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The Big Ten West is going to be wild

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Nebraska is up. Iowa is down. The division is there for the taking.

Rick Wood-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the season, everything made sense about the Big Ten West.

  • Iowa was coming off a huge 2015 that looked a bit fortuitous. Regardless, the Hawkeyes were a top-20 team and felt very much like the bully on the block.
  • Nebraska was pretty solid, with the constant, lingering feeling that the Huskers’ big-game composure miiiight just be on par with anxiety-ridden goldfish.
Poor little guys.
  • Minnesota was a team on the rise, dangerous enough to maybe take back the Axe for the first time since the Eisenhower administration.
  • Northwestern was one of luckiest teams in the Big Ten last year and it felt like the luck might run out. Except when the Badgers came to Evanston, in which case the Wildcats automatically morph into a demon hybrid of the 1985 Chicago Bears and the Kurt Warner-era Iowa Barnstomers. (Bearnstormers?)
Man, he looks like Dennis Quaid in Any Given Sunday. I bet he could outplay Cutler right now.
  • The Badgers were a team who would be better than their record but who might ultimately be playing for 2017 once they made it through a soul-munching schedule.
  • Purdue and Illinois were schools whose football teams play in the Big Ten West. Wait, is that right? (Double checks.) Yes. These teams play in the Big Ten.
Hey, good for them!

Now that the annual “let’s play a good team, or maybe a regional non-conference rival, or hey, why don’t we just pay some small directional school unconscionable amounts of money to play us” portion of the season is over, we sit utterly flummoxed at the state of things. Let’s check in on the wild, wild West:

Iowa (2-1)

Oh man.

I have no idea why anyone would schedule North Dakota State. Not just FBS schools. I mean anyone. The Bison should be 0-0 every year, sitting at home every Saturday playing pinochle. Scheduling these guys for a non-conference game (and paying them for the privilege) is like inviting your devastatingly handsome, wealthy, successful, somewhat-of-a-cad best friend along on long weekend at the lake with your new girlfriend. Just. Don’t.

Anyway, the Hawkeyes (fresh on the heels of a possibly ill-advised extension for Kirk Ferentz) are reeling. As bad as it feels right now, I am not sure this is as terrible a loss as it seems. I can probably name 30+ FBS schools I would rather play than NDSU (Purdue, Illinois...). While the loss takes some of the luster off of Wisconsin’s Oct. 22 game in Iowa City, this is still a dangerous team that’s going to be there all the way until the end.

Nebraska (3-0)

Good job, Huskers!

Flying duck.

Be honest. You flipped on this game, hangover already starting to seep in from the Badgers’ early start time, and you figured that Nebraska was going to fall apart at the end. Admit it. Even when they went up late, you thought, “Oh, this one’s going to reeeeeallly hurt when Oregon wins.” But nope—they pulled it out. I am as surprised as anyone.

Sure, Oregon may be down a bit this year. Sure, it was in Lincoln. But a mentally strong Nebraska is a dangerous Nebraska. Perhaps chill uncle Mike Riley has washed away a bit of the neuroticism of the Bo Pelini-era Huskers (god I miss him). Call it recency bias, but the Oct. 29 game at Camp Randall just got a little more interesting.

Minnesota (2-0)

We just can’t quite get Gary Andersen out of our lives, can we?

I bet they’re scouting a JUCO game.

Through a quirk of the schedule, the Gophers have only played two games, including a sloppily-played opener against Andersen’s Oregon State Beavers in which three (!!!) Gophers were ejected for targeting. One would have expected that after the first two ejections, there would have been some discussion along the lines of, “Hey, guys, let’s dial this whole use-our-bodies-as-cruise-missiles thing back a bit,” but nope.

This looks like frisky team. Quarterback Mitch Leidner might be pretty good and the defense ain’t terrible. The season-ending game at Camp Randall on Thanksgiving weekend might end up being more than for the Axe.

God I love that thing.

Northwestern (1-2)

Gah.

Oh... oh lord...

Hmmmm... ok then.

Weird season so far for the Wildcats. Lose to Western Michigan. Lose to Illinois State. Beat a not-terrible Duke team on Saturday. Looking at their schedule, I’m not sure how they get to bowl eligibility without beating a few teams they shouldn’t. The trip to Evanston on Nov. 5 feels fraught with peril, especially if the Badgers are ranked.

Illinois (1-2) and Purdue (1-1)

These teams are not very good. Illinois lost to UNC and Western Michigan (fun fact: P.J. Fleck’s boat rowers would be at the top of the Big Ten with wins vs. the Illini and Northwestern already this season.) They moved up to 61st this week in the S&P+ rankings, beneath Memphis and Western Michigan and above Washington State and Duke (for reference, the Badgers are 20th). Sounds about right.

Like Minnesota, Purdue caught an early bye this year, matching up with Nevada this week before starting its Big Ten slate. Feels like a pretty typical Purdue season. Lots of offense. Defense optional.

All joking aside, one of these teams is going to beat one of the contenders. Guaranteed. It will either be awful (Badgers) or hilarious (Nebraska), but other than that, neither of these teams is going to make a run this year.

Ladies & gentlemen, your 2016 Big Ten Champions.

So where does that leave our Badgers (3-0)?

One of the few benefits of nearly losing to Georgia State is that the irrational exuberance of the first two weeks has abruptly dissipated. Heading into Big Ten play, we can look soberly upon this team and see that the Badgers are pretty much what we thought they were coming into the year. When playing well, they have a stifling defense, a grinding O-line and some interesting pieces in the passing game. When they get out of sorts, they are going to struggle, particularly with athletic teams.

This next stretch against Michigan State-Michigan-Ohio State-Iowa-Nebraska-at Northwestern-god it just keeps going-ok good it’s Illinois at home will tell us a lot. It will be interesting to see how the quarterback position resolves (flaming hot take: the difference between the two is actually fairly minimal). Regardless, if the defense returns to its LSU form and the health issues on offense don’t get any worse, the West is wide open for the taking.

Man, this is going to be fun.