Big Ten West Title Scenarios, Or: What's Iowa Need To Do Now?

By RossWB on October 30, 2018 at 5:32 pm
Point the way to Indianapolis, Nate.
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

For a few hours on Saturday, Iowa was in full control of their destiny in the Big Ten West. Wisconsin had lost to Northwestern (and Purdue had also lost), giving them two losses in the Big Ten while Iowa had just one. Alas, a few hours later, Iowa had a second Big Ten loss, courtesy of a frustrating, error-filled early evening in Happy Valley. As a result, Iowa no longer completely controls its own destiny in the race to represent the West at the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis... but their position isn't that bad, either. Let's break it down. 

First things first, though -- here's how things look at the top of the Big Ten West standings through nine weeks of action: 

Northwestern 5-1 5-3 2-0 Notre Dame, at Iowa, at Minnesota, Illinois
Wisconsin 3-2 5-3 1-1 Rutgers, at Penn State, at Purdue, Minnesota
Iowa 3-2 6-2 0-1 at Purdue, Northwestern, at Illinois, Nebraska
Purdue 3-2 4-4 0-1 Iowa, at Minnesota, Wisconsin, at Indiana

Northwestern is the only team remaining with just one Big Ten loss, leaving them perched atop high the standings and in a good position. Iowa, Wisconsin, and Purdue are muddled together below the Wildcats at 3-2. Let's run through a few scenarios on how things could play out. 

If Northwestern beats Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois...

Let's start with the easiest scenario: if Northwestern wins their remaining Big Ten games, they win the West. They're already ahead of the pack right now, so if they don't lose their remaining league games, they'll finish on top of the division. Assuming they don't spring the upset this weekend and topple off Notre Dame, they could wind up winning the Big Ten West -- while also losing all of their non-conference games. 

If two teams are tied...

According to the Big Ten's tiebreaking procedures, if two teams are tied, then the winner of the head-to-head meeting between the teams is the division champion. Given that Northwestern has just one loss now and has games remaining with Iowa (away), Minnesota (away), and Illinois (home), it's difficult to envision them finishing with more than two losses -- unless the Northwestern team that lost to Akron and struggled mightily with Rutgers turns up again. If Iowa and Northwestern both finish at 7-2 in the Big Ten (which would mean that Iowa beats Northwestern head-to-head), then Iowa would win the tiebreaker. Iowa would not win a head-to-head tiebreaker with Wisconsin, since the Badgers have the head-to-head win this season. It will be difficult for Iowa and Purdue to finish with the same record, since they're both 3-2 and have a game against each other this weekend, but obviously if they did somehow finish with the same record, then whoever wins the game this weekend would also win the tiebreaker. Of course, that would involve a team winning the West at 6-3 and if we're discussing that, it's probably more likely that we'll have to look at what happens... 

If three or more teams are tied... 

Again, per Big Ten tiebreaking procedures, if three or more teams are tied, then the first tiebreaker is the records of the tied teams against one another. Right now, that tiebreaker would favor Northwestern since they're 2-0 against the other teams who could be involved in a multi-team tie. That tiebreaker doesn't look good for Iowa right now, but only because they haven't yet played Purdue and Northwestern. 

Let's look at a few scenarios. First, a three-way tie at 7-2.

7-2 Iowa (1-1)
7-2 Northwestern (1-1)
7-2 Wisconsin (1-1)

There's no way for Iowa and Purdue to finish tied in a three-way tie at 7-2 because whoever loses this weekend's game will then have a third Big Ten loss. In this scenario, each team would be 1-1 against the other teams in the three-way tie. According to Big Ten tiebreaking procedures, the next tiebreaker is the record of the teams against Big Ten West opponents. In this scenario that would look like this: 

7-2 Iowa (5-1)
7-2 Northwestern (5-1)
7-2 Wisconsin (5-1)

Still tied! The next tiebreaker is "the record against the next highest placed teams in the division (4, 5, 6, and 7)." This wouldn't settle any ties, either, as Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin would all be 4-0 against Purdue, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois. 

The next tiebreaker is the tied teams' record against common conference opponents. I think this tiebreaker would also be inconclusive because there are no common conference opponents for Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin except the other Big Ten West teams (and we already established that they would have identical records against those teams). Iowa, Northwestern, and Wisconsin played different crossover opponents (Iowa played Indiana, Maryland, and Penn State; Wisconsin played (or will play) Michigan, Rutgers, and Penn State; Northwestern played Michigan, Michigan State, and Rutgers). 

The next tiebreaker after that is the best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents. I don't think that one would favor Iowa: right now the cumulative conference winning percentage of Indiana, Maryland, and Penn State would be at least 9-12 (.429), since Maryland still has to play Indiana and Penn State (there will be a win and a loss added to Iowa's tally from each of those games) and we have to assume Wisconsin will beat Penn State in order for a three-way tie at 7-2 to become possible. Wisconsin's would be at least 11-12 (.478), since any three-way tie at 7-2 would necessitate Wisconsin beating Rutgers and Penn State in the next two weeks and Michigan, Rutgers, and Penn State all have to play one another, which will guarantee three wins and three losses to that cumulative total. Northwestern's would be at least 10-9 (.533) as Michigan and Michigan State each still have to play Rutgers. Those numbers will change as the rest of the Big Ten schedule plays out, but Iowa is already starting at a disadvantage from this position.

CONCLUSION: Iowa does not win the Big Ten West in a three-team tie at 7-2

Now let's look at what happens in a three-team tie at 6-3. This involves a lot more variables, so buckle up. 

6-3 Iowa (1-1; Iowa beats Northwestern but loses to Purdue, Illinois, or Nebraska)
6-3 Northwestern (1-1)
6-3 Wisconsin (1-1)

The first tiebreaker (record among tied teams) does not eliminate anyone in this scenario. How about the next tiebreaker?

6-3 Iowa (4-2)
6-3 Northwestern (4-2)
6-3 Wisconsin (5-1 or 4-2)

The second tiebreaker (record against B1G West opponents) could favor Wisconsin, if they lose to Penn State, but beat Rutgers, Purdue, and Minnesota. If they beat Penn State but lose to Purdue or Minnesota, then this would become another pushed tiebreaker, as all three teams would then have two losses against B1G West opponents. 

The next tiebreaker would be their records against the next highest placed teams in their division, but it's difficult to know how that would play out without knowing how the Big Ten standings will land. Remember: in this scenario, all three teams would have a loss to one of the teams they're tied with and a loss to Purdue, Minnesota, Nebraska, or Illinois. That said, Purdue seems like the best bet (by far) of those teams to finish fourth and they're also the most likely team to hand Iowa or Wisconsin another loss among West opponents. That probably gives Northwestern an edge here, since they already have a win over Purdue. 

How about a three-team tie with Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue?

6-3 Iowa (1-1; Iowa beats Northwestern but loses to Purdue, Illinois, or Nebraska)
6-3 Northwestern (1-1)
6-3 Purdue (1-1)

In this scenario, Wisconsin loses to both Penn State and Purdue and ends up with at least four Big Ten losses. The first tiebreaker is inconclusive, as Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue would have split results with one another: Northwestern beats Purdue, but loses to Iowa; Iowa beats Northwestern, but loses to Purdue; Purdue beats Iowa, but loses to Northwestern. 

Next tiebreaker?

6-3 Iowa (4-2)
6-3 Northwestern (4-2)
6-3 Purdue (4-2)

Still inconclusive, as all three teams would be 4-2 against other Big Ten West teams. The next tiebreaker is record is (again) their records against the next highest placed team in the division. In this scenario, that's almost certainly Wisconsin, which is bad news for Iowa, since Northwestern has a win over Wisconsin already and Purdue would get one in this hypothetical, while Iowa already has a loss to the Badgers. Northwestern would have the edge over Purdue in a tie due to their head-to-head win over the Boilermakers. 

And what if we get a four-team tie at 6-3 atop the West? That would look something like this: 

6-3 Iowa (1-2)
6-3 Northwestern (2-1)
6-3 Wisconsin (2-1)
6-3 Purdue (1-2)

Under this scenario, we assume Iowa beats Northwestern but loses to Purdue; Northwestern loses to Iowa and either Minnesota or Illinois; Wisconsin loses to Penn State but beats Purdue; and Purdue beats Iowa but loses to Wisconsin. Again, the first tiebreaker is the record of the teams against one another; this would eliminate Iowa and Purdue. Northwestern has the head-to-head advantage over Wisconsin in a two-team tie, so they would win the West. 

OK, that's a lot of theorizing and playing around with hypotheticals -- but what's the actual nitty-gritty for Iowa? In short: just win, baby. Right now, the only tiebreak scenario that looks positive for Iowa is a tie with Northwestern at 7-2 if Iowa beats them head-to-head next week. Multi-team ties don't look favorable for Iowa right now. 

The good news is Iowa still controls a fair amount of their own destiny. They have games against Purdue and Northwestern, two of their biggest challengers for the West title, over the next two weeks. If they win those games, they'll be in much better shape to win the West. The one factor they can't control is Wisconsin, who would beat them in a two-team tie thanks to their head-to-head win in September. Thankfully, it does seems very plausible that the Badgers could suffer a third Big Ten loss this season, given upcoming games with Penn State and Purdue. 

So your main rooting interests for the next few weeks: 

1) Root for Iowa to win (duh)
2) Root for Penn State to beat Wisconsin next week
3) If PSU doesn't beat Wisconsin, root for Purdue to beat Wisconsin on 11/17

That said, what Wisconsin does (or doesn't do) is irrelevant to Iowa if they aren't able to take care of business the next few weeks. It will be pretty difficult to find a path to Indianapolis for Iowa if they aren't able to win the next two games. And first up is Purdue, our good old Most Hated Rival. Take care of business against the Boilermakers, Iowa. Then we can start thinking about possible division titles. 

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