Anyone can win the wild, wild Big Ten West. The conference title? Not so much.
In this year’s Big Ten preseason poll, Ohio State is a unanimous pick to win the Big Ten East. In the West, 3 teams were picked to win the division, while a total of 5 teams received 2nd-place votes.
Welcome to the Big Ten West — where anybody can win the division, but nobody can win the Big Ten Championship Game. Since the Leaders and Legends divisions were dissolved in 2014 with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the West champs are an uninspiring 0-8 in the title game.
With Ohio State likely entering the season no lower than No. 2 in the national polls, that trend is expected to continue this December.
But in the eyes of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, the East’s competitive advantage over the West is overstated. To him, it’s a matter of the other division having the Buckeyes.
“I think it’s Ohio State,” Ferentz said. “If you scheduled them before 1900, you might be able to beat them on a consistent basis. But since then, it’s been pretty good. Good coaches, good players. When I was in the NFL we had a lot of guys [from there].
“We’d be the underdogs whether we play them this year, play them again this year, or play them next year. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
The margin between the East and West is much smaller in the regular season. The East holds a 77-70 edge, and the Buckeyes are solely responsible for the advantage. Ohio State is 18-2 against West opponents.
That being the case, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t buying into the notion that the East is more dominant.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Harbaugh said when asked if the Big Ten has a power imbalance.
How the West is fun
Though things inevitably go south for the West champs when they reach Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game in December, the division’s parity makes for a more compelling product from September-November. Odds are, multiple teams will enter the final week of the season with a chance to get to Lucas Oil Stadium.
In 2019, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe determined whether Wisconsin or Minnesota would go to the championship game the following week. The next year, both Northwestern and Iowa went into their regular-season finales with a shot at the title. Last season, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue all had pathways to the title game heading into the final week.
“That’s pretty much been the West,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. “September and October give you an opportunity to be in the hunt in November. In 2020, the day we won it we had to have things happen. We didn’t expect to be Big Ten West champs that day.”
As the preseason poll shows, the level of parity we saw last season in particular may only be prelude to even more chaos this season. Instead of 3 teams tying for second place, we might see 3 or more tied for first.
“The competitive nature of it, there’s some really good rivalries on [our] side,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a fun side to be on.”
It can also be a far more topsy-turvy division than the East as a result. Look no further than the Wildcats, who went from first to worst in the West last season. Roster composition seems to matter more in the West, where programs are less likely to reload with top-10 signing classes like Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State.
“For us a year ago, we were maybe one of the youngest from an experience standpoint in the Big Ten where a lot of teams had most of their COVID guys come back,” Fitzgerald said. “Two years ago, we had our most veteran team — 11 guys get an opportunity to go on to the NFL.
“Now we have veterans who have been part of both type of teams.”
Why the West is riding into the sunset
Whether you love the West’s wackiness or shake your head at its championship game failings, the end is near.
Even before the Big Ten’s addition of USC and UCLA, there were rumblings that the Big Ten would eventually move away from a divisional structure. One popular idea was to give each team 3 protected opponents while rotating between 6 other teams each season.
Once the Trojans and Bruins enter the league in 2024, a change in structure is certain to follow. If the league stayed in divisions, cross-divisional schools could potentially play just once every 5 years or more. That’s not going to happen.
A 16-team B1G allows the conference to be divided into 4 subdivisions. Each team would play its 3 subdivisional opponents every year, plus 2 opponents from each other subdivision for a 9-game schedule. The teams with the top 2 records would meet in the championship game even if they inhabit the same subdivision.
“I think it’s less about the rivalries and more making sure that our players and our fans are able to step into every venue and able to experience the pageantry of Big Ten football,” Fitzgerald said of the future. “It’s going to be complicated. But when you look at it from a holistic standpoint, I hope that’s the experience of our Big Ten student-athletes.
“Being able to play a game in Piscataway, N.J., and going out and able to play a regular season game in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl and everything in between, nobody else will be able to say that. You’re talking about unique, iconic venues, cathedrals of college football that are in the Big Ten landscape.
“The ability to participate in that as a student-athlete is always what’s made Big Ten football special, and I hope we’re able to keep that.”
Until then, 2 rides remain in the Big Ten West as we know it. And they may end up being the wildest ones yet.