Two weeks ago Iowa football was left for dead for the 2022 season. Repeating as Big Ten West champions looked impossible after a three-game conference losing streak dropped Iowa to 1-3 in league play. Even making a bowl game looked like a dicey proposition at 3-4 and with one of the worst offenses in the history of modern college football showing up on a weekly basis.
But... there's a little less doom and a little less gloom around Iowa City right now. The offense has turned the corner from "historically abhorrent" to "pleasantly competent," albeit against two of the softer defenses on Iowa's schedule. Stiffer defensive tests await over the next two weeks -- but we'll get back to that in a moment. And, yes, it says a lot about the nature of low expectations when averaging 28.5 ppg counts as an offensive explosion, but after how dreadful the Iowa offense was against non-Nevada opposition in October and November, we'll take it.
At 5-4 a bowl game doesn't look quite so unlikely, especially with a game against forever-scuffling Nebraska still on the docket. Repeating as Big Ten West champions still ranks as "unlikely," but recent events do demand that we at least break down the scenarios a bit more thoroughly. Those recent events would be Iowa's two-game winning streak (moving them to 3-3 in Big Ten action) and, importantly, Illinois' surprising loss to Michigan State last weekend. The Illini seemed to have a trip to Indianapolis in the bag after going 7-1 to start the year (4-1 in Big Ten games), including wins over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. That loss to Sparty cracks the door for other teams to earn a trip to Indy (and the preordained beating from Ohio State/Michigan).
W: Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska
L: Indiana, Michigan State
|Purdue, at Michigan, at Northwestern|
W: Rutgers, Northwestern, Purdue
L: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State
|Wisconsin, at Minnesota, Nebraska|
W: Michigan State, Rutgers, Nebraska
L: Purdue, Illinois, Penn State
|Northwestern, Iowa, at Wisconsin|
W: Northwestern, Purdue, Maryland
L: Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State
|at Iowa, at Nebraska, Minnesota|
W: Minnesota, Maryland, Nebraska
L: Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa
|at Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana|
Illinois' loss to Sparty brought them back closer to the pack of chasing 3-3 teams. Sparty is probably going to finish .500 (their remaining games are Rutgers and Indiana at home and a road trip to Penn State) -- but could very well have a win over the eventual Big Ten West champion (either Illinois or Wisconsin). What a world.
That said, two games this weekend are going to be crucial to determining the Big Ten West champion -- Purdue at Illinois and Wisconsin at Iowa. The latter is a straight-up title eliminator: there's virtually no shot of 5-4 being good enough to win the Big Ten West. And even if it improbably was, the loser of that game would almost certainly be in bad shape re: tiebreakers. Illinois' opening charge through the Big Ten included wins over Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, which was hugely important in terms of setting them up in a very favorable tiebreaker position.
That strong tiebreaker position is why the pack of teams chasing Illinois also needs the Illini to lose to Purdue this week. There is a a likely third Big Ten loss on Illinois' schedule -- they head to Michigan next week -- but if Illinois loses that game and wins their remaining two, then they'll end the season at 6-3 in league play. No other team can do better than 6-3 in league play and Illinois would have wins over all of the teams that could potentially tie them in the West -- that would be enough to send the Illini to the Big Ten Championship Game.
But let's assume Purdue can pick themselves up after back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Iowa and get a win over Illinois this weekend. If that happens... then the winner of the Wisconsin-Iowa game would be in prime position to take the West. If either Iowa or Wisconsin wins out and Illinois loses two of their final three games, then the Hawkeyes or Badgers would be division champs. Iowa/Wisconsin would finish 6-3 in the league. Only Purdue could match that record -- and both Iowa and Wisconsin have the head-to-head tiebreaker over Purdue this season.
Purdue and Minnesota are also in the mix, although they need a bit more help. Purdue needs to win out to have a shot at winning the division, but they need more help from other teams than Iowa/Wisconsin. They still need Illinois to lose to Michigan (or Northwestern... but losing to Michigan seems a hell of a lot more likely) and they need the winner of this weekend's Wisconsin-Iowa game to drop one of their final two games. (The Boilermakers do have a tiebreaker over Minnesota if both teams finish 6-3.) Minnesota needs even more help than that, given their unfavorable tiebreakers with Illinois and Purdue. They need to win their final three games. They also need Illinois to lose two of their final three against Purdue, Michigan, and Northwestern. If Purdue beats Illinois this week, then Minnesota needs the Boilermakers to lose to either Northwestern or Indiana. (Gulp.)
TL;DR -- a lot will be settled in the Big Ten West this weekend in the Purdue-Illinois and Wisconsin-Iowa games. If Illinois wins that game, the West is basically theirs, barring catastrophe against Northwestern. If Illinois loses that game, then things in the West get very interesting for the final two weeks of the season and the winner of Wisconsin-Iowa might just be the new quasi-frontrunner in the division (unless we think Illinois can upset Michigan). After beating up on a bad Northwestern defense and a fairly middling Purdue defense, Iowa's offense is going to have to prove that it can be effective against Wisconsin (Top 25 in scoring and total defense) and Minnesota (Top 10 in scoring and total defense). But if the Hawkeyes do that and Illinois' loss to Michigan State goes from a hiccup to the beginning of a losing streak, then Iowa could -- improbably, incredibly -- be in a position to repeat as Big Ten West champions. What a world indeed.