The Gophers play a home game as the betting line’s favorite on Saturday, but it’s probably best not to assume any results because – protect your eyes, fans – Bowling Green is always a stark reminder that anything is possible.
OK, this warning noted, the position of the Gophers is different today than it was two weeks ago, or even a week ago.
Same thing with Wisconsin.
Yes, Iowa too.
The Big Ten West race is not over. This is just the beginning. Amazing how quickly the narrative can change on a football Saturday.
The IowaHawkeyes, who came off a thrilling victory over Penn State, rose to second nationally, undefeated and seemingly making their way to a West Division blowout.
But then the takeaways dried up, Purdue’s offense picked up and suddenly the West doesn’t look like a team runaway now that Iowa has a loss on its way.
The West is up for grabs as November approaches. Which team wants it?
The conference has two stories. East is in the lead again with four teams ranked in the National Top 10 this week. The West lacks a real powerhouse.
Iowa’s 17-point home loss to Purdue gives hope to the rest of the division. Well, except Illinois. Even five-game losing Nebraska seem capable of playing the spoiler role if someone gets caught watching the Huskers.
The Big Ten abandoned their wacky and arrogant division model of “Legends” and “Leaders” in 2013, replacing it with a more sane and logical East-West alignment.
Since that change, a team with two conference losses has won the West only twice. Typically, the winner from the West leads the table or ends with a single Big Ten loss.
Every team in the West already has a loss this season. The bet here is that the eventual winner loses again before it’s over.
Why? No team in the division has an attack that scares their opponents.
The Gophers have lost their two best running backs to late-season injuries and are ranked 121st nationwide in passing yards after skipping a few plays. Iowa leads college football in take-out, but has one of the least productive offenses in the country (118e in total infringement).
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz sits at 104e nationwide passing efficiency. Purdue ranks 97e in the notation. Northwestern is even lower scoring at 110e.
From there will come the victor of the West.
The past six weeks have the potential to be full of tension to look at the scoreboard. The Gophers know better than anyone the dangers of taking any opponent lightly, if that was indeed the culprit in the Bowling Green debacle. That one remains a puzzle, but their goal of fighting in November is still achievable, assuming they no longer stumble in a game they are favored in.
The Gophers have games remaining against the Big Ten’s four worst performing offenses – Indiana, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Illinois. These four teams rank 107e nationally or below in rating.
Take a step back and the picture looks familiar. The fate of the Gophers likely depends on how well they fare against their border rivals in Iowa and Wisconsin. Like always.
PJ Fleck’s record is 1-7 in both of these measurement stick matches. The Gophers probably need a split, at a minimum, this season to have a realistic chance of winning the division.
Fleck has spoken openly about trying to replicate the sustainability of those two programs, a hurdle that won’t be completely lifted until the Gophers start winning those two games with more frequency.
Iowa looked set to move away from the Western pack until Purdue produced a stunner, a term that probably should be sandblasted from the sport’s lexicon.
College football is wonderfully wacky. Upheavals are happening. Heck, even Alabama has lost a game this season.
The Big Ten West narrative suddenly changed over the past week. Maybe that will change again this weekend. The opportunity is there. Let’s see who jumps and catches it.