Following Saturday's loss in Minneapolis, the narrative surrounding this Northwestern team was not an unfamiliar one. The Wildcats, supposedly, had been overrated, their chances in the Big Ten West overhyped, and after two unexpected wins, NU had regressed to what it really is: a mediocre team.
For all we know, that could be the case. In fact, Northwestern probably is a mediocre team. But this week, the negative overreactions came with regards to NU's status as a contender in the West. In reality, the loss might not be as crippling as many are making it out to be.
Heading into week eight, here's a team-by-team look at the Big Ten West picture, and the five-team race that is still entirely up in the air.
How detrimental to NU's chances at a trip to Indy was Saturday's loss? The answer depends on what you think of Minnesota. The Gophers now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Wildcats, and are 2-0 in the Big Ten. But they're not the best team in the West. Nebraska is. And perhaps more importantly, they have arguably the toughest remaining schedule of the contenders despite an easy next two weeks:
If you think Minnesota can go 4-2 over that six game stretch, then Northwestern's loss to the Gophers could be critical. In that situation, NU would have to win out (or finish in a three-way tie at 6-2) to have a shot at a West title.
But a more reasonable projection for Minnesota is probably 5-3. In that case, the Gophers probably wouldn't be NU's biggest challenger in the West, and therefore this past weekend's loss wouldn't be as bad.
As mentioned above, it's tough to argue against Nebraska as the top team in the West right now. The Cornhuskers gave the best team in the conference, Michigan State, a run for its money, and save for the near loss to McNeese State, were impressive during non-conference play. However, they do already have that one conference loss in a cross-division game, and haven't played any other West division contender yet. Here is their remaining schedule:
This upcoming weekend's game is massive. If NU can beat Nebraska, the Cornhuskers will have two losses, a head-to-head loss to Northwestern, and will still have those three games at the end of the season, two of which are on the road, looming. That's a big ‘if', but at home, it's certainly not out of the question. So while Nebraska looks like the top dog -- or, more appropriately, top cat -- in the West, NU has the opportunity to put Bo Pelini's crew in a deep hole.
It's not as if they've beaten anybody of significance, but the Hawkeyes find themselves 2-0, on a three game win streak, and, despite a rocky start to the season, right in the thick of the Big Ten West race. The Hawkeyes hung 45 points on Indiana, and look to be trending upwards. However, the schedule gets tougher from here on out:
As Iowa stumbled through it's non-conference schedule, everybody lost sight of the preseason narrative, which was that the Hawkeyes' incomparably weak schedule made them arguably the favorites in the West. That schedule is already paying dividends. And later on, Iowa gets three of the other four contenders at home, and has the second of two fairly easy cross-division games. But overanalyzing is fruitless at this point, because how good this team actually is remains a mystery.
The Badgers certainly have their flaws, many of which were exposed by Northwestern, but so does every other team in the West. Wisconsin is still in the hunt for the West title, and its schedule actually sets up nicely for a potential turnaround:
The Badgers very well could find themselves 4-1 heading into a home game with Nebraska. They also get two of their final three against fellow contenders at home. Wisconsin is still very much alive.
Even before the trip to Minnesota, we knew the Nebraska game was going to be the biggest of the season. This past Saturday's loss just makes it even more so. I said before last week that Pat Fitzgerald and company had to win one of their next two, but preferably the Nebraska tilt, and obviously they can still do so. And if they were to win, I'd make the Wildcats the division favorites. They would have head-to-head wins against what I believe to be the two best teams in the West, and would have this remaining conference schedule:
If Northwestern were to lose however, the Wildcats would become long shots. With losses to both Minnesota and Nebraska, they would probably need to win out and hope that either two or three teams finish below them at 5-3, or that two other teams, one of which is not Nebraska, finish 6-2. That would create a three-way tie atop the West standings, in which case division record would come into play, and then potentially a series of other tiebreakers.
There is one thing to note regarding NU though. With the way the schedules line up, over the next few weeks, Northwestern is always going to be in better position in the race than you might think just based on a quick glance at the standings. That's because the Wildcats get all their tough division games out of the way early. Iowa, the last one, is on Nov. 1. On the other hand, the other four play all their games against each other over the final four weeks of the season. So while it might seem like Northwestern is playing catch-up, as long as it can take care of Michigan, Purdue and Illinois in its final three conference games, its inevitable that the other four teams will beat up on each other as NU observes from afar.
The bottom line though is that everything hinges on this Saturday. If Northwestern wins, it is the most likely of the five teams to represent the West in Indianapolis. If it loses, it is the least likely of the five. So, although we've already called previous games the most important of the season, this one really is.