clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Greatest Divisional Race in CFB History

Iowa by a nose?

You standard East coast elites will have you believe that the B1G East deserves all the publicity right now, what with four different teams in the top 10. Well, let these folks have their “quality” and “merit.” We want chaos after all, right?

Other than 2012, when OSU and PSU were on probation and UW won their division at 4-4, EVERY B1G division winner has lost two conference games or fewer. The Big 12, ACC, SEC, and Pac 12 all have multiple iterations of three-loss (or even four-loss) division champions. Why are we so immune such awesome highjinks?

Friend, maybe, just maybe, that’s going to change this year.

What follows is a plausible (well, to start)—not likely, but also not totally unrealistic—path for each B1G West team to win the division at 6-3 or worse. Each would be glorious, and embarrassing, and gloriously embarrassing, but I leave it to you, dear reader, to determine which one is most worth rooting for. [While the scenario I present for each team will be plausible record/result-wise, do permit some narrative flourishes.]


The Hawkeyes fail to steer into the skid and drop their next two—@UW and @NW—to fall to 3-3. However, they right the ship, as they always seem to, at home vs. Minnesota, leaving Peej mumbling about his inability to solve Brian Ferentz’s cutting edge offense. Following a harder than expected 13-10 victory over Illinois (and Bert), the Hawkeyes, yet again, take down Nebraska. As Caleb Shudak’s GW FG clears the crossbar, Kirk Ferentz blows kisses across the sideline to an already-fired Scott Frost, and an Iowa assistant coach falls to the ground in mock shock, actually injuring himself in the process.

Iowa’s 6-3 wins a tiebreak with Minnesota. Minnesota’s season-ending victory in the Axe game, drops UW to 5-4 (they also lose @ Purdue). Purdue and Northwestern each also finish 5-4. The Boilers had reached 4-1, but a three-game losing streak—vs. Michigan State, @Ohio State, and @NW—sent them out of the division race. NW rallied from 1-3, to beat Minnesota and Iowa, but the loss at Camp Randall, the only setback in a 4-1 closing kick, left them a game being two teams over whom they would have had the tiebreaker advantage.

Why would this be embarrassing?: Because Iowa would win the division despite only going 3-3 vs. B1G West teams and on the back of their 3-0 record vs. the allegedly superior B1G East.


What is the order of suck when it comes to Iowa?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Iowa fans >>> Gary Barta >>> Brian Ferentz
    (62 votes)
  • 27%
    Gary Barta >>> Brian Ferentz >>> Iowa fans
    (72 votes)
  • 20%
    Brian Ferentz >>> Iowa fans >>> Gary Barta
    (53 votes)
  • 28%
    (73 votes)
260 votes total Vote Now


Purdue builds momentum, defeating UW and Nebraska and then knocking off undefeated, and top 5, MSU in West Lafayette, the week after an emotional Spartan victory over arch-rival Michigan.

Purdue is riding high at 7-2/5-1, ranked #12 in the country. But then OSU drills them 52-10 and a reeling Purdue falls at NW, the last highlight for a Wildcat squad on their way to a 4-8/2-7 season. Still, at 5-3, Purdue finds itself in a three-way tie with Iowa, and Wisconsin, each of whom they have beaten. When Scott Frost saves his job behind a career day from Adrian Martinez, it doesn’t really affect Purdue much since Purdue controlled the tiebreaker anyway. But Purdue is no match for an emotional Indiana squad, led by Michael Penix Jr. in his final start. The Hoosiers win convincingly, 31-14, opening the door for UW. However, the Badgers turn it over four times and fall to Minnesota, which “vaults” Minnesota into a four-way tie at 5-4

Purdue wins the division anyway, as they and UW went 2-1 among the four tied teams teams while Iowa and Minnesota went 1-2. Per B1G tiebreaking procedures, after the mini round-robin leaves us with two teams, head-to-head breaks that tie. Ultimately, Purdue wins the B1G West because they notch their first win over UW since 2003.

P.J. Fleck still gets division champion rings for Minnesota.

Why would this be embarrassing?: Because the division champ would 1) have four losses, 2) have finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak, and 3) would have dropped a division-clinching game, at home, to their biggest rival.


Purdue Harbor happened again. What does this mean?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Jeff Brohm is a hot prospect again
    (30 votes)
  • 32%
    Purdue goes into hibernation for another three years
    (95 votes)
  • 56%
    Iowa was overrated all along
    (164 votes)
289 votes total Vote Now


Start with the Purdue scenario and modify slightly. Purdue finishes 5-4 as laid out. Iowa finishes 5-4, but with losses to @NW, vs. Minnesota, and @Nebraska on Black Friday. Iowa was flying high after rebounding with a victory @UW, but a season-ending injury to Spencer Petras makes Iowa even more predictable, and the Hawkeyes barely eke out a win vs. Illinois to avoid finishing on a four game-losing streak. [The Minnesota loss is especially galling for Iowa fans. Not only does Iowa lose possession of Floyd, but the Gophers take a page out of Purdue’s playbook, targeting Chris Autman-Bell constantly, as he finishes with 14 receptions for 251 yards and 3 TDS. Jokes about the Iowa defense getting their “Bells” rung abound.]

Wisconsin is the opposite of Iowa. After the loss to the Hawkeyes leaves UW 1-4 in conference play, Paul Chryst benches Graham Mertz and elevates 3rd stringer Danny Vanden Boom (who does have a big arm). Helped in part by a stretch of @Rutgers/vs. Northwestern/vs. Nebraska, the Badger offense roars to life. With a downfield threat, running lanes open up and UW wins each game by 21+ points. Playing loose, the Badgers roll into the Twin Cities and throttle Minnesota 45-17, creating a four-way tie at 5-4. Still, the tie-break favors the Gophers as they and Purdue each go 2-1 in the four-way round-robin, knocking out Iowa and Minnesota. With two teams remaining, Minnesota’s win in West Lafayette sees them through to Indy.

Why would this be embarrassing? Because the division champ would have won the division while being thrashed at home on senior day by the team that everybody would agree was actually the best team in the division. And because the B1G West division champ would have lost a non-conference game as a 31 point favorite.


When I think of Minnesota football, I...

This poll is closed

  • 48%
    Feel sad for Mo Ibrahim
    (151 votes)
  • 13%
    Feel exhausted by P.J. Fleck
    (42 votes)
  • 2%
    Feel sad about P.J. Fleck
    (7 votes)
  • 36%
    I don’t think of Minnesota football
    (113 votes)
313 votes total Vote Now


Iowa does their 5-4 thing with road losses to UW, Northwestern, and Nebraska. Wisconsin stumbles to Purdue for the first time since 2003, but then wins four straight—vs. Iowa, @ Rutgers, vs. Northwestern, vs. Nebraska—to get to 5-3. Following Purdue’s four-game losing streak—@Neb, vs. MSU, @OSU, and @NW—the Badgers do not have to sweat a tiebreaker with Purdue. In fact, with Iowa and Wisconsin tied at 5-3, the Badgers control their own destiny.

However, Minnesota takes back the Axe in a 17-13 win that features 5 UW turnovers. What’s more, Minnesota leaps into a three-way time with Iowa and Wisconsin and is primed to win the tiebreaker. All eyes turn to Champaign-Urbana, where the Illini are hosting the 4-4 Wildcats. A Northwestern win would create a four-way tie at 5-4 that would go to UW (2-1, beat NW, who also was 2-1). An Illinois win would give the edge to Minnesota based on divisional win % and H2H over UW. Northwestern beats Illinois 10-9 in an ugly game full of conservative playcalling—Gopher fans are irate that Bielema chooses to punt on 4th and 3 from the NW 41 midway through the 4th—and the Badgers are off to Indy.

P.J. Fleck still gets division champions rings for Minnesota.

Why would this be embarrassing? 1) The awkward BTN puff piece on Graham Mertz showing resiliency and “battling through” as if he had improved during UW’s late season surge. 2) The resignation on the part of Badger fans that the division title was good enough to save Paul Chryst’s job, which feels hollow after a B1G title game loss and bowl loss drop UW to 7-7 and Jim Leonhard becomes the outside-the-box choice to take over the USC job. 3) Bill Connelly has to explain why 7-7 UW still finishes in the top 10 of his SP+ ratings.


Rorschach time: UW has had three different RBs leave the program so far this season

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Doesn’t matter, they’ll always have somebody who can run
    (45 votes)
  • 10%
    I’m telling you, they’re reaching a tipping point
    (27 votes)
  • 50%
    Bigger news is that lately the OL has been consistently underwhelming
    (131 votes)
  • 21%
    Well, that’s two more than have had good NFL careers
    (56 votes)
259 votes total Vote Now


Pat Fitzgerald tries to talk Mike Hankwitz out of retirement. When that fails, he tries to set up a situation where Hankwitz could run the D without having to be at the game. However, Fitzgerald is flummoxed by beeper technology and has to shelve his plan. Instead, he just effectively takes over DC duties himself.

It makes no difference @Michigan, but home wins over Minnesota and Iowa feel like old times. And when Ryan Hilinski catches the UW secondary on a couple of big pass plays, the Wildcats pull off a 14-10 win that puts them in the middle of the division race. Already holding the tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes, Northwestern welcomes 4-3 Purdue knowing that the winner will have the inside track heading into the season’s final week. Ryan Field comes through again, as David Bell inexplicably drops three passes, and Hilinski matches Aidan O’Connell. Northwestern wins a shootout 35-33 and, following Iowa’s loss to Nebraska, clinches the division before kickoff vs. Illinois. Which is good, as Illinois shuts down the Wildcats, sending them to the conference title game at 7-5/5-4.

Why would this be embarrassing? 1) Every other B1G West coach would have to explain how Northwestern had won the division for the third time in four years. 2) The B1G West representative would be a team that lost a regular-season game by 49 points.

To Nebraska.


Are jokes about Pat Fitzgerald being awkward with technology played out?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Text yes to 702231
    (21 votes)
  • 17%
    Text no to 702232
    (35 votes)
  • 72%
    Coach? Coach! You’re holding a seashell. That’s not going to work.
    (148 votes)
204 votes total Vote Now


After a convincing loss to Penn State, nobody pays attention when Illinois defeats Rutgers. And only a few people really bat an eye when the Illini head to the Twin Cities and defeat a Gopher squad channeling their Bowling Green effort. But Bert makes full use of the subsequent bye week, and pushes all the right buttons against Iowa.

First the Illini hold Iowa to FGs. Blake Hayes puts on a show, outperforming Tory Taylor on the day. Iowa is forced to go the length of the field and is unable to do so.

Still, Iowa’s 12-0 lead feels like 35-0 as the Illini have fewer than 100 yards of offense as the third quarter ends. But early in the 4th, a lightning strike. Donny Navarro runs a brilliant double move (after the game he will credit his film study of the Purdue/Iowa game), and Arthur Sitkowski makes his best throw of the season. The 71 yard TD makes it a 12-7 game. While Iowa can’t extend the lead, Illinois’s next two possessions are three-and-outs (their 7th and 8th on the day), and, with all three timeouts and 4:31 remaining, Bielema sends Hayes out one more time, hoping to flip the field.

Or so everybody thinks.

Instead, Bielema runs the exact same punt fakes as he ran as Wisconsin coach in 2010 in Kinnick. Hayes converts and them some, tearing off a 38 yard run, to set Illinois up at the Iowa 23. With enough time, Illinois pounds the run and Iowa’s defense, in shades of the 2015 B1G title game, gives way. Josh McCray scores with :41 to go. Illinois misses the 2 point conversation but holds on for the 13-12 shocker.

After the game, Bielema can’t help himself. “Kirk was worried about fake injuries instead of fake punts.” When asked if he meant to sound so graceless toward the dean of B1G coaches, Bielema responds: “Why not, I have more B1G titles than he does. I have more B1G titles than any active coach in this league.”

Illinois wins their season finale against Northwestern a cold, windy, rainy day 2-0 in 3 OT.

Illinois’s road wins over Minnesota and Iowa represent the only road wins any B1G West team notches over the second half of the season (ask Wisconsin about Aron Cruikshank’s kickoff return to aid Rutgers’s upset of UW the day after Jalen Berger announced his transfer to Rutgers), which means that when the smoke clears, Illinois, 5-4 in league play, is your outright B1G West champs.

After Ohio State’s 59-0 victory over Illinois in the B1G championship game, Ryan Day cracks, “Well, Bret and I have the same number of conference championships now. It just didn’t take me as long to get there.”

Illinois goes 2-10/0-9 in 2022.

Why would this be embarrassing? Do I really have to ask?


It doesn’t matter what the question is, because the answer is always:

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    (55 votes)
  • 73%
    "The card said go for two"
    (149 votes)
204 votes total Vote Now


Nebraska notches a respectable home win over Purdue, but follows it up with a 66-13 home loss to Ohio State. Trev Alberts, seeing that there are openings at USC and LSU, and determined to restore Nebraska’s lost luster, fires Frost, effective the end of the season, so as to get a jump on finding his replacement. Nebraska makes use of the bye week, adds a couple of wrinkles, and upsets a listless, turnover prone Badger squad in Camp Randall. The following Friday, a keyed-up group of Huskers upsets Iowa and the team carries an emotional Scott Frost off the field. Closure, if nothing else.

But wait, that loss had dropped Iowa to 4-5 in B1G play as the Hawkeyes had lost @UW, @Northwestern, and, shockingly, at home to Illinois (see above). The Omaha World Herald includes the B1G tiebreaker scenarios in their Saturday sports section, pointing out the Nebraska is still mathematically alive.

And it happens.

Purdue falls to Indiana, Minnesota defeats Wisconsin at home, and Northwestern upends Illinois, creating a six-way tie at 4-5 among Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, and Northwestern. Nebraska’s 4-1 record among common opponents wins them the tie-breaker and a trip to Indy.

Trev Alberts signs Scott Frost an 8-year, $68 millions deal to hold off USC.

Days later, Ohio State defeats Nebraska in the B1G title game 70-3.

The next day, the entire state of Nebraska wakes up, realizes they have never really left the Big 12, it is actually 2005, and they are actually Colorado. Realizing they have just replaced one master (Texas) with another (Ohio State), in the offseason Nebraska announces an agreement to move to the Mountain West Conference, ready to push Air Force and Boise State around.

Why would this be embarrassing?: I don’t think it would, actually.


Trev Alberts, Jim Harbaugh, and Trent Dilfer (?) walk into a room together...

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    (15 votes)
  • 14%
    Trev Alberts had the lowest CarAV of any 1st rounder in the 1994 draft
    (21 votes)
  • 20%
    But Bill Tobin took Marshall Faulk, so suck it Mel Kiper
    (31 votes)
  • 15%
    We need to realize that part of Kiper’s rant was motivated by his low opinion of Jim Harbaugh as a QB
    (23 votes)
  • 40%
    Yeah, you forgot that Harbs started an AFC Championship game didn’t you?
    (60 votes)
150 votes total Vote Now