If Minnesota wins the Big Ten’s West Division, the Golden Gophers will have done it the hard way.
This weekend, coach Jerry Kill’s team hosts Ohio State, which just took control of the East by hammering Michigan State on the road. Although the Golden Gophers are tied atop their division with Wisconsin and Nebraska, they’re at a bit of a disadvantage thanks to this weekend’s game. Minnesota has to play Ohio State, while the Badgers and Cornhuskers don’t have to face the Buckeyes at all during the regular season.
“We’ve just got to do our job. I’ve said that all along,” Kill said. “We’ve had a tough schedule, and it’s not getting any easier, but that’s the challenge that our football team has, and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers this season, the Big Ten now has two seven-team divisions, and there’s no way for everyone in the league to play everyone else. Instead, each team plays only two opponents from the other division, meaning some of the league’s top teams won’t necessarily face each other.
Right now, No. 11 Nebraska (8-1, 4-1), No. 22 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1) and Minnesota (7-2, 4-1) are tied atop the West. Nebraska’s crossover games this year are against Michigan State and Rutgers, and the Cornhuskers already lost to the Spartans. Wisconsin beat Rutgers and Maryland handily. Minnesota beat Michigan and now here come the eighth-ranked Buckeyes.
“With new teams coming in from Maryland and Rutgers and realignment and those type of things, those games, it’ll circle back around,” Kill said. “It’s part of it, and we understand it from adding teams.”
The schedule may hurt Ohio State as well. The Buckeyes made a major statement last weekend with their 49-37 victory at Michigan State — the first Big Ten loss for the Spartans since 2012. But even if Ohio State beats everyone it plays from the Big Ten, it’s hard to say how much that will impress college football’s playoff committee.
Before beating Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ best victory this season was probably against Maryland or Penn State, and neither of those wins was much of a head turner for a team climbing back in the polls from a two-touchdown loss at home to unranked Virginia Tech. If Ohio State had a chance to play both Nebraska and Wisconsin, the Buckeyes might be able to bolster their resume a bit, but their best-case scenario now is probably a win over one of those two teams in the Big Ten title game.
Contrast that with the Big 12, in which each team plays all nine of its conference rivals. Teams like TCU and Baylor don’t have to worry about missing a chance to earn a quality win.
The Big Ten is going to a nine-game conference schedule in 2016, so it will be marginally harder for the top teams in different divisions to miss each other during the regular season.
“I’m sure there will always be some questions, year in and year out. Who’s going to be in the driver seat when you get late in the year? And who’s playing well? Who’s not playing well?” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “But nine games should definitely help that. We’ll have more crossover games, so you’re going to have more — whatever you want to call those — the quality matchups or big-time matchups.”
Wisconsin faces Nebraska this weekend, then Minnesota takes on Nebraska and Wisconsin to end the regular season. The Gophers have their title hopes very much in their own hands — but unless they can pull off an upset against Ohio State, they won’t have much margin for error when they play the Badgers and Cornhuskers.
So Ohio State’s dominance could end up affecting both division races this year.
“We had a good win against Iowa (last weekend), and then you go home, you get a little bit of time,” Kill said. “And then you watch the Michigan State-Ohio State game. And then you don’t sleep.”