Pillote: How Northwestern can win the Big Ten West


Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor

“Northwestern Wildcats — Big Ten West champions” certainly has a nice ring to it.

And given the wide-open state of the Big Ten West division this year, it’s actually not so far-fetched to think No. 16 NU can make a run all the way to the conference championship game Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

The rules for doing so are clear, if a little bit long: The Cats need the best conference record in the West to advance to the championship. In the event of a two-way tie, the winner of the head-to-head matchup will be selected. In the event of a three-way tie, things get much more complicated — but it will probably come down to whoever has the best overall record.

With the procedure settled, let’s get into all the different ways NU can find itself atop the West come December.

Scenario 1: Running the table

Of course, this is the most obvious. If the Cats win every conference game — and thus, finish 12-0 — they’ll be in the conference championship game.

This outcome is also the most improbable. The Cats draw No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 22 Michigan and Nebraska on the road, and it’s not likely they can pull out three wins in three notoriously hostile environments.

There are also too many traps along the way — namely, Iowa and Minnesota — and NU lacks the elite-level talent to smooth out every bump. The Cats will have at least one off-night.

Scenario 2: Best in the West

NU goes 6-2 in conference, winning every game against its divisional rivals and dropping contests against Michigan and Penn State. By virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the extreme unlikelihood that any other West team makes it to 7-1, the Cats would win the division.

Wins over Minnesota and Iowa at home are well within reason, but again, dispatching the Badgers and Cornhuskers on the road is a tall order. It’s also unlikely NU’s peak performances line up so nicely with their West division games.

Scenario 3: Wild Wild West

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Let’s peg a reasonably optimistic estimate of the Cats’ conference record at 5-3, with NU riding the power of the Ryan Field crowd to home wins over Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Purdue, and adding a victory at Soldier Field over Illinois, and then falling on the road against Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. NU would need a lot of help to get to Indianapolis, but it’s possible.

With no tiebreaker over Wisconsin and Nebraska, those teams need to fall to 4-4 in conference. For the Badgers, that’s not too likely in our scenario. Wisconsin draws easily the worst two teams, Maryland and Rutgers, from the East division, and wins over Purdue and Illinois are also very likely. It will take a wild upset from the Fighting Illini or Boilermakers to make this possible.

Nebraska, on the other hand, has to contend with No. 2 Michigan State out of the East, and it’s easy to see the Cornhuskers also losing to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa to get to four Big Ten losses.

Minnesota and Iowa also can’t exceed a 5-3 record in this scenario, which is tricky given that both teams are probably getting wins over Wisconsin and Nebraska to make this imagination a reality. The Golden Gophers and Hawkeyes need to lose each of their East crossover games, against Michigan and No. 1 Ohio State and Maryland and Indiana, respectively, in addition to dropping their matchup with NU. Other combinations are possible, but don’t bet on any scenario involving a loss to Purdue.

Scenario 4: Smelling Roses

The most realistic scenarios boil down to this: the Cats need to beat Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin to have a reasonable shot at making the Big Ten championship. Given how wacky the West is likely to turn out, wins against the closest competitors in the division should be enough to insulate NU from any aberrations in the standings.

This likely sets up the Nov. 21 tilt between the Badgers and Cats as the de facto West division title match. With its defense, and maybe some long-overdue luck, NU absolutely has a chance in that game.

So what happens if coach Pat Fitzgerald and his team actually end up in Indianapolis on Dec. 5? They’re almost certainly going to lose to either the Spartans or Buckeyes, whichever ends up emerging from the East.

But that’s actually not such a bad thing. The winner of the Big Ten championship will probably be picked for the College Football Playoff, and the bowl rotation for the postseason leaves the Rose Bowl in its traditional format — as a game between the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions.

In the event of either champion being drawn into the Playoff, the Rose Bowl’s website states the game will “select the next best team in the conference.” That’s pretty ambiguous, but probably means whichever team is ranked higher in the Playoff committee’s final rankings.

It’s very possible the runner-up in the East still ends up with a higher ranking than NU, especially if the Cats get blown out, but if the team can play either Ohio State or Michigan State close then a trip to Pasadena is in their hands.

So much has to go right for NU to even sniff the Big Ten championship, but it’s not entirely infeasible given the team’s 4-0 start. And after two bowl-less seasons, hoping for Roses is a refreshing change.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote