Scott Frost and Kirk Ferentz discuss midfield
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The Gap in the Big Ten’s ‘Wild, Wild West,’ Coaches Say, Keeps Getting Smaller

July 26, 2021

The word for Indiana football in 2021 is chase. Said Hoosier head coach Tom Allen last week: “We’re trying to chase that greatness every single day.” In the Big Ten East, “that greatness” is the Ohio State Buckeyes. Since 2011, no Big Ten team has more title appearances than Ohio State (six) and no other team has won more titles than the Buckeyes’ five. Four have come in the last four years, and with Ohio State’s recruiting level unaffected by the change from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day at head coach, that trend looks to continue. 

It’s a problem for the rest of the East division. Michigan State and Penn State are the only teams to stop Ohio State from reaching the title game since the East-West structure went into place for the 2014 season. 

Completely different story over in the West. There has been a repeat division winner on Nebraska’s side of the conference only once in the last seven seasons. Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, and Minnesota have all won at least a share of a divisional title. 

While some East programs might look at the two sides as signs of an imbalanced conference, most in the West will argue it’s exactly the opposite—competitive balance. 

“We were picked sixth in the West when we tied for 1st in the West in 2019,” Minnesota coach PJ Fleck said. “That’s why they call it the wild, wild West. You just never know.”

Fleck is part of a class of coach that has raised the level of play in the division in recent years, with Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm joining college football coaching constants like Kirk Ferentz, Pat Fitzgerald, and Paul Chryst. 

The year before Brohm took over at Purdue, the Boilermakers ended the season (2016) ranked 105th in SP+. 

The year before Frost took over at Nebraska, the Huskers ended the year 103rd in SP+.

In 2016, the average SP+ ranking for West teams was 54th. In the East, it was 47th. In 2017, the average West finish was 66th while the average East finish was 47th. Ohio State has consistently buoyed the East, but five seasons ago it had three teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. The West had just two in the top 30 that season, and just one in the 2017.

Things have started to change, though. 

The average finish for West teams in 2018: 49th. 

The average finish for West teams in 2019: 45th.

The average finish for West teams in 2020: 36th.

The average preseason ranking for West teams ahead of the 2021 year is 41st. Five teams sit in the top 50, equal to the East. Six of the West’s seven teams ended the 2020 campaign in the top 50 compared to just four in the East. 

That might prove to be just a statistical quirk in the SP+ model given the low number of games across football, or it could be evidence as to what the West coaches will all tell you: there are no off days in the Big Ten’s less glamorous side. 

It’s true the East has the better team (or teams depending on the year) but it also has arguably the two weakest teams in the conference in Maryland and Rutgers. It has had at least two of the three lowest-ranked teams by SP+ each year since 2017. 

At Illinois, Brett Bielema will be tasked with bringing the Illini up to snuff with the rest of the league, because the other teams have all sort of jumbled up in close proximity to one another, with Illinois the outlier to the weak side. 

“You’ve got really good coaches, I think there’s really good players, and I’ve always believed that every game in the Big Ten and certainly in the West is a challenge,” Chryst said. “You know a little bit more about each other, a little bit different last year because we didn’t all play each other, but it’s always a challenge.” 

PFF ranked the top 20 college coaches and the West had as many as the East. CBS Sports ranked the top 25 Power Five coaches and the West had as many as the East. Sporting News’ Bill Bender ranked all 130 college coaches and the West had a 5-4 edge in terms of top-50 coaches. Point being: the gap isn’t as profound as some outside the league would lead to believe. 

“There’s nothing easy,” Ferentz said. “You go back to the 80s and there were certain games that you really didn’t have to be at your best and you still won, sometimes you won handily. Those days are long gone.”

For Nebraska, Frost is hoping improvement along the margins can help break through the jumble. 

“I think it’s a tight gap,” he said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for those teams, the job that Pat did last year, the consistency of the Iowa program, the years that Wisconsin’s had. Those coaches have been there a long time, gotten their cultures established and have been able to recruit the players to their culture, to their system, start training them from the time they’re freshmen. They’re established. 

“That being said we’ve played some really close games with those guys and been really close. And in most of those games it’s been a mistake here or a mistake there that’s cost us. One thing about this league is you can’t do that. There’s fewer players per game in this league, there’s fewer opportunities, you’ve got to be efficient and you’ve got to be a smart and tough football team. Getting a little better at those things will give us a better chance.”

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