The Big Ten East is phenomenal.
The Big Ten East is the home of the defending national champion, three programs that rank among the Top 10 in all-time college football wins, two programs that consistently find themselves ranked among the national Top 10, two true blueblood programs that seemed destined to regain their spot among the national elite and, for what it’s worth, three of the largest stadiums in the country (Ohio Stadium, Michigan Stadium, Beaver Stadium) and possibly the most underrated stadium in the country (Spartan Stadium).
The Big Ten East has clout. The Big Ten East has talent. The Big Ten is among the best divisions in all of college football.
And then there’s the Big Ten West.
Which has … well, at the moment, lots of questions. And not much else.
But are brighter days ahead for this struggling division? We’ll answer that question and more right here, as we continue to look at the biggest issues facing the Big Ten ahead of the 2015 football season.
How bad is this division?
It’s not terrible. It may not even be fair to call it “weak.” But it should certainly be better than it currently is, because while it of course does not have the kind of programs that the Big Ten East boasts, it’s got enough quality to be turning out at least a couple good-to-great teams each year.
Nebraska may never reclaim the position it had in college football back in its 1990s glory days–there are a lot of reasons for this, which we will explore in another post–but it should be doing better than it has in recent years. We shall see what Mike Riley can do about that.
Wisconsin probably punched above its weight during the best of the Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema years, but if they stick to the formula and maybe think about spending a bit more money, they can make a run at the Big Ten crown once every couple of years. Iowa has simply stopped trying for excellence under Kirk Ferentz, and is probably the division’s biggest disappointment. Minnesota is doing its part–in fact, given time, I think Jerry Kill might actually build that program into a legit contender. But Illinois has been terrible for years now and may never get any better than average. Purdue, I fear, is hopeless. But in recent times they’ve pretty much always been hopeless, minus those miraculous years under Joe Tiller.
So what’s the ceiling then?
Given what we’ve already said, we can assume that Purdue and Illinois will, more years than not, be no better than mediocre. Minnesota is currently overachieving, yes, but I honestly think that they can evolve into a consistent eight-wins-per-season kind of program. So in a good year, let’s say that two of those three programs manage to become bowl eligible. That would be a good base. But really, the reputation of any division or conference is made by the teams at the top.
And right now, the teams at the top of the Big Ten West aren’t pulling their weight.
Wisconsin has been the best of the bunch recently, but they need help. At this point, Iowa needs to decide what it wants to be–a great program or a good one–and whether Ferentz really is still the right guy to run the show. And Nebraska? Yeah, they need to start building something that might get them at least closer to what they once were. If Wisconsin can keep it up, if Iowa can start playing to its potential, and if Nebraska starts looking like Nebraska again? Well, if all of that happened, the Big Ten West could be turning out two Top 15 programs per year and maybe as many as four Top 25 programs per year. But they’re a long way from that.
Who’s the favorite in 2015 then?
It’s gotta be Wisconsin. Iowa, as I’ve said repeatedly now, has basically settled for mediocrity, and so that’s what they’ll get. Nebraska may do great things under Mike Riley, but he’s got a lot of work to do and there’s clearly going to be a transition period. The Badgers don’t have a great roster, they’ve got a lot of holes to fill, and they’ve got to eventually find a decent quarterback, but barring a great leap forward from Minnesota (not ruling it out, but it seems unlikely), it just seems like Paul Chryst and his gang are in line to win another West crown.