31ºF

Breaking down heated race between Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin in Big Ten West

Four teams have only one conference loss

Four teams are still in contention for the Big Ten West Division title. (Getty Images)
Four teams are still in contention for the Big Ten West Division title. (Getty Images)

DETROIT – The Big Ten Conference has been a tale of two divisions the last several football seasons, and 2018 hasn't been much different.

For the fourth year in a row, the Big Ten East Division has three teams ranked in the top 20 and figures to be the conference's best chance at a national championship. No. 5 Michigan, No. 11 Ohio State and No. 17 Penn State are the three highest-ranked teams in the conference.

But unlike in recent years, the Big Ten West Division is more than just Wisconsin and a group of punching bags. Yes, Iowa pops up and contends every few years, but this season there's a legitimate race for the division crown.

With more than half the conference schedule remaining, there are four teams with a chance to represent the West in Indianapolis. Since only two games have been played among those four teams, there's still a lot to be decided in the coming weeks.

Iowa

Conference record: 3-1
Conference loss: Wisconsin
Wins over West contenders: None
Games remaining vs. West contenders: at Purdue, vs. Northwestern

Iowa has quietly risen to No. 18 in the country and is the highest-ranked team in the West Division despite losing a head-to-head matchup with Wisconsin.

The win over Iowa State looks much more impressive since the Cyclones went on to beat Oklahoma State and West Virginia, but that doesn't help much in the Big Ten West race.

Iowa's three conference wins have come against teams with a combined 3-10 record in Big Ten play, so the Hawkeyes haven't proven much against teams that matter.

This weekend's game at Penn State is a major challenge, and even though it's not a West Division matchup, Iowa needs to win to have a realistic chance to win the division. A loss would mean Iowa needs Wisconsin to lose three Big Ten games, or all four teams would have to lose twice to force complicated tie-breaking measures.

The Nov. 3 trip to Purdue looks like an awfully tough task. In two weeks, we'll know if Iowa is a true contender in the West.

Northwestern

Conference record: 4-1
Conference loss: Michigan
Wins over West contenders: Purdue
Games remaining vs. West contenders: vs Wisconsin, at Iowa

As the current leader atop with West with four conference wins, Northwestern might actually be in the best position to go to Indianapolis.

Pat Fitzgerald's team was lucky to play Purdue in Week 1 before the Boilermakers hit their stride, and that resulted in what has turned out to be a massive road victory in the division.

Now, thanks in part to a big road win over then-No. 20 Michigan State earlier this month, Northwestern is a legitimate contender.

This week's home matchup with Wisconsin will determine which team gets the inside lane heading into November, but the loser isn't necessarily eliminated.

Both teams have one win over a West contender already and one road game against a West contender remaining, so for the loser, a four-way tie at 2-1 in those games would be a distinct possibility.

For Northwestern, a game against No. 3 Notre Dame comes at a tough time as the trip to Iowa is the following week. While it would be huge for the Wildcats to upset the undefeated Fighting Irish, that trip to Iowa City might actually be more important.

Purdue

Conference record: 3-1
Conference loss: Northwestern
Wins over West contenders: None
Games remaining vs. West contenders: vs. Iowa, vs. Wisconsin

One penalty in the very first game of the season could end up being the difference for Purdue, as it finds itself right back in the West Division race.

The Boilermakers had forced a fourth down for Northwestern with 2:20 left in the game when a personal foul gave the Wildcats a first down and allowed them to run out the clock. It robbed a loaded Purdue offense of the opportunity to win the game with plenty of time remaining and the momentum of a 10-0 second-half advantage at its back.

It took an improbable win over Ohio State to get Purdue back into the conversation, and now, a team that lost back-to-back-to-back home games to Northwestern, Eastern Michigan and Missouri is firmly in the mix.

Purdue smashed then-No. 23 Boston College by 17 points for its first win and has since blown out Nebraska, Illinois and Ohio State. Jeff Brohm's team looks like the class of the West, and it will control its own destiny in the conference if Northwestern slips up.

The greatest advantage for Purdue is getting both Iowa and Wisconsin at home before season's end. It has to survive a second-straight difficult crossover game first, though, with a trip to East Lansing.

Michigan State has a long history of winning when it's not supposed to under Mark Dantonio, and Purdue is coming into the matchup with a lot more attention than the Spartans.

MSU is a slight favorite, but Purdue has more on the line.

If Purdue upsets Michigan State and Wisconsin beats Northwestern this weekend, the road to Indianapolis runs through West Lafayette, Indiana.

Wisconsin

Conference record: 3-1
Conference loss: Michigan
Wins over West contenders: Iowa
Games remaining vs. West contenders: at Northwestern, at Purdue

Nobody is talking about the Badgers since they got run out of Ann Arbor two weeks ago, but they're still the team to beat in the West Division.

The schedule hasn't done Wisconsin any favors this year, though, as it has to play on the road against all three West contenders in addition to cross-division games at Michigan and Penn State.

Wisconsin has already taken care of business at Iowa, but this week's game at Northwestern is extremely important. The Badgers still have to play at Penn State and at Purdue in back-to-back weeks next month, and a loss to Northwestern would take away any room for error.

Since the conference split into divisions in 2011, Wisconsin has appeared in the Big Ten Championship Game five times. Since the realignment into East and West divisions, Wisconsin has represented the West three out of four years.

Until someone else shows up at Lucas Oil Stadium, this is Wisconsin's division.

Division tiebreakers

Since four teams are currently tied with one loss, there's a good chance for a tie atop the West Division at the end of the season.

If two teams are tied, the winner of the head-to-head meeting is the division champ. But if there are three or four teams tied, which is possible this season, it gets much more complicated.

First, the records of the tied teams will be compared against each other. So if Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin were all tied, the records in games against each other would determine the division champ.

NOTE: If only two teams remain tied after any step (or sub-step), the winner of the game between the two tied teams shall be the representative. If three or more teams remain tied after any step, move to next step in tiebreaker with remaining tied teams.

If all three teams are 2-1 against each other, the tiebreaker moves to the records of the three times within the West Division. Since Wisconsin and Northwestern have only lost conference games to Michigan -- a team from the East -- this could favor them.

If there are three or four teams tied in West games -- for example, if three or more teams go 5-1 against the West -- then each team's record will be compared against the fifth-place, sixth-place and seventh-place teams in the West, in that order.

Assuming all the teams don't lose to Illinois, Nebraska or Minnesota, the tiebreaking process would continue.

At this point, the team's records against common conference opponents would be the tiebreaker, bringing cross-division games into the equation.

Here are the cross-division games for all four teams:

  • Iowa: Indiana (W), Maryland (W), Penn State (Oct. 27)
  • Northwestern: Michigan (L), Michigan State (W), Rutgers (W)
  • Purdue: Ohio State (W), Michigan State (Oct. 27), Indiana (Nov. 24)
  • Wisconsin: Michigan (L), Rutgers (Nov. 3), Penn State (Nov. 10)

As you can see, there are several common opponents among the teams, and this step could bring some clarity to the race. However, so far, there isn't an East Division team that beat one West contender and lost to another.

Step No. 5 would likely be the end of the tiebreaking process, as the team with the best cumulative conference winning percentage among its East Division opponents would advance. In other words, the team that played the toughest East Division teams would win.

As of now, here are the total conference records of each West contender's East Division opponents:

  • Iowa: 5-8
  • Northwestern: 7-7
  • Purdue: 7-7
  • Wisconsin: 7-7

In this sense, not playing Michigan or Ohio State would hurt Iowa, as those two teams have separated from the pack in the East Division. Playing Rutgers ;greatly hurts Northwestern and Wisconsin, however, as the Scarlet Knights are winless in conference.

Click here to read the full Big Ten football tiebreaking process.


About the Author: