in the top 30 because of strength of schedule, which tends to overreact a little early in the season.* The Gophers have a defense that might be even better than expected, but (stop me if you've heard this before) offense is an issue. Okay, offense is a massive issue for Minnesota.
* There also seems to be a wider range between good and bad defenses this year than on the offensive side. The result is that really good defenses seem to be getting bonus points right now. That will probably change over time.
And then there's Illinois. Interim coach Bill Cubit's Fighting Illini have also been stellar on defense. They got blown up by North Carolina's unstable attack (48 points, 7.5 yards per play) but have otherwise allowed 10 points per game and 3.8 yards per play. They held Nebraska far below its season averages in last week's 14-13 win, and in five games, they have vastly exceeded expectations in three (52-3 over Kent State, 44-0 over WIU, and the win over NU).
With six teams between 16th and 41st, and the top team a game behind, the projected win totals look about as messy as you would think.
Weekly Win Probabilities
This week's games will tell a fascinating tale. Wisconsin brings a 55 percent win probability to a "loser falls two games back" battle at Nebraska. Iowa is a solid favorite (62 percent) at home against the surprising Illini. Northwestern is a pretty significant underdog against S&P+ favorite Michigan in Ann Arbor.
An Iowa win, supplemented by Wisconsin and Northwestern losses, would make the Hawkeyes significant West favorites, moving them perhaps 1.5 projected wins ahead in the division. But if the Badgers win in Lincoln or the Wildcats pull the upset against Michigan, we've got a serious race.
S&P+ rankings after five weeks
20. Penn State
25. Ohio State
34. Michigan State
That S&P+ is based solely on 2015 data at this points presents us with an interesting battle between our assumptions and what our eyeballs have actually seen.
Ignoring preconceptions, Michigan has clearly been the best team in the East so far. The Wolverines have had by far the best defense in a great defensive conference, and their résumé features two of the division's most impressive performances. A dominant shutout of BYU that beat Nebraska and Boise State and nearly beat UCLA, and a tight loss at a Utah that destroyed Oregon in Eugene (which happens to be the most impressive Michigan State home victim).
As for Penn State ... well ... again, defense is getting a little bit of a boost right now, and the Nittany Lions looked strong for three consecutive weeks before Week 5's near-disaster against Army. I assume that, like Minnesota, Penn State's rating will match what the eyeballs are telling us soon.
Your five-game performance is not your 12-game performance. For all we know, every team in the East could begin to look how we expected in August. Ohio State could finally shift out of third gear. Michigan State could learn how to actually close games. Michigan could find its defense mortal and its mediocre offense exposed.
But based solely on the performances we've been presented, we've got a hell of a division race.
Weekly Win Probabilities
Because of Ezekiel Elliott, Cardale Jones/J.T. Barrett, Braxton Miller, etc., we assume Ohio State will find its offensive footing. And because Mark Dantonio is Mark Dantonio, we assume the Spartans' decent-not-great defense will take a couple of steps forward. But for now, we've seen only so much of either. And until we do, this division is up for grabs.
While we wait, the numbers suggest the division is Michigan's to lose. That changes if Michigan State takes the Wolverines down in Week 7, but it would take a significant upset for us to learn much this weekend. Michigan's 83 percent win probability against Northwestern might feel high, but Ohio State's (88 percent against Maryland) and Michigan State's (88 percent against Rutgers) do not. The Buckeyes and Spartans should cruise, and Week 7 will be when this race begins to truly take shape.
Michigan might not be "No. 3 in the country" strong, but in a season that has showed lots of good defense, the Wolverines have been more impressive than most. And while the offense has issues, that goes for most of this conference.
To me, the question isn't whether Michigan's for real. It's whether Ohio State and Michigan State are ready to look the part. Scoff if you want, but they haven't.
Michigan and Iowa in the Big Ten title game. That's what we all expected to see, right?
Week 6 win projections
- In Lincoln: Wisconsin 27.6, Nebraska 25.6 (win probability: 55 percent)
- In Iowa City: Iowa 25.1, Illinois 19.9 (win probability: 62 percent)
- In West Lafayette: Minnesota 29.5, Purdue 19.6 (win probability: 72 percent)
- In State College: Penn State 35.6, Indiana 22.7 (win probability: 77 percent)
- In Ann Arbor: Michigan 25.8, Northwestern 9.3 (win probability: 83 percent)
- In Columbus: Ohio State 34.6, Maryland 14.6 (win probability: 88 percent)
- In Piscataway: Michigan State 40.2, Rutgers 19.7 (win probability: 88 percent)