It has been a wild first two weeks in the Big Ten West division. The current standings look less like the football rankings many were expecting and more like the 2021 US News and World Report college rankings, with Northwestern and Purdue (ranked 9th and 53rd, respectively) sitting atop the division at 2-0.
Entering the season, it was widely assumed by national media that there were three contenders with a chance to represent the west division at the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Just two weeks into the season, that predication couldn't be further from the truth.
The division is as open as it could be.
Minnesota looks like a shell of P.J. Fleck’s 2019 squad that finished 11-2 and ranked 10th in the final AP Poll of last season. The Gophers opened the season ranked 18th, generating enough buzz to attract ESPN’s College GameDay crew to their opening primetime matchup vs. Michigan. The Wolverines blew out the Gophers 49-24, poking serious holes in P.J. Fleck’s boat.
The Gophers then proceeded to lose in Week Two to the same Maryland team that was blown out in Evanston the week prior. Minnesota has some serious soul-searching to do and still has the toughest stretch of their season ahead.
Next, Wiscovid. The Badgers opened the season with a resounding 45-7 victory over the Fighting Illini, which featured redshirt quarterback Graham Mertz putting up impressive numbers and a new-look ground game sans Jonathan Taylor.
Then, the pandemic quickly shut down all operations in Madison. As of October 31, there were 22 active COVID-19 cases in the Wisconsin program, forcing the Badgers to cancel their matchup vs. Nebraska. It remains unknown when Wisconsin will be able to see the field again, and it doesn't matter how good the Badgers are if COVID-19 keeps them on the sidelines.
The Iowa Hawkeyes should have been in a great position to take advantage of the lack of a clear Big Ten West front-runner. Instead, they suffered the likely fatal dagger to their Big Ten West title hopes on Saturday by losing to Northwestern 21-20 after jumping out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. The loss to Northwestern came on the heels of their discouraging Week One loss to Purdue, setting the tone for the both Iowa and Purdue’s season.
Purdue’s successful start to the season has surprised many outside the program. Similar to Northwestern, Purdue beat Iowa in a tight game and a mediocre team in Illinois convincingly. Purdue’s 31-24 defeat of the Illini in Week Two was not as convincing as Northwestern’s 43-3 week one drubbing of Maryland, but a 2-0 start is impressive nonetheless. Purdue’s status as a contender will either cement or fade away in the coming weeks as they are scheduled to face Wisconsin in Week Three and Northwestern in Week Four.
Northwestern’s 2-0 start is one of the Big Ten’s leading stories so far this season. The Wildcats were downright awful last year, finishing 3-9 with the only bright spot being a victory over Illinois to keep the Land of Lincoln trophy in Evanston. This year, however, Pat Fitzgerald’s squad has shown up to battle each of the first two weeks, dominating Maryland and coming from behind to beat Iowa after going down 17-0 in the first quarter. Northwestern plays with resilience, and quarterback Peyton Ramsey has proven he plays with poise, making the right decisions at the right time to help his team win.
Illinois and Nebraska appear to be non-factors in the divisional race. Both teams sit winless, Illinois at 0-2 and Nebraska at 0-1 because of its cancelled matchup with Wisconsin. Neither team has yet shown the ability to win big games, though Nebraska is ranked 23rd in the country in offensive S&P+ after its first game.
Anything can happen in this bizarre, eight-week season. Fewer games mean that each one is assigned more importance, and the pandemic has proven a real factor, resulting in no clear front-runner thus far. We will continue to learn in the coming weeks about the character and identity of each Big Ten West team as we approach the midway point of the season.