Alex Hickey: Of course the Big Ten West is bonkers until the last drop
Banana peels. Black ice. Politicians. And now you can add the Big Ten West championship trophy to the list of the world’s most slippery items.
A month ago, it looked securely fastened in Illinois’ hands. But it turned out to be covered in Crisco as the Illini lost 3 in a row. Minnesota had a remote shot at securing the prize, but handed it right over to Iowa with 2 late turnovers in last week’s 13-10 loss.
All the Hawkeyes needed to do was beat Nebraska for the 8th straight time, and the West would be won.
But the Cornhuskers had other plans on Friday evening.
Even though news trickled out that interim coach Mickey Joseph is about to be replaced by Matt Rhule, Nebraska’s players didn’t put their heads down. Beating Iowa for the first time in any of their careers and sending Joseph out a winner was enough motivation.
So the Huskers did their thing, contributing to the West’s season-long theme of chaos. Despite multiple attempts to hand the game back to Iowa in the fourth quarter, Nebraska held on for a 24-17 win that revived title hopes for Illinois and Purdue.
Clearly we were fooling ourselves for thinking college football’s zaniest division could possibly be wrapped up before the season’s final day.
And even though the Boilermakers and Fighting Illini are both double-digit favorites Saturday, let’s not pretend that means anything in the Big Ten West.
Battling for more than a Bucket
Everyone knows No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State is the most high-stakes game in the Big Ten. But now The Game will be followed by a pair of suddenly compelling undercards that kick off at the same time.
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In Bloomington, Indiana hosts Purdue for the most important Old Oaken Bucket game since 2000. That’s when Drew Brees led the Boilers to a 41-13 win to clinch their most recent Big Ten title. But that was a home game for Purdue. There legitimately hasn’t been a Purdue trip to Memorial Stadium with this much at stake since 1967, when the winner went to the Rose Bowl.
The Hoosiers won that game. And even though Indiana won’t make a bowl game, a win over Purdue on Saturday would be a seminal moment in program history. The opportunity to play spoiler for the Boilers’ most important game in 2 decades is a feat that can rarely be duplicated.
It’s the kind of upset that IU fans would be able to milk for a lifetime.
Pitt fans have not stopped razzing West Virginia fans for the past 15 years about the Panthers’ 13-9 upset that kept the Mountaineers from the 2007 BCS national championship game. Beating the Boilermakers would provide the Hoosiers with similar ammunition.
And in that sense, that makes the Bucket Game even more compelling than The Game. Michigan or Ohio State might not even be eliminated from the College Football Playoff picture with a loss. And there’s a chance next year’s game will be for the exact same stakes.
It’s not going to be that way for Purdue. Not unless Jeff Brohm hits it out of the park in the transfer portal replacing Aidan O’Connell and Charlie Jones. These opportunities are rare for the Boilers. If it’s close late, the tension will be through the roof.
Can the Illini slip back in?
It’s hard to imagine the emotional roller coaster Bret Bielema has been on this season.
Simply reaching a bowl game was all Illinois fans could have asked for this season. And 7 weeks in, the Illini had already achieved that goal. Illinois was 1 of college football’s best stories in 2022. But the story has taken a sad turn as of late.
Illinois lost its final 2 home games to Michigan State and Purdue. Those losses pale in comparison to the loss of Bielema’s mother, who unexpectedly died the week leading up to the Michigan game.
Despite a tremendous effort — and perhaps some unfavorable calls — the Illini fell short in a 19-17 loss to the Wolverines.
It’s been a November of total devastation in Champaign.
But now there’s a chance this month will end up being the darkness before dawn.
The Illini need Indiana to beat Purdue for this miracle to take hold. But if the Hoosiers are able to comply, the bleakness will fade away for Illinois. The Illini just need Chase Brown to go off against the nation’s 106th-ranked run defense and let their own No. 3-ranked pass defense go to work against Northwestern’s 4th-string quarterback.
Alive in Iowa City
Iowa is the Big Ten’s zombie program. Every time it looks like the Hawkeyes will be tripped up by their offensive ineptitude, they somehow rise from the grave.
Thus, it’s perfectly fitting that the Hawkeyes aren’t dead yet after losing to Nebraska. If Iowa can somehow get the double upset — Indiana beating Purdue and Northwestern beating Illinois — the Hawkeyes will win the West trophy they could have clinched on Friday.
Without question, it would be the most bizarre manner in which any Power 5 team has won a division title.
But this is the 2022 Big Ten West. Don’t assume things are done being weird until an actual division champion arrives in Indianapolis — whomever that may be.