As a blue-blood program, Nebraska should always be one of the favorites to win the Big Ten West.
But 6-7 records, which is how the Huskers finished last season, don’t happen often at blue-blood programs. And programs generally don’t quickly recover from seven-loss seasons and gain a spot in the conference championship game the next season.
But after Iowa’s loss to North Dakota State and with Wisconsin’s brutal upcoming schedule, Nebraska has a chance to turn some heads and claim the division for the first time since the Big Ten realigned and created the Big Ten West.
Maybe the Huskers aren’t who we think they are. Maybe it’s just post-Oregon hype and post-North Dakota State doubt in Iowa.
But there’s a legitimate case for Nebraska winning the West and playing in Indianapolis this December.
Here are the main reasons:
Signs of slippage in Iowa City
It seems like teams have figured the Hawkeyes out. Since Michigan State powered through Iowa in the Big Ten championship game last season, the Hawkeyes have shown signs of slipping.
After a 12-0 start in 2015, the Hawkeyes are 2-3 in their last five games.
They have wins over Miami (Ohio) and Iowa State, and losses to Michigan State, Stanford and FCS North Dakota State. Top-tier Big Ten teams don’t lose to FCS teams. Iowa is regressing to the mean.
The main reason? The Hawkeyes can’t stop the run.
Last year, in the Big Ten championship game, Michigan State ran through Iowa, cramming the ball down its throat late in the game. Stanford ran silly around Iowa in the Rose Bowl, and that game was over midway through the second quarter.
And last week, North Dakota State ran 49 times for 239 yards in its 23-21 upset.
This season, the Big Ten is full of run-heavy teams, especially Nebraska and Wisconsin. Unless Iowa figures out how to restart the engine, the Hawkeyes don’t seem like the team to beat in the Big Ten West anymore.
Wisconsin’s schedule is brutal
From unranked to the top 10 in the Associated Press, Wisconsin is the team to beat in the West right now.
With that said, the Badgers also just struggled to get by Georgia State (23-17 win last week) and now have to gear up for five prizefights in a row.
The Badgers will play at No. 8 Michigan State this Saturday, then at No. 4 Michigan in Ann Arbor the following weekend. After a bye, they return home to host No. 2 Ohio State on Oct. 15.
So that’s the three best Big Ten teams in a row before Wisconsin even starts playing within the Big Ten West.
Three straight heavyweight fights are not the way you want to prepare for your first two Big Ten West games: at Iowa, then hosting No. 20 Nebraska.
Wisconsin is talented. The Badgers don’t give up many points (13.7 a game). They have a great win over then No. 5 LSU in Lambeau Field.
But after these next five weeks? How many punches can you throw, or take, until you run out of gas?
Wisconsin hasn’t really settled on a starting quarterback yet, and the Badgers better hope their defense can keep up with Michigan State-Michigan-Ohio State back-to-back-to-back.
In almost any other year, Wisconsin wins the West. And the Badgers could very well enter Big Ten West play a battered team and still get by Iowa and Nebraska in consecutive weeks. If they do, they deserve to win the division.
In a weak division, advantages matter
Treat this like the old Big 12 North. The division is weak overall. And there are three teams that matter.
Barring a surprise loss to a weak team, this division will come down to Nebraska’s games at Wisconsin and at Iowa. And in those games, other than being on the road, Nebraska has cards to play.
The Huskers essentially have five weeks to prepare for Wisconsin. And two tuneup games before Iowa.
Northwestern is first this weekend, and the Wildcats are still trying to find some sort of identity after two early losses. After that, Nebraska hosts rebuilding Illinois, then has a bye week, then plays defensively weak Indiana followed by a redemption game against Purdue.
So the best team Nebraska will play (other than Ohio State, of course) will come after four weeks of getting into a groove while Wisconsin battles heavyweights.
The Big Ten West could come down to Iowa and Nebraska on Nov. 25 in Iowa City. Maybe by then Iowa will have figured it out. Maybe not.
Regardless, Nebraska will have two games against Minnesota and Maryland to prep for Iowa, while Iowa will have to squeeze by Michigan and a trap game against Illinois before Nebraska.
Of course, Nebraska is Nebraska, so they could lose a game they shouldn’t. And college football is college football, so this piece may be completely and embarrassingly wrong in seven days.
There’s a case for that. But there’s also a case for the Huskers playing in Indy.
Let the games begin.