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Take Two: Can Northwestern contend in the Big Ten West?

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With their three-game winning streak, the Wildcats have put themselves back into the conversation.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

After a 24-14 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats’ third consecutive victory, Northwestern is 3-1 in Big Ten play, which is good for 2nd in the division (behind 3-0 Nebraska). So, as Josh Burton and Zach Pereles debate, can Northwestern actually compete for the West crown?

Josh Burton: There was a fleeting moment on Saturday that made me think Northwestern could finish the day in a virtual tie (not including tiebreakers) for the Big Ten West lead with Nebraska. An hour after the Wildcats took care of Indiana, Purdue — which had fired head coach Darrell Hazell a few days before — led the Cornhuskers 14-10 at the half in Lincoln.

Of course, the Boilermakers would be outscored 17-0 in the second half en route to a 27-14 loss, but the very fact that Northwestern — which started this season 1-3 — is even in the conversation for the division is remarkable. The Wildcats’ head-to-head loss to Nebraska hurts, but the win over Iowa and upcoming matchup with Wisconsin in two weeks loom large. Meanwhile, Nebraska will play Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa on the road, leaving Northwestern with a small window of opportunity.

While playing Ohio State in Columbus a week after the Buckeyes were stunned by Penn State isn’t exactly a recipe for success for Northwestern, I still think even with a loss on Saturday, the Wildcats can challenge Nebraska for the division title. Of course Wisconsin will be a tough matchup but the season’s final games — against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois — are all very winnable ones. Northwestern probably has to go 4-1 in the five remaining games to have a chance, and that’s doable.

Zach Pereles: I love what Northwestern has done in the past three weeks, don’t get me wrong. Of the Wildcats’ last six halves, five have been offensive clinics, and it’s been an absolute joy to watch.

Does that make me a believer? Not quite yet. Look at what the supposed October gauntlet of games has actually turned out to be: an uninspired Iowa team; a Michigan State team that probably will not make a bowl; and Indiana: the one team most fans expected the Wildcats to beat in October.

But it’s not even that the quality (or lack thereof) of Northwestern’s opponents that worries me. The schedule is a known quantity. What makes this a “no” are the major holes in this roster. Look at the defensive backs, a group that got lucky several times versus Indiana (Richard Lagow is bad). Plus, the offensive issues that we saw in 2015 and one month ago surfaced again in the second half. When the Wildcats can’t run the ball, they cannot move it through the air, either. I’m not convinced this team can hang with either Ohio State or Wisconsin, and it’s not as if Minnesota on the road will be a cakewalk. A 3-2 record the rest of the way is nowhere near contending.

JB: That’s fair; Northwestern hasn’t beaten a team of Ohio State’s or Wisconsin’s caliber so far this season, and Indiana’s mistakes did mask some of the secondary’s flaws on Saturday. But, the Wildcats did play Western Michigan close in the season opener, and the Broncos are undefeated and have been an AP Top 25 fixture for the past month. With Iowa also looking like a decent team, the Wildcats have had a few legitimately decent performances.

Also, part of my rationale for Northwestern contending in the West is Nebraska’s upcoming schedule. The Cornhuskers play at Wisconsin and Ohio State the next two weeks before hosting Minnesota and Maryland prior to a season-concluding road trip to Iowa City. Nebraska could certainly lose two or three of those games, which would open up a path for Northwestern to overtake Mike Riley’s team in the standings.

I’m not saying it’s a foregone conclusion that Northwestern will win the division, but I do think there’s a non-negligible chance it happens. Sure, the Wildcats need to take care of their own business, but if they do, they just need some help from Nebraska’s upcoming opponents, which is definitely a possibility.

ZP: There’s just no way I see this team as a contender to actually win. I look at Nebraska’s schedule and see three losable games. I look at Northwestern’s schedule and see two games that are absolute losses, one losable game and two wins. Northwestern has to make up a game to be in the conversation and two games to win the division. It’s just not happening in my eyes. This is in no way an indictment of this team — the way it has responded has been amazing — but if the Wildcats finish with three Big Ten losses and at least one game behind the Huskers in the W-L column, that’s not contending.