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Hot Reads: Which Big Ten West Teams Play the Best on the Road?

May 29, 2020

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta isn't ready to rule out having Kinnick Stadium at full-capacity this fall just yet.

“Once fans know what we’re doing to mitigate," he said in a video conference with reporters this week, "then they’ll make a choice to attend or not attend and they’ll also make a choice to protect others around them.”

A full stadium might be the goal, but Barta said Iowa, just like all of the other schools, is contingency planning for reduced-capacity scenarios. Given the potential for home games that don't look like normal home games across the country, an offseason that already doesn't look like the usual offseason, and it seems like we're headed towards a chaotic season ahead.

Chaotic on the field, that is. I'm expecting closer games, more upsets and more movement in the rankings week-to-week. Of course, it's possible none of that will come to pass and college football remain the same mismatch of haves and have-nots, with a lot of teams in the middle, that it has been for almost its entire history. But I'd be surprised if it felt that way. Expecting more of the unexpected seems like the easiest prediction to make for 2020.

That expectation led me to look at which Big Ten West teams had performed the best at home, relative to the spread, over the last seven seasons. Which teams could gain or lose the most by having home games that look a little different this fall?

Here we'll use the same method to look at which teams have played the best on the road over that stretch. Nebraska, for example, was a 2.5-point favorite, on average, in road games between 2013–19 and won those games by an average margin of 1.6 points, a difference of -0.9 points between margin and spread. That's the number you're looking at in the table below:

Iowa 5.8
Northwestern 4.9
Wisconsin 3.7
Purdue 2.3
Minnesota 1.9
Nebraska -0.9
Illinois -1.2

Iowa, as it had at home, performed the best relative to the spread. That consistency, home and away, could be an indication that the Hawkeyes are consistently undervalued somewhat. Or, it just might be a reflection of the sample being taken from Iowa's best seven-year stretch. The Hawkeyes' 62 wins since 2013 are tied for 15th nationally.

Below that, however, we get some movement. Northwestern, the second-worst performer at home in the West, is second-best on the road. Wisconsin ranks third on the road, but its performance against the spread is slightly better than it was at home. Minnesota was also a solid over-performer both ways.

Nebraska, as we're sampling the toughest seven-year stretch post-Devaney, isn't last this time, but it is second-to-last. The Huskers have consistently underperformed relative to the spread across the board, though they have been a bit better on the road.

But the bigger takeaway here might be bigger picture––five of the seven division teams performed better than the spread would’ve indicated on the road (nonconference games are included in the tallies). If the Big Ten often feels like a meat-grinder, that’s at least part of the reason.

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