Hot Reads: Big Ten West Race Takes a Sharp Turn in Champaign
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Big Ten West Race Takes a Sharp Turn in Champaign

October 21, 2019

Congratulations, Illinois. 

The 2019 Big Ten West race took a sharp turn in Champaign on Saturday with the Illini's 24-23 win over Wisconsin. The Badgers were about a 30-point favorite, depending on where you looked and when, and just needed to check this Win-at-Illinois box before moving on to a clash of conference titans in Columbus, Ohio.

Illinois would not be checked, however. Were the Illini a little fortunate? In some ways. They were plus-two in turnover margin, didn't run a red-zone play and had fewer first downs. But, turnovers always giveth and taketh away and sometimes a team is on the good end, red-zone plays aren't necessary when you're scoring from 30 yards out and the yards per play, despite a large difference in number of plays run, were equal at 5.6. 

So, good job, Illini. It's a seismic win in the Big Ten in multiple ways. One, I was never fully buying that Lovie Smith's job was in jeopardy this year, but this win should settle that. The Illini have been getting better under Smith, but progress has been slow. They needed some proof of concept and that arrived on Saturday.

Two, the West race is now wide open. The Badgers have to go to Ohio State this week and the Buckeyes right now are a purveyor of football death. Should that game go as the spread suggests it could––feels a bit weird as a transition out of Illinois winning as a 30-point dog, but so it is––and Minnesota handles Maryland in Minneapolis, we would enter November with the Gophers having a two-game lead on every team in the division.

But. In the month of November, after a bye week on Nov. 2, Minnesota would still have to play Penn State, at Iowa, at Northwestern and close the season against Wisconsin. Per FPI, the Gophers would only be favored in one of those final four games right now.

The Illini's win opened up the possibility that the West Division winner might be a two- or three-loss team. Right now, Northwestern is the only team with four conference losses.

Nebraska's in that group. While the Huskers' play through the first seven games did little suggest they're capable of a late-season run, it's at least a possibility at this point. The race is on, so to speak, for almost every team in the West.

It starts for Nebraska this week against a really good Indiana team. We'll get more into the Hoosiers as the week goes on, but for now here's the Huskers' updated power-ranking chart along with what the three systems I've been tracking are saying about Hoosiers-Huskers this week.


SP+: Thanks to shifting numbers everywhere else, Nebraska dropped two spots despite not playing. The Huskers' rating (points better than an average team) of 5.9 fell to 4.4. SP+ ranks Indiana 22nd with a 14.8 rating. Using a 2.5-point home field adjustment, that makes the Hoosiers about an 8-point favorite per SP+. Circa Sports, despite not having some key injury info on both sides (who is playing QB for either team, for example), opened this line at Indiana -2 on Sunday.

FPI: The Hoosiers aren't quite as high in FPI, ranking 38th with a 6.0 rating. Nebraska held at 63rd this week and its rating improved from 0.7 to 0.9. That's the same rating Maryland, Indiana's opponent, had last week. The Hoosiers won that one 34-28 at Maryland. Using the same 2.5 points for home field, FPI would likely have this game at Indiana -2.5. It gives the Hoosiers a 52.3% win probability.

Sagarin: The gap between Hoosiers and Huskers is smallest here. Sagarin has Indiana as the 43rd-best team, Nebraska the 56th. Using the 3-point home advantage prescribed by Sagarin, this game falls into pick 'em range (NU -0.05).

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