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Big Ten Football Divisional Race Update

Illinois can win the Big Ten West.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With two games remaining in the regular season, just four teams remain in contention for a trip to Indianapolis. Let’s take a look at how the divisional races stack up as we head into some marquee head-to-head matchups down the stretch.

Big Ten East

Presumptive Favorite: Ohio State (10-0, 7-0)

The Buckeyes have thoroughly dominated each of their opponents thus far, with an average margin of victory of 28. Ohio State may very well be the best team in the country and is led by what should be two Heisman candidates in Justin Fields and Chase Young.

Still, OSU’s ticket to Indy is far from locked up. While undefeated in conference play, the Buckeyes are set to host a one-loss Penn State team in what is likely a winner-take-all game for the East title. If Ohio State wins, it will lock up a berth in the Big Ten Championship game, effectively declaring its final contest against Michigan - the Wolverines already have two losses - inconsequential (with the exception of bragging rights).

We’ll get to the scenario in which Penn State wins below, but given the OSU’s obvious talent and Young’s return from suspension, I have no choice but to take the Buckeyes this weekend.

Also in the picture: Penn State (9-1, 6-1)

Even after a road loss to Minnesota a few weeks ago, Penn State is still in control of its own destiny. Wins over Michigan, Iowa and most recently Indian have kept the Nittany Lions in contention, putting them in a position to claim the East title for the first time since 2016.

To do so, as laid out above, Penn State will need to knock off the undefeated Buckeyes on the road. With the team’s leading receiver and biggest offensive weapon, K.J. Hamler, currently a question mark to play due to a head/neck injury he suffered in last week’s win over Indiana, the odds are certainly stacked against the Nittany Lions as they head into Columbus.

That being said, Penn State has gotten it done nearly all year on the backs of quarterback Sean Clifford and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. Big performances from them in a win over Ohio State would put the Nittany Lions at the top of the division (with the head-to-head tiebreaker going to Penn State). All that would stand in their way after that? A home game against Rutgers.

Out of contention:

Michigan (8-2, 5-2)

Unable to overcome losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, Michigan can only hope to take second place in the East. While it faces Ohio State in a head-to-head matchup to close the regular season, a win would be too little, too late. Sure, if the Wolverines could overtake the Buckeyes with a win in that game and an Ohio State loss against Penn State, but that scenario would simply crown the Nittany Lions Big Ten East champs.

Indiana (7-3, 4-3)

While Indiana is both bowl eligible and has the chance at obtaining an impressive nine wins, the Hoosiers have yet to beat an opponent that currently has a winning record. They’ll have a chance to do so against Michigan this weekend, but it won’t matter as far as the East title is concerned.

Michigan State (4-6, 2-5)

It’s been a largely miserable season for the Spartans, who have now lost five straight. Games against Rutgers and Maryland give Michigan State an opportunity to make a bowl game, but it’ll be a season to forget no matter what.

Maryland (3-7, 1-6)

The Terrapins 2-0 start is almost hard to remember at this point. They’ve been demolished three weeks in a row, most recently giving up 73 points to Ohio State.

Rutgers (2-8, 0-7)

Another year, another bottom-of-the Big Ten finish. The Scarlet Knights are winless for the second consecutive season in conference play, with its last two chances at getting rid of the goose egg in the loss column being Michigan State and Penn State.

Big Ten West

Presumptive Favorite: Minnesota (9-1, 6-1)

It’s hard to confidently call Minnesota the ‘presumptive favorite’, but its best season in recent history certainly deserves a little love and respect. After beating up on the mediocrity of the Big Ten for the majority of the season, the Gophers notched a massive win over Penn State two weeks ago before let-down performance at Iowa this past week.

Still, Minnesota’s offense has put up points all year long, sporting multiple wide receivers with next-level potential and a trio of quality running backs. Quarterback Tanner Morgan also is worthy of his fair share of credit, though his status remains in doubt for this weekend’s matchup against Northwestern.

Assuming the Gophers can take care of the Wildcats, the Big Ten West division title will come down to a game against Wisconsin in two weeks. Minnesota will be the beneficiary of home-field advantage, and a win would secure the Gophers’ first ever trip to Indy.

Also in the picture: Wisconsin (8-2, 5-2)

After a dominant start to the year, Wisconsin saw its conference title hopes all but disappear with back-to-back losses against Illinois and Ohio State. But just a few weeks later, and the Badgers are still right in the thick of things.

Wisconsin must win out to play for the Big Ten Championship, and the combination of a stingy defense and Jonathan Taylor certainly make that outcome more than plausible. Should the Badgers take care of Purdue at home this Saturday, they would need to reclaim Paul Bunyan’s axe to jump the Gophers atop the standings. While Wisconsin currently has one more loss than Minnesota, a win in two weeks would settle that score in addition to giving the Badgers the tiebreak advantage.

Somehow barely in the picture:

Illinois (6-4, 4-3)

Yup, you read that right. Illinois can still win the Big Ten West. Through a crazy amount of tiebreakers, the Illini are still mathematically alive for the title if they win out and the following happens:

Northwestern beats Minnesota, Purdue beats Wisconsin, Wisconsin beats Minnesota. Minnesota/Wisconsin/Illinois would all have three losses, and the Illini would go through.

All things considered, it’s been a pretty promising year for Lovie Smith and the Fighting Illini. They’re bowl eligible, have taken down four opponents in a row and boast a win over Wisconsin. We’ll see if Illinois can build on this success going forward, but for now, Lucas Oil Stadium is still a far possibility.

Out of contention:

Iowa (7-3, 4-3)

Iowa has check off all the boxes of your average Hawkeye season. It’s dropped too many games to Big Ten foes to compete for a conference title birth but has still played spoiler to a Big Ten West hopeful (this year it was Minnesota). The Hawkeyes’ seven-win season is as solid as it gets - games against Illinois and Nebraska make nine likely - but losses to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin sealed their fate.

Purdue (4-6, 3-4)

Injuries to Rondale Moore and Elijah Sindelar derailed any chance the Boilermakers had at shaking things up in the West. 6 wins also now looks like a tall task, as Purdue heads into games against Wisconsin and Indiana with its backup quarterback.

Nebraska (4-6, 2-5)

Well, the Huskers’ season didn’t go as planned, did it? The trendy pick to win the West and even the entire conference back in the summer months, Nebraska didn’t exactly live up to expectations in its second season under the leadership of Scott Frost. Once a Heisman hopeful (wow, were a lot of us wrong), quarterback Adrian Martinez has had a season to forget, throwing just eight touchdown passes and seven interceptions. There aren’t too many positives to take away here, as the Huskers are in danger of missing a bowl game with matchups against Maryland and Iowa on the docket.

Northwestern (2-8, 0-7)

In a remarkable journey from first place to last, Northwestern has been dreadful in every sense of the word this season. The offensive numbers got a much needed boost in last week’s win over UMass, but this is still a team that didn’t score a touchdown over the course of three-straight games. It is truly hard to imagine that just a season ago the Wildcats made its first appearance in the Big Ten championship game, as it certainly now feels like it’ll be a while until they’re back.