The American impulse has always been to go west.
There’s always been something in our genetics pulling us away from the Eastern Seaboard, beyond the fertile farmland of the Midwest, over the mighty mountains, and toward Charlie Sheen’s place in Malibu.
You couldn’t picture Hollywood being in either of the Dakotas. You couldn’t imagine Las Vegas being in New Jersey. They tried that with Atlantic City. Ick.
But in the Big Ten, the West has been regarded as inferior in football, a wasteland to pad out a conference that has had its epicenters in the Rust Belt. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State.
When the Big Ten expanded westward a decade ago, it went only as far as Nebraska instead of doing what most travelers do and keep going until they get to the Rockies. When the conference annexed two Eastern teams, the markets were New York and Washington, which have more people than either cattle or tumbleweeds.
The Big Ten abandoned its Legends/Leaders division names after the 2013 season and went to East/West with the teams sorted accordingly. Legends/Leaders, by the way, was the Big Ten’s version of the Cy-Hawk Trophy with the farm family that existed for roughly 15 minutes before it was laughed into mothballs.
Frequently since 2014, some have called for an abandonment of the East/West structure because the balance of power was tilted too much to the East. It has won the last six Big Ten championship games.
However, as Iowa of the West prepares to compete against Penn State of the East today in Pennsylvania, the myth of Eastern superiority has been poked full of holes the size of the Jersey Shore.
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This season, the West is 5-3 against the East. Included are Northwestern’s 43-3 thumping of Maryland, Iowa’s 49-7 clubbing of Michigan State, and Wisconsin’s 49-11 abrasive blasting of Michigan last Saturday.
Minnesota let the West down with losses to Michigan and Maryland, but the East hasn’t gotten the better of any other Westie.
It’s not like the East has owned the West in the regular season before this season. Yes, the East has the Death Star in Ohio State, which has four of those last six Big Ten title-game wins. But since the league went East/West (or West/East) in 2014, East teams are 62-58 against West clubs. In only one season was the East better than 11-10.
This year, the East has wobbled. Ohio State still is Ohio State, of course, and Indiana has been terrific so far. After that? Michigan has lost its way, as well as its last three games. Michigan State’s lone win was against Michigan.
Penn State? The same Penn State that won 11 games in three of the previous four seasons, that has won its last six against Iowa? It’s 0-4 and is the only team in the world that has been conquered by Nebraska this fall.
Oh, how the haughty have fallen.
That doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions can’t rise up and take down the Hawkeyes for a seventh-straight time. But if you’ve watched both teams the last two weeks, Iowa is the one that looks like it is doing what it wants instead of wishing it were.
Yes, this is the asterisk season in college football, as Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz basically called it Tuesday. Each week, you don’t know how many healthy players you or your opponent will have during the week. You’re not even certain you’ll have an opponent until the weekend has arrived.
Put that aside and enjoy the ride as long as it lasts, fellow westerners. Even Illinois rose up to do its bit for the division’s cause last week, rallying from a 10-0 deficit to win 23-20 at Rutgers.
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The West’s best may be no match for Ohio State, but its worst is better than the East’s. And you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
There should be no intimidation today when the Hawkeyes swarm onto the Beaver Stadium field. Penn State used to be somebody, but now the wagons are rolling West.
Still, it’s a good idea to ignore the GPS if it tells you to stop in Columbus for a game.
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