When the calendar turns to November, there isn’t much talk throughout the week about the teams that aren’t in the College Football Playoff picture. There’s a heavy emphasis on which teams are still vying for one of the spots in the four-team field.
In the B1G, though, there are four stories that deserve a little more attention than what they’ve been receiving. Four programs that have teeter-tottered on the line between mediocre and bad over the last decade or so have been incredibly fun to watch.
One of those stories is Minnesota, which sits at No. 8 in the country and is 9-0 with a top 10 win over Penn State. The Gophers have been getting plenty of attention across the nation, but the story is still worth mentioning again.
Indiana, Illinois and even Purdue have all been the quiet surprises this season, proving that anything can happen in any given year and on any given weekend in college football. Here’s a closer look at those four underdog stories that have made the B1G so entertaining this year.
#9WINDIANA is on the verge of reality
If you’ve followed B1G or Indiana football for long enough and have an active presence on social media, you’re probably familiar with the hashtag #9WINDIANA. It’s the trendy conversation starter that has teased Hoosier fans for nearly a decade now. A scan of the schedule and a glimpse of the roster has had folks in Bloomington hopeful that they’d finish a season with nine wins a few times over the last 10 years.
So far, Indiana hasn’t come close to delivering to hitting that mark. But now, in the words of Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters, “it looks like it may actually happen.”
The Hoosiers are sitting at 7-2 on the season, and are ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Poll this week, ending a 25-year drought from the college football rankings. They are winners of four straight games, notched a huge road win over Nebraska in Lincoln and played their first November night game in the history of Memorial Stadium’s existence.
Yes, Tom Allen is cooking with gas in Bloomington, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. In case you haven’t heard, Indiana’s last two recruiting classes (2018, 2019) are the two best in program history.
Indiana still needs to get two more wins this season to make that #9WINDIANA hashtag a reality. And those victories won’t come easily. The Hoosiers travel to Happy Valley to play No. 9 Penn State this weekend and then host No. 15 Michigan the following Saturday. To close the year, IU heads to West Lafayette to battle rival Purdue. Getting just one win in that stretch could be a challenge.
But, if Allen and the Hoosiers can knock off just one of those teams, they’ll be headed to the postseason with the opportunity to capture that elusive ninth win. Or, you know, IU could do what it’s done all season long, shock the world and get two more wins in the regular season and try for #10WINDIANA in its bowl game. Wouldn’t that be something?
Lovie Ball is doing wonders in Champaign
Raise your hand if you believed Lovie Smith when he said he expected to be celebrating a lot more wins in Illinois’ “second season” earlier this year. You know, when the Illini were sitting at 2-4 through the first six games.
If your hand is waving around in the air, you’re probably lying. Not many would’ve believed this kind of a turnaround in Champaign, considering how the first six games played out for the Fighting Illini. And, even if there was some belief that maybe Illinois had just enough in the tank to crank out six wins, there’s no way anyone expected to look like this. Not after losing to Eastern Michigan, blowing a massive lead against Nebraska and falling flat against Minnesota.
Suddenly, though, something snapped.
An upset win over No. 6 Wisconsin, convincing wins over Purdue and Rutgers and a 25-point comeback victory over Michigan State on the road has completely changed the perception of this program. Not only is Illinois now 6-4, it’s won four-straight games and two of those came in thrilling fashion. It’s been an exciting month in Champaign. And it’s all because of Lovie Ball.
Winning the turnover battle has always been a point of emphasis for Smith, and his team now appears to be completely bought in to that approach. During this four-game win streak, Illinois has gotten 12 takeaways and is +9 in turnover margin. Just incredible.
Maybe there is a little magic in that beard, after all. I know that gets overplayed, but I couldn’t resist.
Purdue, somehow, is still staying afloat
A team’s win-loss record doesn’t always paint the full picture of a season. That’s certainly the case in West Lafayette this year. Jeff Brohm deserves a ton of credit for having Purdue at 4-6 this season and continuing to fight for bowl eligibility.
Purdue has been short-handed essentially all season long. For a good portion of the year, the Boilermakers have been without their top two defenders Markus Bailey and Lorenzo Neal. In the B1G opener against Minnesota, starting quarterback Elijah Sindelar and superstar wide receiver Rondale Moore went down with injuries. Neither has returned this season.
Those are just the headliners. At times, there have probably been more names on the injured list than on Purdue’s two-deep, and that’s not even that much of an exaggeration. Brohm has been forced to start as many as nine true or redshirt freshmen, with 20 or more included on the two-deep, depending on the week.
Yet, here the Boilers are, heading into the final two games of the season with the chance to still earn a postseason bid. They’ve done it with freshmen accounting for the last 19 touchdowns and a walk-on, third-string quarterback stepping into a starting role.
No, the Boilermakers haven’t beaten anyone of real significance, defeating Vanderbilt, Maryland, Nebraska and Northwestern, all teams with losing records. But, based on talent and experience, you could argue that Purdue could quite easily be a one-win team that rolled over when things got tough. Instead, it did the opposite.
Brohm isn’t going to be named the B1G Coach of the Year, but this has been one of the more remarkable coaching jobs we’ve seen in the conference this season. And that’s really saying something.
Rowing into the College Football Playoff conversation
Expectations for Minnesota varied during the offseason. Some thought the Gophers were a solid bowl team but still a year away from being a B1G West contender. Others thought this team could compete for a division and conference title this season.
But nobody, not one person outside the “four walls” in Minneapolis, anticipated that P.J. Fleck would have his team right in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation nine games into the season. The Gophers are currently 9-0, rank No. 8 in the rankings and are being mentioned with the likes of Georgia, Alabama, Oregon and Utah.
The little guy has finally worked its way to the big boy table, and he’s holding his own.
Minnesota started the season rowing with just one oar. Players were dragging the boat to shore during the non-conference season, needing game-winning drives against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern in the fourth quarter to get to just 3-0. There wasn’t much belief in the Gophers after that.
Then, something clicked. Immediately after the off week, Minnesota looked like a completely different team. Yes, it played Purdue close in a 38-31 contest, but it then defeated Illinois, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers by a combined 168-41. Last Saturday, The Gophers defeated No. 4 Penn State 31-26 to notch one of the biggest wins in program history.
Regardless of what happens in the final three weeks of the regular season and potentially the B1G Championship Game, Fleck has proven that his unique approach to college football works. Maybe some don’t for his use of acronyms, quirky analogies and “Row the Boat” culture, but all of it is certainly working inside those “four walls.”
Ultimately, that’s all that matters. And you know what? It’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon.