The Big Ten West entered the 2015 football season collectively shrouded in mystery. That the division has such a peculiar look to its standings five weeks into the campaign shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But to look this peculiar? Who could have foreseen standings with unbeaten Iowa and Northwestern on top, followed by 4-1 Illinois, with seemingly likely pace-setters Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin all sporting multiple losses, including one in conference play?
Big Ten play opened Saturday with three intra-divisional contests: Northwestern blanked Minnesota, Iowa outpunched Wisconsin in a quintessential Big Ten slugfest and Illinois rallied, scoring all 14 of its points in the fourth quarter, to down Nebraska.
There’s obviously still a lot of football to be played, but the Big Ten West is certainly living up to its unpredictable billing through just a few weeks.
Though every team had its uncertainties, one might have felt safe tabbing either Wisconsin or Nebraska for the divisional title before the season.
Since the conference’s split into divisions in 2011, one of either Nebraska or Wisconsin (or both) played in three of four Big Ten Championship Games. The one season neither did, 2013, the title game featured two teams, Michigan State and Ohio State, designated for the East with the geographical realignment in 2014.
Nebraska and Wisconsin would seemingly be the big beneficiaries from newcomers Maryland and Rutgers effectively ending the Leaders and Legends era.
However, with both introducing new head coaches for 2015 and replacing certain key players, the West is wide open.
Northwestern appears best positioned to take advantage. The Wildcats have been defensively dominant through five games, shutting down quality offenses in Stanford and Duke prior to Saturday’s blanking of Minnesota.
“I thought our defense had a chance to be pretty solid,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said in his postgame press conference, via NUSports.com. “Did I think that we’d be at this point from a points-allowed total? There’s no way I could’ve speculated that.”
That points-allowed total is 35, tops in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
It’s fast becoming apparent that in this age of explosive offenses, the Big Ten West is an outlier. It’s a division destined to be decided by defense.
Iowa and Illinois, which won by a combined five points Saturday, tallied a combined 24 points. Baylor exceeded that total in one quarter against Texas Tech.
Juxtapose the style prevalent in the Big Ten West with the Big 12, and they hardly look like the same sport. That suits Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz just fine.
“Today was a really hard fought, tough, physical game,” he said in his postgame press conference, via HawkeyeSports.com. “It was something we knew would have to happen.”
Illinois similarly knew a defensive effort had to happen; at least, it did after digging a 13-0 hole against Nebraska.
The Illini’s 14-point fourth quarter rally wouldn’t have been possible without the defense bowing up and shutting down the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will assuredly face scrutiny in the days to come for his decision to pass in the fourth quarter, but Illinois head coach Bill Cubit said the Huskers merely “put it in your best players hands.”
Cubit, who said the win may be the best of his career during the postgame press conference, faces Ferentz’s Hawkeyes next week. Northwestern travels to Michigan, another defensively dominant surprise in its own right.
The Big Ten West’s unpredictability is only just beginning.