It’s a heartbreaking thing to put down in writing, but the Big Ten West has played its final game. After being introduced in 2014, the conference enjoyed a decade of this iteration of the divisional structure and created one of the most chaotic, warped and upside-down divisions in college football memory. The Big Ten West, best known for punts, had a great run, even if no teams took home a conference championship. As a tribute to everyone’s favorite division, here is the complete ranking of every team esteemed enough to sit upon the throne of the West, decided by a multitude of factors.
10. 2022 Purdue Boilermakers (8-6, 6-3)
The clear choice for the bottom spot is last year’s Purdue squad, a team that was never ranked in the AP Poll or CFP all season, despite receiving some votes at different points in the season. Although the Boilermakers picked up two ranked wins (against Minnesota and Illinois, both ranked No. 21 at the times of the contests) en route to the program’s first conference championship appearance, Purdue’s six overall losses are the most of any team on this list. One of those losses includes a 63-7 thrashing against LSU in the Citrus Bowl to end the season on a sour note.
Led by the likes of Aidan O’Connell and Charlie Jones, there was nothing wrong with this team; it just benefitted from a weak year in the West and isn’t especially memorable. Statistically, the Boilermakers were middling in almost all of the important categories, with the exception of the passing offense, which ranked amongst the conference’s best. This season proved to be Jeff Brohm’s last on the sideline, as he took the Louisville job ahead of the Citrus Bowl.
9. 2023 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-2, 7-2)
Maybe this is the opposite of recency bias, but the current Iowa Hawkeyes team stands out as one of the least inspiring teams to represent the West in Indianapolis. This could all change in an instant should Iowa upset Michigan on Saturday, becoming the first team from the division to capture the conference crown, which would vault the Hawkeyes near the top of the list. But frankly, I think that’s unlikely.
Despite the ultra-rare decision to fire the offensive coordinator midseason despite a winning record, Iowa has remained largely consistent. The team overcame an early-season knee injury to transfer quarterback Cade McNamara and have a truly stifling defense that allows just 12.2 points per game. So why is Iowa so low? For starters, the Hawkeyes are the only team on this list without a single win against a ranked opponent (not one!). Pending this weekend’s result, the one time Iowa did face a team in the top 25 resulted in a 31-0 loss to then-No. 7 Penn State. On top of that, Iowa’s offense ranks 13th in the conference at 18 points per game and dead last in yards per game, thanks to a passing attack that threw for the same amount of touchdowns and interceptions (nine), averaging just 123.4 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt. All this to say, despite some great defense and exceptional punting, Iowa’s chances to upset Michigan look pretty slim.
8. 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes (10-4, 7-2)
Yes, I have ranked the three most recent conference champions as the three lowest on this list. By ranking, this Iowa team is responsible for the single best win of any team on the list, with the upset of No. 4 Penn State in the middle of the season. Iowa also picked up rock-solid resume-boosters with early-season victories against No. 17 Indiana and No. 9 Iowa State. So once again, why is Iowa so low? My sincere opinion is this Iowa team was a little overrated all along. After upsetting the Nittany Lions, the Hawkeyes moved all the way up to land as the No. 2 team in the country. Immediately after, the team lost two consecutive games to unranked Purdue and Wisconsin by a combined 37 points. Late in the season, Iowa was blown out 42-3 in the Big Ten Championship before losing its bowl game to Kentucky,
Just like the 2023 team, Iowa’s offense struggled, finishing 13th in the conference in yards per game, except the defense was not as dominant on a play-to-play basis, finishing closer to the middle of the pack. Where the defense did excel, however, was in the interception department, in which the team snagged 25 picks in 14 games, including three that were returned for touchdowns. Despite this, no Big Ten team picked up less first downs than the Hawkeyes, as the offense converted third and fourth downs around just one-third of the time.
7. 2018 Northwestern Wildcats (9-5, 8-1)
Despite going winless in the regular season non-conference slate, including a pretty embarrassing home loss to Akron, this Northwestern team turned it on when the lights were bright in conference play, with the only loss being a three-point defeat to a ranked Michigan squad. Clayton Thorson and Paddy Fisher were the faces of the team that punched Northwestern’s first ticket to Indianapolis, eventually culminating in a Holiday Bowl victory over Utah and a No. 21 ranking to close the year.
Although none were in the top 15, this Northwestern group has more ranked wins (four) than any other Big Ten West champion, with victories coming against Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Utah. Those wins are enough to counteract a statistical resume that doesn’t do much to warrant confidence. Northwestern gets the edge over 2021 Iowa because of a bowl game victory and a far more competitive showing in the conference championship game, which stood at 31-24 early in the fourth quarter in a battle with a potent Ohio State squad.
6. 2020 Northwestern Wildcats (7-2, 6-1)
The 2020 Wildcats are difficult to evaluate because of the pandemic-shortened season, but much like the NBA bubble Lakers, I don’t view the Wildcats’ success as a Mickey Mouse run. Instead, I view the winning as even more impressive considering the circumstances. With canceled non-conference games against Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State, it’s not unrealistic to say this could have been a 10-2 Northwestern team.
After a win against No. 10 Wisconsin, Northwestern moved as high as No. 8 in the CFP rankings and after a win over Auburn in the Citrus Bowl, the Wildcats finished the season 10th in the AP. Despite future first-round pick Rashawn Slater opting out of the season, Northwestern was one of the most dangerous squads in the nation. The team was led by a defense that allowed a conference-low 15.9 points per game, highlighted by a secondary group that included Greg Newsome II and Brandon Joseph, who recorded this unreal play in the conference championship game against Ohio State — the closest margin in a Big Ten championship in the last six years:
5. 2014 Wisconsin Badgers (11-3, 7-1)
I found 2014 Wisconsin to be the single-hardest team to rank. On one hand, the Badgers lost 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship to Ohio State (not great!). On the other, Melvin Gordon (very great!). Ultimately, I settled for smack dab in the middle. Wisconsin finished the year with three quality ranked wins (Nebraska, Minnesota, Auburn), an excellent record in conference play and a No. 13 ranking from the Associated Press. But what really puts this team in contention is its star running back. I’m just going to go ahead and list some cool things Melvin Gordon accomplished in 2014:
- 253 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Bowling Green
- 259 rushing yards against Northwestern
- FBS single-game record (and school and conference record) 408 rushing yards against No. 16 Nebraska, adding four touchdowns, which he accomplished on just 25 carries
- 200 rushing yards and 64 receiving yards against Iowa
- Fastest player to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a season (17th player ever to accomplish this feat)
- 251 yards against Auburn and Outback Bowl MVP
- 32 total touchdowns
- 2,587 rushing yards, second-highest mark in FBS history
- Doak Walker Award winner
- Heisman Trophy finalist
I think you all get the point.
4. 2019 Wisconsin Badgers (10-4, 7-2)
The 2019 Badgers started the year 6-0, including a win against No. 11 Michigan and a 3-0 record in non-conference play, in which the Badgers outscored their three opponents 158-0. Ranked as high as sixth in the country, the Badgers fell back to earth with losses to Illinois and Ohio State. After going on another four-game win streak with wins over No. 18 Iowa and No. 8 Minnesota, Wisconsin assumed the No. 8 spot in the ranking before another loss to a top-ranked Buckeye squad in Indianapolis. The season closed with an exhilarating Rose Bowl loss in a one-point game to the Justin Herbert-captained Oregon Ducks.
So, why then, is this team, with more losses than the ‘14 Badgers and without Melvin Gordon, one spot higher in the ranking? The ranked wins are certainly a plus, and the Badgers ranked in the top three among the Big Ten in both scoring offense and defense, sitting atop the conference in yardage on both sides of the football. And despite no Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin running back factory churned out Jonathan Taylor, who put together his own Doak Walker Award-winning season (for the second time), collecting unanimous All-American honors after a season in which he collected over 2,000 rushing yards and 26 total touchdowns.
3. 2015 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-2, 8-0)
Iowa’s first unbeaten regular season since 1922 gets the Hawkeyes the bronze medal on this list. Although Iowa lacks any true signature wins (two victories over ranked opponents: No. 19 Wisconsin and No. 20 Northwestern) the overall body of work is impressive and no team has come closer to winning the Big Ten. Iowa fell to No. 5 Michigan State 16-13 on a nine-minute Spartan touchdown drive that left Iowa with just 27 seconds to mount a comeback. The season ended unceremoniously with Christian McCaffrey running up and down Iowa’s defense in the Rose Bowl as the Hawkeyes fell, 45-16.
Unlike the Hawkeye teams of late, this Iowa offense scored almost 31 points a game with C.J. Beathard manning the offense. And, shocker, the defense still remained a top five unit in the Big Ten. The unit picked off a conference-best 19 passes, returning four for scores. In my opinion, the 2015 version is the clear choice amongst the three West-champion Hawkeye teams.
2. 2016 Wisconsin Badgers (11-3, 7-2)
This Badger team might have the strongest overall resume of any team on the list. The squad has four wins against teams in the top 12 (No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Michigan State, No. 7 Nebraska and No. 12 Western Michigan) and each of the three losses were in one-score games against top-10 teams. Seven-point losses to No. 4 Michigan, No. 8 Penn State and No. 2 Ohio State (OT) make it easy to imagine a very different season where just one of those results is flipped, which would make this team a prime candidate for the top spot.
The Cotton Bowl champs outscored their opponents by 13 points per game, averaging over 200 rushing yards per contest and holding their opponents under the 100-yard mark. Across 14 first quarters, the Badgers defense, led by T.J. Watt, allowed just 22 points in total. Although the offense may have lacked the star power compared to other Wisconsin teams, this may be the most well-rounded team the Badgers have fielded.
1. 2017 Wisconsin Badgers (13-1, 9-0)
A year after the impressive 2016 season, the Badgers came back even better, now armed with star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. The team went undefeated in the regular season, including wins over No. 20 Iowa and No. 24 Michigan. And most of Wisconsin’s games weren’t even close. In the regular season, the team played in a singular one-score game, an eight-point win over Purdue. Ranked fourth with a chance to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Badgers could not defeat the Buckeyes for the second consecutive season, losing 27-21 and falling instead to the Orange Bowl, where they took care of business against a plucky Miami (FL) team ranked No. 10.
Jonathan Taylor was the star, breaking the record for most times being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week (eight) and finishing sixth in Heisman voting during his freshman year. Wisconsin outscored opponents by nearly 20 points per game (33.6 to 13.9) while once again rushing for over 200 yards per game and holding the opposition below the century-mark. The team converted an absurd 48% of its third downs, and this time it was the fourth quarter defense that was superb, allowing only 27 points over 14 fourth quarters. The team ranked seventh in the country by the end of the season is the clear candidate for the top spot on this list.