ARTICLE

Football sun no longer setting in Big Ten West

Hawkeyes could be battling in a fairly powerful division in 2019

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) reacts after his quarterback sack forced a Mississippi State fumble during the Hawkeyes’ 27-22 Outback Bowl win last Tuesday at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) reacts after his quarterback sack forced a Mississippi State fumble during the Hawkeyes’ 27-22 Outback Bowl win last Tuesday at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)

Monday night’s Alabama-Clemson national-title game brings to mind the oldest of “Saturday Night Live” shows.

“I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not,” Chase would say as he began his “Weekend Update” segments.

“We’re Alabama and Clemson,” those two teams can say to the rest of college football, “and you’re not.”

Almost everyone else has weak spots they try to spackle over. There is only so much room at the top, and those who accrue power tend to cling to it.

That said, Iowa is part of a province that has been considered a land of paupers. But the Big Ten West could be turning into something more.

You can’t judge overall conference or division strength by bowl records. Still, the West was 4-1 this season. Granted, Mississippi State, Utah, Miami and Georgia Tech aren’t the modern-day Four Horsemen.

However, all four of the winners came in as underdogs. All got the job done. Only the SEC West had as good a bowl mark. The heralded Big Ten East was 1-3.

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That may be a sign of things to come. That isn’t to say the West will surpass the East, but the West is an emerging troublemaker.

Wisconsin remains Wisconsin. The Badgers just had one of those years, with the wrong guys getting hurt and things never meshing. They pulled things together in a big way at the Pinstripe Bowl. Returning running back Jonathan Taylor would be a generational player at Wisconsin were it not a running back mecca.

Purdue has kept its cherished coach, Jeff Brohm, and the Boilermakers’ will be better than 6-7 once they restore the kind of defense they had last season.

Minnesota showed us a lot in its last few games. At 4-5 with one-sided losses to Nebraska and Illinois (!), the Gophers looked to be headed nowhere with Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin left to play. Instead, they pummeled Purdue at home and dominated Wisconsin at Madison. That was followed by a 34-10 Quick Lane bowl win over Georgia Tech in which they never punted.

That told us P.J. Fleck may be as much coach as carnival-barker.

Northwestern’s rally from a 20-3 halftime deficit against Utah in the Holiday Bowl said a lot, too. Pat Fitzgerald and his players talk about taking the next step, about competing for national-championships. Is it pie in the sky? Maybe. But that’s a solid program.

Nebraska had a series of pratfalls this season, yet moved forward in the season’s final month with a competitive game at Ohio State, wins over Illinois and Michigan State, and a last-second loss at Iowa. We tire of all the hero-worship of Huskers Coach Scott Frost coming from west of the Missouri, but Nebraska’s days of being dormant may be near their end.

Some years a schedule seems set up for you to succeed. The coming year isn’t such a slate for Iowa. Besides playing at Iowa State, the Hawkeyes go to Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska, and play Penn State at home. But they also play Rutgers, while Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin don’t.

Iowa will have a tested senior quarterback in Nate Stanley. Not all West teams are as secure at that position. And, the Hawkeyes will have defensive ends A.J. Epenesa, Chauncey Golston, and maybe Anthony Nelson. Stud, stud, stud.

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At any rate, the West seems poised to match the East’s firepower. Did Michigan State and Penn State impress you this season? Ohio State still is Ohio State, but will it be quite as Ohio State without Urban Meyer? Michigan is ... what? A team that got embarrassed by Ohio State and Florida.

Last month, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the Big Ten dropping divisions and sending its top two teams to its championship game is “an item that has been discussed before. There is actually more discussion now than there was four years ago.”

Wouldn’t it be funny if the league did that and it started getting title games between Nebraska and Wisconsin. Or Northwestern and Iowa?

Keep the divisions, Commish. If you want to help the Big Ten end its two-year absence in the College Football Playoff, work on getting it changed to an 8-team deal.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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