Northwestern, all things considered, is having a good year. Sitting at 3-3 at the bye week is a better result than most people would have predicted heading into the season. Now, in pursuit of a bowl appearance, the ‘Cats turn their attention to a stretch on their schedule that includes five of the next six against teams from the most fun division in college football: the Big Ten West.
Soon, all of its glory will be over. Washington, Oregon, UCLA and USC will all join the Big Ten, and the West will cease to exist. The division that brought us extreme parity followed by an eventual blowout loss in the Big Ten Championship game every year will be no more. It’s truly the end of an era.
Regardless of your opinion on conference expansion, make no mistake, the Big Ten West was a good thing for Northwestern. It was the West that brought ‘Cats’ fans two Big Ten Championship Game appearances. It was the West that allowed Northwestern to be competitive in a conference chock-full of high-level talent.
Things will not be the same for the ‘Cats next year. More talent is coming, and the safeguard that was the West will no longer be there to help shield from it. Especially given the current state of the program, Northwestern might be in for a very difficult adjustment.
But the West meant something to lots of fans outside of Evanston too. Since the division’s first year in 2014, rivalries have deepened, late-season drama has been prevalent, and fans have grown to appreciate competing to be the best of the West. While the East has always had more talented, traditional powerhouses of the Big Ten, the West carved out a role for itself in college football. It was where you went to watch some hard-nosed, tough, young football players working their butts off.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers gave us a consistently frisky ground-and-pound team. The Nebraska Cornhuskers gave us the flukiest August win ever in a foreign country. The Wisconsin Badgers gave Big Ten West fans some hope that it could be a team from our side to emerge victorious in the Championship.
The Iowa Hawkeyes were the other dominant force of the West — if you can really call any of these teams one. They put on display the best defense any football fan can ever remember watching. but they could rarely score points. The Purdue Boilermakers gave Northwestern fans a nice little winnable game (until recent years) on the schedule.
Illinois was also in the west, but there’s not much to say about them. I suppose they gave us a team to hate above all others, and lately, some serious Thanksgiving break pain. But that was the beauty of the Big Ten West. One weekend would feature a painful loss and the next would have a bounce-back upset that turned the whole season on its head.
The Big Ten itself may feature more high-level talent and more high-profile matchups next year, but you heard it here first, it’s gonna miss the allure of the Big Ten West. Nothing will be the same when many of the teams I just listed, if not all of them, are uncompetitive.
So let’s remember the Big Ten West and all that it meant to Midwest sports fans everywhere. There was nothing else like it, and there never will be. As we ride out the final season of its existence, the legacy of the West will live on in all the fans who were glued to their TVs every Saturday. Its rivalries, its intensity and its impact will endure.