The Big Ten West doesn’t get much respect these days. And in truth, it probably doesn’t deserve much respect.
Not yet, at least.
But this weekend could change everything for a division that has for the past couple of seasons been living in the shadow of the much stronger, much more glamorous and much more powerful Big Ten East. That’s because there are two massive games are on tap in the West this weekend. Each will play a huge role in determining who eventually takes home the division title—and the level of play displayed in both could help change the reputation of the West as a whole.
Up in Madison, the 19th-ranked (and, let’s face it, potentially overrated) Wisconsin Badgers welcome resurgent Iowa in the battle for the Heartland Trophy, for bragging rights, and for a massive leg up on the divisional race. The Hawkeyes come into this one playing with more confidence that they’ve had in years, the result of their surprising 4-0 start—one that has re-energized a fan base that has in recent years grown increasingly frustrated with their program’s descent into mediocrity.
Leading the charge for Iowa this year has been quarterback C.J. Beathard, a run-pass threat who brought much-needed (and long-sought) dynamism to the Hawkeye offense. The kid is a legit athlete who can challenge defenses in a lot of ways, and his arrival has gone a long way toward helping the Hawkeyes regain some relevance.
The Badgers, for their part, have also benefited this year from stronger quarterback play. Joel Stave, who before this year was never much more than the classic “game manager,” is having his best season yet; the senior is completing more than 66 percent of his passes and has thrown seven touchdowns against just two interceptions. If the Badgers have any hope to claiming the West crown, Stave will have to continue to excel; he’ll get his chance to show what’s he’s really made of on Saturday.
Meanwhile, over in Evanston, the 4-0 and 16th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats welcome Minnesota in a game that figures to be one of the lower scoring affairs of the Big Ten season. The Wildcats are fielding one of the best defenses in the nation—they are allowing just 8.8 points her game—and the play of that unit has been key in helping them start the season with huge wins over the likes of Stanford and Duke.
The Gophers, for their part, came into the season with high hopes and looked the part of a divisional title contender, but they’ve been shaky at times on defense and are struggling on offense, too; last week, they were lucky to escape with a narrow 27-24 win over Ohio.
Even despite their sluggish start, however, the Gophers are very likely good enough, and talented enough, to make a run at the West crown (after all, as we’ve said many times before, this isn’t exactly the SEC West). But they’ll need to up their level of play to make that happen. A strong performance this week is an absolute necessity.
Will these key Big Ten West matchups be the prettiest games you’ll see all season?
Well, no, probably not.
But in a division that looks as wide open as any in the nation, both showdowns figure to be to be fiery, intense and hard-hitting. It will just be good old-fashioned, old-style Big Ten football—football, in other words, that will be well worth watching.