Read in carnie voice from your local state fair: “Step right up head coaches and players. Teams of all records and prospects of all star-ratings. Test your luck in representing the B1G West at Lucas Oil Stadium on Dec. 3 against a program that likely would ruin your life during the regular season if you had to play them!”

That’s the Big Ten West.

So, yes, Iowa is still in the running to take home the title. Even with little-to-no success offensively, the Hawkeyes still have a chance. Heck, thanks to its stellar defense and the home atmosphere at Kinnick Stadium, one might view Iowa as a front-runner in the division.

The Hawkeyes won it last year. They barely missed in 2020 and 2019. Could 2022 be their year again?

They’ll have to prove themselves Saturday night at Illinois (6:30 CT, BTN). Here’s a sentence you haven’t read in quite some time: Iowa will be a 3.5-point underdog to the Illini.

It is indeed a weird year in the West.

It’s hard to imagine even the most loyal of fans believing that Iowa would be a contender with its offense. After its 27-14 loss to No. 4 Michigan, it felt as if it was time to wave the white flag. Wolverines quarterback JJ McCarthy never felt pressure. Iowa’s defense forced zero turnovers.

But then Minnesota lost Mohamed Ibrahim for a week and the Gophers fizzled vs. visiting Purdue — a program that hadn’t won at Huntington Bank Stadium since it opened in 2009. Suddenly, Iowa was part of a 6-way tie for 1st.

The B1G West is more open than a pre-coronavirus Wal-Mart. With it, the Hawkeyes have a chance to repeat as division champs.

There are even a few straws Iowa can grasp at from last weekend.

Although Michigan’s offense pummeled its way to a victory in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes held Jim Harbaugh’s squad to a season-low in points. McCarthy, the wunderkind dubbed by Harbaugh as “young Jimmy,” threw for a season-low 155 yards. And outside of 2 big runs from Blake Corum, Iowa bent but didn’t break.

The Wolverines’ offense is one of college football’s top units. It entered last week averaging 50 points and 489 yards per outing. Iowa held it to 327 yards. The Hawkeyes held Michigan to a season-low in yards per pass (6.5) and allowed only 4 third-down conversions.

What does all that mean? In layman’s terms, it means the Jack Campbell-led defense is enabling Iowa to hang around.

Iowa is holding opponents to 10 points per game. Its offense is scoring 11. Even the best defenses need a little more breathing room than that. Right?

Defenses collide in Illinois

Iowa (3-2, 1-1) enters a pivotal Week 6 matchup against Illinois (4-1, 1-1).

Bret Bielema is riding high after beating his former program so bad, Wisconsin fired Paul Chryst after a 2-3 start to the season. In a sense, the Illini coach should be celebrating after listening to the jokes about how he “couldn’t win the big game in Madison.”

Maybe the Badgers couldn’t? Bielema just did.

For those that love great defensive performances, Saturday evening’s kickoff from Memorial Stadium in Champaign is the place to be. The Illini currently have the No. 3 overall defense in the nation, and the No. 1 scoring defense at 8.4 points per game. Close behind? Okay, it’s Minnesota (8.8), but then right after is Iowa (10.0).

Illinois brings more offensive firepower, averaging 180 more yards per game than Iowa. Led by Power 5 leading rusher Chase Brown and efficient transfer QB Tommy DeVito, the Illini can actually move the ball. But maybe not against Iowa?

The winner’s prize is a chance to remain in the hunt for the division title. The loser gets a cold dose of realizing that in any other division, their chances of winning the whole shindig were likely over weeks ago.

Iowa still can win a division title. It still can make it to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl if it defeats No. 3 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan or No. 10 Penn State in 2 months in Indianapolis. The trio will cannibalize each other in the B1G East over the coming weeks, so perhaps that strengthens the Hawkeyes’ chances.

For now, the attention is on the Illini. After that, a week of rest and reflection before taking on the Buckeyes.

A win Saturday will go far for Iowa and its psyche. Then again, a victory would go far for any program looking to win this B1G West carnival game.