CHICAGO — With four teams likely to be ranked in the top 15 in the preseason polls, the East Division of the Big Ten Conference has become the beast of college football.
The Big Ten West?
In the four years since the Big Ten abandoned the nonsensical Legends and Leaders divisions in favor of a geography-based alignment, the West has become the University of Wisconsin and six candidates for the Pinstripe Bowl.
“They’ve been top dog in the Big Ten West for the past few years,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson said of the Badgers. “We know in order to get to the Big Ten Championship (Game), we’re going to have to beat them. That’s how we think about it and that’s the truth.”
That truth has been good for UW, bad for the rest of the Big Ten. The Badgers’ domination of the West has given it a virtual free pass to the Big Ten title game, but it has left the conference open to criticism that it has less competitive balance than Wisconsin’s annual deer hunt.
The disparity has never looked greater than it does now. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and UW are all considered national title contenders, more than any other conference. Only UW is in the West.
“The competitive level in the Big Ten Conference right now is as strong as its ever been in any conference,” said Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, who coached Florida to back-to-back national championships a decade ago and the Buckeyes to the title in the initial College Football Playoff in 2014. “Speaking in particular about the Big Ten East ... it’s the most competitive division that I’ve ever been a part of.”
No one in the West can make such a claim because the Badgers have been dominant. Since 2014, UW has a 29-5 record in Big Ten regular-season play and has won three of the four division titles. Its record against West teams is 21-3. It has a 13-game winning streak against West opponents dating to 2015.
Of course, UW is also 0-3 in Big Ten title games. Throw in Iowa’s title-game loss in 2015 and the East’s domination is out there for all to see.
“I’m not going to lie, there are great teams on the other side of the conference,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “There’s a lot of history, a lot of tradition.”
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The only way to reverse the perception that the Big Ten lacks competitive balance is for the other West teams to step up their games and for some team, presumably UW, to knock off the East champion Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. With the Badgers expected to be ranked among the top 10 in the preseason polls and some impressive young coaches entering the West in the past two years, that’s not out of the question.
“Wisconsin’s very good,” Brohm said. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got great players, they play their style of football and they are tough to beat. I’d like to find a way for other teams to inch up. I think Northwestern has. I think Iowa is in the vicinity. Obviously, the rest of us need to pick it up and try to get closer.”
Northwestern has made a steady ascent in the West, going 27-12 overall and 18-8 in the Big Ten the past three years. Iowa remains a rock-steady program that throws in a monster season every few years, the most recent in 2015. Both return veteran quarterbacks — Thorson at Northwestern, Nate Stanley at Iowa — who could put them in position to challenge UW this season.
Meanwhile, the rebuilding projects at Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota bear watching because those schools hired aggressive, offensive-minded coaches who had great success in non-Power Five conferences.
Nebraska has rallied around home-state hero Scott Frost, whose Central Florida team went 13-0 last year, just two years after George O’Leary’s last team went 0-12. Two years ago, Purdue hired Brohm away from Western Kentucky and Minnesota imported P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan. Brohm won four Big Ten games in his first season at Purdue, which is one more than the school won in the previous four seasons combined. Minnesota took a step back under Fleck, but he took Western Michigan from 1-11 in his first year to 13-1 in his fourth.
“If the West isn’t as good as the East, that’s why I’m here,” Frost said. “I want to do my part to make sure that doesn’t happen anymore. If Nebraska’s where it should be, I don’t think anybody would have to have that feeling. I know there’s really good coaches in this half of the league and some programs on the upswing.”
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday he doesn’t expect any changes in the current divisional format.
“The first (alignment) was based on competitive balance over the last 20 years and, to be honest with you, it wasn’t received that well,” Delany said. “All conferences except for the Big Ten have really stayed with their geographic groupings and I think there’s probably a reason for that. I think it probably has to do with the fan base’s natural inclination to see, even though conferences are larger, more geographic rivalries. ... But I think you’ll see greater and greater competitiveness. I know in the SEC you saw a decade of Eastern dominance and probably in the last 15 or years the West has probably been more dominant. So I think you’re going to see more and more competition between the two divisions.”
Until that happens, everyone will be chasing UW in the West.