After being shoved aside by a rep-ruining Week 2 and a division crossover schedule bereft of intrigue, the Big Ten matters again this week.
Ohio State-Michigan State is finally here. ESPN's "College GameDay" will be on hand. This week's slate of games is the best of the season, but Buckeyes-Spartans undoubtedly is among the headliners.
It has become the game of record in this conference, replacing Ohio State-Michigan and, more recently, Ohio State-Penn State and Wisconsin-Michigan State. Nebraska finds itself ahead of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff Rankings, but the national perception is that MSU and OSU are the league's two best teams and Saturday's winner will be the Big Ten's best hope for a playoff entry.
All eyes will be on East Lansing, and they should be. But don't forget about the West Division.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the wild, wild West and how some team needed to lay down the law. In essence, the West was turning into a muddled mess of mediocrity, playing out like many thought/feared it would.
Wisconsin and Nebraska, the most popular preseason picks to win the division, had just suffered losses that displayed varying degrees of ugliness (Wisconsin for the entire game at Northwestern, Nebraska for the first three quarters at Michigan State). Iowa was 2-0 in league play but hadn't put together a complete game. Minnesota had been a mini-surprise.
Three weeks later, the West is starting to look like we thought it would. That's a good thing entering the stretch run.
Nebraska has recorded three straight wins by 18 points or more. The Huskers aren't flawless (no team is this season in college football). They still do some maddening things, but but they also don't seem as prone to the meltdowns that have doomed them in past seasons. They're playing much better on defense, particularly on third down, ranking second nationally in third-down conversions against (26.4 percent). Ameer Abdullah's health is a significant concern, but Nebraska is positioned well for a tough closing stretch.
Wisconsin looks re-energized since its open week, whipping Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers by a combined score of 89-7. The pass game remains shaky, but running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement, along with arguably the nation's most underappreciated defense, give the Badgers a chance in every remaining game. Wisconsin's 37-0 blanking of Rutgers marked its first road shutout since 1998 (at Iowa), and its 139 yards allowed was its lowest total in a Big Ten game since 2001 (against Penn State).
The kicking game, a bugaboo for past Badgers teams, stood out in the Rutgers win. Things are trending up for Gary Andersen's team.
The same finally can be said for Iowa, which had underwhelmed until Saturday's 48-7 drilling of Northwestern. It all came together for the Hawkeyes, who showed balance on offense (262 pass yards, 221 rush yards) and received a lift from Louis Trinca-Pasat and the defensive line. Although Northwestern is a mess right now, Iowa at last resembled the team that could win the West, especially with the most favorable remaining schedule of any contender.
"I wish it happened more often," Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of his team's complete performance. "It's been a while since it really looked that way."
Better late than never.
The recent surges from Wisconsin and Iowa set up a delicious finish to the West Division race. Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota all have just one conference loss, and each team controls its fate because there have been no matchups between the four. But there will be plenty, beginning this week:
Saturday: Iowa at Minnesota
Nov. 15: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Nov. 22: Wisconsin at Iowa, Minnesota at Nebraska
Nov. 28: Nebraska at Iowa
Nov. 29: Minnesota at Wisconsin
Maybe the candidates cannibalize one another, which likely wouldn't be good for Big Ten perception. But at least the teams enter these matchups playing at a higher level. Minnesota has to bounce back from its own ugly loss (Illinois), and I expect a better showing from Jerry Kill's crew this week as the Gophers try to reclaim the bacon.
No one is confusing the Big Ten West with the SEC West or the Pac-12 South. But it might be better than the SEC East, led by a Missouri team that lost at home to Indiana, the only Big Ten team without a league victory.
The recent improvement also helps the narrative for the Big Ten championship game. It's likely that the West champion, even Nebraska, will be an underdog in Indianapolis. But underdogs have won each of the past two title games, and Michigan State nearly pulled off an upset against Wisconsin in the inaugural event in 2011.
Make no mistake: Ohio State-Michigan State is the Big Ten's hottest ticket. But don't forget the West, which is heating up just in time.