While the SEC East may be the best division in college football, the Big Ten Legends division has its share of intrigue and the unknown as well. The Legends division was the more competitive division in the Big Ten last season during the conference’s first season with division. That has continued well into this season, except it’s become even more obvious.
Going into today, all six members of the Legends division were still in the race for the division title. And after all Big Ten play today, it still pretty much looks that way.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers‘ loss today to the Northwestern Wildcats gives them two Big Ten losses, and likely will end up eliminating them from contention as their final half of the season is brutal. Road games at the Wisconsin Badgers (a big rivalry game for both) and Nebraska Cornhuskers highlight a part of the season that also houses the Gophers’ rivalry game with the Michigan Wolverines.
One thing I’ve always believed about the Iowa Hawkeyes is that they do their best when under the radar. During Kirk Ferentz‘s tenure as head coach, this has really been the case. The Hawkeyes don’t always get the best recruits, don’t always have talent-stacked teams, but what they do have is something that keeps them in the conference title race year after year: a willingness to make the absolute most of what they have to work with. This is what has powered the Hawkeyes over the last fifteen years, though they have had a few talent-stacked, star-powered teams along the way.
This year the Hawkeyes have come in under the radar and grabbed a share of the lead in the Legends division thanks to their double overtime win at the Michigan St. Spartans today. Despite the win and the momentum it may bring, the Hawkeyes will be tested from here on out. They will start with back-to-back tests, first at home against the Penn St. Nittany Lions next week, and then on the road the following week against the Wildcats. The key game will be the final road game of the year for the Hawkeyes: their November 17 meeting with the Michigan Wolverines. In the end, this game at The Big House could end up deciding the division.
The Wolverines have roared into Big Ten conference play and destroyed a couple of under-matched foes, but those wins have also given the Wolverines a share of the lead in the Legends division. Now comes the tough part: having all of the Wolverines’ quality conference opponents packed into one cluster on the schedule. The next five games for the Wolverines will be against all five of their division foes, and this is followed by their regular season finale on the road against the Ohio St. Buckeyes. Denard Robinson has played beautifully for the Wolverines against defenses that have had no idea how to stop him, but next week against the Spartans will be a defense that not only knows how to stop Robinson, they did it quite well last year. After that there are several questionable defenses facing the Wolverines prior to meeting the Buckeyes. But the offenses on some of these teams (specifically the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers) will give the Wolverines’ defense problems, and that will create some close games for the Wolverines during the next month.
The Wildcats are still clinging to their Cinderella dream of a Big Ten title, but there hasn’t been much in the Wildcats’ six wins that gives me the indication that they are going to be able to handle the back-to-back road games they have against the Spartans and Wolverines in mid-November. Their wins have been close against teams they shouldn’t be playing close, and even today against the Gophers (a team who has a pretty horrible defense) they were held scoreless in the final 42 minutes of play. Even with their game against the Cornhuskers being at home, the Wildcats are going to have their hands full with the Cornhuskers’ three-man running attack, not to mention the passing of Taylor Martinez. But the Wildcats’ recent history against the Hawkeyes hasn’t been too bad, so maybe they’ll get the chance to break the Hawkeyes’ hearts the way they did in 2009.
The Spartans’ loss today does put them at a disadvantage as they now have two conference losses. Their chances of repeating as Legends division champions will be put to the test in the next two weeks when they have road games against the Wolverines and Badgers. If they can get past that road trip with wins in both games, they still would have a real chance to sneak away with the division title.
This is what the best kind of division title races are all about: everyone in the mix (or close to it), all in the mix facing each other in a matter of weeks, and all around suspense. Two teams currently share the lead with one team a game back, one team a game and a half back, and two teams two games behind with all six teams having at least five games to go. Get ready for this division to provide fans with a race that likely won’t be decided until the final week of the season.