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CHICAGO — First-year Rutgers head coach Chris Ash is just 42. He’s from Ottumwa and broke into coaching at Drake University, his alma mater. He’s perhaps the freshest face here at Big Ten media days.
That’s not the whole story. Since 2009, Ash has coached at Iowa State, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Ohio State, serving as defensive coordinator for the Badgers, Razorbacks and Buckeyes.
He’s stood on sidelines in the Big Ten East Division and the SEC West. Ash is a terrific barometer for this conference-measuring thing.
“I would say the Big Ten East is one of the best divisions in college football,” Ash said stone-faced, as-matter-of-fact on Monday. “You look at the stadiums, you look at the coaches, you look at the history, the traditions, the success, this division takes a back seat to no one. I think it’s one of the best in the country.”
OK so, what about the Big Ten West? Well, you kind of know what about the Big Ten West.
The unkindest cut comes from ESPN’s FPI rankings. This metric put out a strength of schedule ranking earlier this summer. Three of the bottom five were in the Big Ten West (Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska). The FPI really hates the Big Ten West (remember, part of the formula is recruiting rankings). Iowa won the West last season, but is ranked as just the seventh best team in the conference in preseason FPI.
The SB Nation blog and its writers who subscribe to S&P+, an analytic that is gaining attention, made a case this summer for no divisions in the Big Ten, calling the current configuration “unbalanced.” Phil Steele’s college football preview magazine ranked the Big Ten No. 4 in the Power 5 conferences.
A certain percentage of you internalized the arrows from national media the Hawkeyes took last fall when they finished the regular season 12-0 and stood on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff before falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.
The Big Ten West players polled for this Monday afternoon didn’t take up arms for the league. Ohio State tilts the scales. Judging by the circle of media around Jim Harbaugh, something interesting is happening at Michigan. Of course, Mark Dantonio and Michigan State are the reigning league champions.
What will it take for the West to gain traction?
“Win in Indy,” Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker said, referring to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, Ind. “For the most part Ohio State, Michigan State, those guys have had the most success. I think the West this year has a chance to be special. The championship game is even better. I remember watching that 18-play drive last year.”
It was a 22-play drive that ended with MSU running back L.J. Scott reaching into the end zone for the winning points with 27 seconds left to defeat the Hawkeyes.
“Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” Walker said. “Of course, you want to be on the winning side, but to be on either side of it, I’m pretty sure was fun.”
• Big Ten Media Days: Iowa notes from Monday
The Big Ten West landscape stretches from Lincoln, Neb., to West Lafayette, Ind., and from Minneapolis, Minn., to Champaign-Urbana, Ill. The football kind of matches the territory. It’s grounded, for the most part. It’s unrelenting, physical and it’s probably not going to produce scores of 60-53.
“If you want to watch no defense at all — I’m not going to name any conferences — but if you want to watch 60-53, you’re not going to see that in Big Ten football,” Northwestern running back Justin Jackson said. “Football enthusiasts love defense. Defense wins championships, whether it’s the NFL or NCAA. You’ll always get defense in the Big Ten.”
This is the third year of the Big Ten’s current divisional alignment. Wisconsin won the West in 2014, Iowa in 2015. Those teams combined for 81 rushing TDs (UW 46, Iowa 35). That dictates the pace for the league. And, yes, that pace is plodding (the West had three of the league’s top five teams in time of possession last season, with Wisconsin, 440:10, leading the way).
What’s it like as a Purdue defensive tackle game planning for Wisconsin or Iowa?
“You know you’re going to have some big bodies on you all throughout the game,” Purdue defensive tackle Jake Replogle said. “You have to expect that and kind of want that here in the Big Ten. It’s kind of simple, you have to beat the crap out of the guy across from you. There aren’t too many different Xs and Os, just a physical battle.”
And when the Big Ten West tries to get fancy on offense?
“Even if a team uses multiple receivers, it’s usually to run the ball,” Purdue linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley said. “They use multiple receivers to run the ball out of a certain formation. It’s just a fancy smashmouth football. The Big Ten won’t give that up. No matter how hard we try, we’ll always be smashmouth.”
From time to time, things do get out of hand in the West. Iowa has beaten Northwestern the last two seasons by a combined score of 88-17. Iowa beat Minnesota in a semi-shootout at Kinnick Stadium last season, 40-35. In 2014, the Gophers crushed Iowa 51-14.
• Read more: Iowa loss stings Northwestern defender
The rule of thumb, however, is last year’s Northwestern’s 30-28 win at Nebraska. Jackson, NU’s leading rusher the last two seasons, averaged 2.9 yards, and the Wildcats won. Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong threw for 291 yards and the Huskers lost.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald was even caught by TV with an F-bomb on live mic. There was a 72-yard interception return, a safety, five field goals and the game ultimately was decided on a failed two-point pass with 4:23 left.
The F-bomb and safety is maybe as Big Ten West as it gets.
“It’s a man’s league, all around,” said Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner, a bearded 6-4, 230-pounder. “People hit hard and every Sunday you’re going to wake up with bumps and bruises. It’s tough to get out of bed.”
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