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Quest for the West: what each contender is looking at

What do the top teams in the West have in front of them?

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten West is a mess, and no one should be more thankful than the Northwestern Wildcats. Despite brutal non-conference performances to Duke and Akron, Pat Fitzgerald’s team has performed best in conference play and controls its destiny in the West. This would not be possible if NU was in the East division, where it would have to play a tougher base schedule each year. While NU had to play Michigan and Michigan State this season, it does not have to compete with those teams in the Big Ten standings.

As it currently stands, and you probably have it memorized if you follow any form of Northwestern Athletics on social media, Northwestern stands atop the B1G West with a 3-1 conference record. Victories over Purdue (which now looks better), Michigan State and Nebraska have put NU in position to at least contend for a trip to Indianapolis.

If the Wildcats had been able to hold on against Michigan and were 4-0 in conference, Wisconsin might actually sweat. But the Badgers, even after their ugly primetime loss in Ann Arbor, know better than to panic. After all, their coach is Paul Chryst, who I do not think knows how to panic (or smile). More important than their stoic coach is the fact that Wisconsin, a program that has been to the Big Ten Championship five of the last seven years, still controls its destiny too.

Let’s forget history for a moment now and shift to the present. It is a three-team race for the West crown, with the ‘Cats, Wisconsin and Iowa likely fighting till the end of November. Purdue has a fighting chance but faces a tougher remaining schedule than the others. Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue are all tied for second in the division standings with 2-1 conference records, but Wisconsin holds the inside track among those teams since it beat Iowa earlier this season. Both Iowa and Wisconsin have yet to play Purdue, and with the way Boilers Quarterback Davis Blough has been shredding defenses, this team could derail another’s division hopes.

So, where does this leave us? Let’s explore a couple of key matchups and each team’s remaining schedule:

Wisconsin at Northwestern, October 27

This game will help to clear confusion with this race. It’s simple: the winner will have the inside track to Indianapolis. Right now, both Wisconsin and Northwestern control their own destinies, but only the victor of this game will be able to say that in two weeks’ time. If Northwestern wins, its game against Iowa in November becomes a de facto B1G West title game if neither team drops a conference game along the way. If Wisconsin wins, it owns the head-to-head matchups over both teams and would mainly need to take care of business in its most important remaining games, against Penn State and Purdue, to secure a berth in Indy.

Northwestern at Iowa, November 10

Iowa City will be rocking no matter the scenario, but if Northwestern upends Wisconsin two weeks before then both teams could come into the game with one conference loss. The winner of this game would likely secure the division barring a bad loss in the final two weeks of the season. If Wisconsin beats Northwestern but suffers a loss at Penn State or Purdue, this contest means more for Iowa than Northwestern because an Iowa win would put it on track for a one-loss conference season and a division win. An NU win would only keep Wisconsin atop the division as all three teams would carry two conference losses, but Wisconsin would own both head-to-heads.

Northwestern (3-3, 3-1 B1G)

The ‘Cats have division-defining games at home against Wisconsin and on the road against Iowa. Those games, of course, only mean anything if they beat Rutgers, Minnesota and Illinois, winnable games that NU fans always think twice about — see: NU vs 0-5 Nebraska.

Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1)

Games against Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota should yield three wins, while matchups at Penn State, Northwestern and Purdue may prove to be tougher. Penn State is falling (kind of), while Purdue and Northwestern (we think?) are rising. Wisconsin is probably still the favorite even after losing to Michigan in blowout fashion.

Iowa (5-1, 2-1)

The Hawkeyes have tallied victories over inferior competition, and though they haven’t had to beat solid Big Ten competition just yet, quarterback Nate Stanley having consecutive weeks with six touchdowns is impressive any way you cut it. Kirk Ferentz’s squad has remaining games against Maryland, Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Nebraska. Penn State is the only ranked team on that list. Iowa has a good shot to win four of those games, and contests against Penn State and Northwestern are toss-ups at this point. While Iowa doesn’t control its own destiny because of its loss to Wisconsin, it has every reason to keep fighting as a Badger slip-up opens the door for the Hawkeyes to be kings of the West.

The most important matchups are detailed above, but keep in mind that a sneaky upset of any of the three contenders could totally distort everything above. Then we’ll be right back here in a few weeks talking about Lovie Smith’s contract extension after Illinois knocks Wisconsin out of the race. Just kidding.