Big Ten West fight is far from lost

So you want to bury the Big Ten West?

A growing belief exists that the league's weaker division is falling hopelessly behind -- that the East is a burgeoning monster set to take on SEC West-like status and destroy the balance of power in the Big Ten.

Two thoughts on this: The concerns are justifiable. And it hasn't happened yet.

Yes, the league's national powers, Ohio State and Michigan State, reside in the East. They sit several levels ahead of every West challenger.

Never mind that the Spartans' five wins against the East last year came by an average of 30.2 points, while their two wins against West foes were by 9.5. Or that four of the Buckeyes' past seven regular-season games against teams in the West, all OSU wins, were decided by 10 points or fewer.

The perceived chasm is real, best illustrated by the 59-0 Ohio State thrashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game five months ago.

But beyond the top two, the cries to break up the Big Ten East are based on expectations and the projection that Penn State and Michigan will soon reclaim their past spots among the sport's hierarchy. Both schools boast rich tradition with giant stadiums to fill, and they've recently hired coaches who seemingly can't miss.

Penn State and Michigan simply aren't there yet, though. Would you take the Nittany Lions and Wolverines today over Illinois and Minnesota from the West? Because I recall the Illini celebrating a victory over PSU last November (not to mention Penn State's ugly loss to Northwestern) eight weeks after the Golden Gophers hammered Michigan in the Big House.

OSU and MSU won the past two league titles, and they'll enter 2015 as prohibitive favorites to extend the East's reign to three seasons. But other than a stretch from 2005-09, until the past two years, teams from the East last won consecutive outright league titles in 1991 and '92.

Penn State coach James Franklin and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will recruit well, no doubt. Still, there's not enough room in the division for four superpowers. Until the East Division victories match its hope, let's deal with reality in assessing the West's best chance to stop the bleeding.

The landscape:

  • Wisconsin has played in three Rose Bowls since the 2010 season and possesses an identity strong enough on both sides of the ball to prove its showing last year in Indianapolis was an aberration.

  • Nebraska is emboldened by a coaching change, much like Michigan (though without all the flash), and the Huskers sit in a decent position with a foundation of moderate success in place from the previous regime.

  • Minnesota is the program that no one wants to acknowledge as a threat. But Jerry Kill, who began gathering his current assistants when Urban Meyer coached receivers at Colorado State two decades ago, can't be ignored.

  • Iowa may have finally arrived at a crossroads. A different feeling exists in Iowa City than after previous bouts with mediocrity. Is that urgency in the air? It can only progress the situation -- either to the next level under Kirk Ferentz or toward a change in leadership.

The bottom of the division is murky and full of questions, much like the East.

Look, the West is falling behind, primarily because of the recent runs in Columbus and East Lansing, but it's not as dramatic -- yet -- as some paint the picture.

For the division to keep pace, its programs must distinguish themselves in a way like Minnesota has over the past two seasons. The Gophers are a great example. They've capitalized on a style of play to nearly maximize efficiency.

If Wisconsin and Nebraska follow suit, their ceilings are considerably higher. An opportunity exists now as both schools transition to offensive-minded coaches.

The Badgers likely won't beat Ohio State at its own game. The Huskers won't consistently win battles against the Michigan State secondary. Let's see coaches Paul Chryst and Mike Riley get innovative in the games that matter.

And in recruiting, too, the West Division needs to keep pace as much as possible. The top four programs in the East will regularly collect the best talent. But if Iowa, Northwestern and Purdue commit to a system and recruit with the right focus, they can begin to close the gap. Again, Minnesota's already doing it.

Really, the West needs wins. How about Minnesota over TCU or Wisconsin over Alabama in September? Just last season, Ohio State showed how quickly perception can shift.

Oh, and it would help for the West to also win a game against the East's two-headed monster.

Most recently, that happened in November 2012, when Northwestern toppled the struggling Spartans. Just three years ago, Michigan State finished 7-6.

Things can change quickly in college football. And usually, they do.