Who is the blue-chip program of the modern Big Ten West?

By John Volk

Historically, Northwestern hasn’t exactly been a football powerhouse.

The Wildcats have lost 676 games since they first started playing in 1882, more than any other FBS school besides Indiana. Between 1979 and 1982, Northwestern lost 34 straight games, a record that still stands in Division I college football. And between 1947 and 2005, Northwestern went through 10 different head coaches — none of them finished their career in Evanston with a winning record.

However, this Saturday the ‘Cats will play in their second Big Ten Championship Game in three seasons. At 6-1 on the season, Northwestern has the nation’s second-best scoring defense and is ranked 14th in the latest CFP Poll. The futility that plagued Northwestern football for so long now seems a distant memory.

On the other sideline in Indianapolis this weekend, Ohio State has consistently dominated the Big Ten. Since the conference’s current divisions were formed in 2014, the Buckeyes have won the East five times, including the last four-straight. They won the Big Ten title in each of those years.

But now as we approach a title game rematch two years in the making, it begs the question, does the modern West have its own Ohio State? And if so, could it be Northwestern?

Since the Big Ten West was formulated in 2014, four different teams have claimed its title: Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Wisconsin has won it four times, Northwestern twice and Iowa and Minnesota each have one division title apiece. Minnesota, however, hasn’t represented the West in the conference championship game as it shared its lone title with Wisconsin in 2019 and lost the berth based on the head-to-head tie-breaker.

YearBig Ten West ChampionConference Record
2019Wisconsin* & Minnesota7-2
*Represented the division in the Big Ten Championship game based on tie-breakers with Minnesota

From there, we see an early top four emerge for West supremacy, with an edge to Wisconsin. But the division crowns don’t tell quite as decisive a story in the West as they do in the East, as Wisconsin shared one of its titles and has faltered after winning three of the first four.

Nebraska’s exclusion may be surprising as it has historically been one of college football’s top programs, claiming five national championships, most recently in 1997. The Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten in 2011 and their arrival brought the formulation of the Leaders and Legends Divisions. Nebraska represented the Legends in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game where it got steamrolled 70-31. It hasn’t brought home Big Ten hardware since, and has stumbled in particular since the East and West Divisions formed the additions of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014.

That hasn’t prevented national media from generating hype around the Cornhuskers, as they frequently find themselves making at least some noise in the Preseason AP Top 25 Poll before falling out before the season finishes. Perhaps to the chagrin of preseason voters, we can cross Nebraska off the list.

YearNebraska Preseason AP Poll RankingNebraska Final AP Poll Ranking
201422Received Votes
2015Received VotesNot Ranked
2016Received VotesReceived Votes
2017Received VotesNot Ranked
2018Not RankedNot Ranked
201924Not Ranked
2020Not RankedNot Ranked*
*Week 16 Poll

The AP Poll can help us narrow the field even further keeping in mind the teams that pulled ahead with division titles. Since 2014, neither Illinois nor Purdue has appeared in the Top 25 once. Purdue has received votes five times and Illinois has twice, but neither have done better than that. Illinois struggled during Lovie Smith’s recently-terminated tenure which lasted most of the West’s short history, never finishing above .500 and never beating in-state rival Northwestern. It’s a similar story for Purdue which has floundered in the bottom half of the division the last seven years.

It’s safe to say neither team represents the class of the modern Big Ten West and we can cross them off the list, leaving, again, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Wisconsin, all of which have impressed in the AP Poll of late.

TeamAP Top 25 AppearancesAP Top 20AP Top 15AP Top 10
All since 2014

Wisconsin again appears to be the superstar, with more AP Top 25 appearances since 2014 (91) than the other three schools combined (82). Meanwhile, Minnesota lags behind with just 15 total and Northwestern disappears altogether as we get higher and higher in the rankings.

To me, Northwestern’s division titles keep them in the running for best in the West, but Minnesota’s performance in the polls is enough to drop the Golden Gophers, especially when considering 10 of their appearances come from the same year, 2019.

That leaves us with Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin, and it’s shaping up to be a runaway for the Badgers. However, a final interesting takeaway from the AP Poll keeps things a little closer: over the last three years Wisconsin only finished the season ranked once (No. 10 in 2019) while Northwestern was ranked twice in the final poll (No. 19 in 2018 and No. 15 in 2020) and Iowa was ranked all three years (No. 25, No. 15 and No. 18 respectively) — using the most recent poll as the final for 2020.

To start breaking into the differences between our remaining three schools, we can simply look at how the team’s records stack up since 2014. Wisconsin has a median first place finish in the West, while Northwestern and Iowa have second and third place median finishes, respectively. When using the average finish, Wisconsin holds onto the top spot while Iowa leapfrogs Northwestern for second place, most likely a reflection of Northwestern’s volatile record over the past seven years. In the last three years alone the ‘Cats have gone from first to worst to first again.

Again, Wisconsin seems to take the lead while Northwestern and Iowa duke it out for second place. We can see this too in bowl wins since 2014 with Wisconsin taking five to Northwestern and Iowa’s three each.

Wins and losses aside, we can compare how the three teams stack up offensively and defensively.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all three teams find their strength on defense. Cumulatively, they have ranked in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense eight times and in total defense seven times, while none of them have cracked the top-20 nationally for scoring offense or total offense. In 2020 alone, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa all find themselves in the top 10 in scoring defense at No. 2, No. 6 and No. 8 respectively, while Wisconsin also finds itself at No. 1 in total defense. As can be seen in the graphs, Wisconsin consistently outdoes the other two teams in total offense, total defense, scoring offense and scoring defense.

A final measure to examine in evaluating the premier program in the modern Big Ten West is NFL Draft talent produced by school, a statistic that favors Wisconsin and Iowa.

TeamNFL Draft Picks Since the 2014 SeasonHighest PickMost Picks Fewest Picks
Iowa20Brandon Scherff (5th overall, 2015)5 (2018)1 (2016)
Northwestern8Ibraheim Campbell (115th overall, 2015)2 (2015-17)0 (2020)
Wisconsin20Melvin Gordon (15th overall, 2015)5 (2018)2 (2015-16)

Top-level talent hasn’t ever been key Northwestern’s success as it frequently lands near the bottom of Big Ten recruiting class rankings, so its no surprise that Iowa and Wisconsin each have 12 more players taken in the last six NFL Drafts than the Wildcats. What may come as a surprise, however, is that Iowa has had three players taken earlier than Wisconsin’s highest draft selection since the founding of the Big Ten West. Bradon Scherff (fifth overall in 2015), TJ Hockeson (eighth overall in 2019) and Tristan Wirfs (13th overall in 2020) all were taken higher than Melvin Gordon.

NFL Draft pick numbers don’t tell a full story, especially in Northwestern’s case, but they can be useful indicators of a program’s ability to produce talent. Iowa and Wisconsin seem to be just about neck-and-neck in this regard.

The Bottom Line

For the moment, Wisconsin has a firm hold as the top team in the modern Big Ten West, with the most titles, AP Poll appearances, bowl wins and more. However, the division is significantly more competitive than the East. Northwestern and Iowa are hot on the Badgers heels, and they deserve to be thought of on a strong tier two in the West, like, anecdotally speaking, Penn State and Michigan are in the East (despite their stumbles in 2020).

Northwestern may not be the blue-chip program yet, but the Wildcats should certainly be in the discussion with the sometimes under-the-radar turnaround they’ve gone through under Pat Fitzgerald. The ‘Cats are just picking up steam, and who knows, a 2020 Big Ten Championship could go a long way in wrestling supremacy from Wisconsin.