Just Say It: Minnesota Should Win the Big Ten West

Photo: Minnesota Gophers

See, that wasn’t so hard. Now, let’s say it again. ‘The Minnesota Gophers should win the Big Ten West.’ I get it, uttering such words would have been outright egregious for most of the past 50 years. That makes saying it now uncomfortable, even if true.

But it’s time to get over it. Gopher fans, and the rest of the college football world needs to admit the obvious truth. There is one team in the Big Ten West division, that throughout the early season schedule, has looked far superior to any of the other six.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers, in PJ Fleck’s 6th season, has completely dominated all three of their non-conference opponents, outscoring them to the tune of 149-17. That’s 49.7 points per game. The Minnesota offense is averaging 554.7 yards per game and the defense is allowing just 170.3. That’s a 384.4 yard differential. Even the sportsbooks have been taken aback by how well the Gophers have played so far.

Minnesota covered massive spreads in all three contests. Against New Mexico State, the Gophers entered as 35-point favorites, and won 38-0. They needed a victory by greater than 41 points, vs Western Illinois, and beat them by 52 (62-10). On Saturday, they were only 27.5-point favorites vs Colorado, but instead ran the Buffaloes off a 42-point cliff (49-7).

“They haven’t played anyone yet…”

It’s true, the Gophers played one of the worst non-conference schedules in the Big Ten. Their only power-5 opponent was Colorado, who’s expected to finish 2022 in the gutter of the PAC-12. Still, Minnesota stands as the only undefeated Big Ten West team, and given their record against the spread, they’ve exceeded expectations, thus far.

Let’s be real, Iowa and Wisconsin are the Gophers‘ only Big Ten West competition. Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska have already collected two losses, or more, on the season. Illinois had an impressive win over Virginia on Saturday, but they have already lost a conference game vs Indiana and aren’t expected to be a factor in the West by season’s end.

Iowa Curse Keeps Them Alive

Iowa is only in this conversation because they’ve been grandfathered in. If it weren’t for PJ Fleck’s winless record vs the Hawkeyes, I’d count them as dead too. They don’t have an offense! In their first three games, Iowa has totaled just 41 points. That’s over 100 less than the Gophers! Their competition? A 7-3 win over South Dakota State, a 7-10 loss vs Iowa State and a 21-0 win over Nevada.

Iowa’s quarterback, Spencer Petras, has a completion percentage of 47% and he’s thrown more interceptions (2) than touchdowns (1). Hell, he hasn’t even hit 400 total passing yards on the season yet. The black and gold offense struggled to find points vs Washington State and South Dakota State.

What are they going to do with a top-15 Minnesota Gophers’ defense? If Tanner Morgan, Mo Ibrahim & Co can post 20 points on November 19, they’ll blow the Hawkeyes out of Huntington Bank Stadium.

What About Wisconsin?

Then there’s Wisconsin, who has dominated the Big Ten West since it was created nearly a decade ago. But much like the rest of the division outside of Minnesota, the Badgers have an L on their 3-game resume already and they could be in jeopardy of missing out on the conference championship for the 3rd-straight season.

Sure, they put 66 up on the Fighting Jerry Kills over the weekend. But, who cares? (QB) Graham Mertz has been better than last year’s dumpster fire, so far. But he was very pedestrian (18/31, 227 yards, 2 TD, INT) in Wisconsin’s 17-14 loss to Washington State, the Saturday before. Braelin Allen wasn’t his normal unstoppable self in that game either, carrying the ball 21 times for just 98 yards and failing to reach pay dirt.

Washington State might surprise some people this year but their defense is not on the level of what the Badgers will see vs Iowa and Minnesota this season. So that again begs to question how Wisconsin will find a way to put up more points than Kirk Ciarrocca, Tanner Morgan and Mohamed Ibrahim.

Then, you look at the schedules…

Schedules aside, the Minnesota Gophers look like the best and most complete team in the West division, as long as Kirk Ciarrocca can continue to bring the 2019 out of Tanner Morgan. The maroon and gold are strong in every other position group, both on offense and defense.

Now, take a peek at the schedules. You’ll notice pretty quickly that, between the Gophers, Hawkeys and Badgers, it’s Minnesota that has the easiest path to Big Ten West supremacy. The Gophers do not have Iowa or Wisconsin on the schedule until the final two weeks of the season. In their three contests vs the East, Minnesota will travel to Michigan State (this weekend) and Penn State (Oct. 22). Then on Oct. 29, they host Rutgers.

Wisconsin travels to the horseshoe next weekend, to play #3 Ohio State and they too will play Michigan State, by season-end. But the Badgers’ schedule vs East teams looks like a cakewalk when you realize Iowa has both Ohio State AND #4 Michigan on their 2022 slate. In other words, if Hawkeye fans have hotel rooms booked for November in Indianapolis, they can probably cancel.

After further review…

The Minnesota Gophers are the best team in the Big Ten West, both on paper and, so far, on the field. Pair that superiority with an underwhelming 2022 schedule, compared to that of Iowa or Wisconsin, and your pick to win the Big Ten West should be obvious.

See you in Indy.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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