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Big Ten Football: Has the West Division Finally Caught Up with the East?

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Big Ten Football: Has the West Division Finally Caught Up with the East?

Big Ten Football: Has the West Division Finally Caught Up with the East?

There was a time not so long ago — less than a year ago, actually — when college football media and fans pondered whether or not another Big Ten divisional realignment was needed. Since moving away from the "Legends" and "Leaders" divisions back in 2013 to the more geographically-pleasing setup the conference has now, the Big Ten East champion has rattled off six straight conference titles. Ohio State has four titles, with Penn State and Michigan State winning one apiece.

Things have slowly been evolving on both sides of the conference in recent years. The East has grown increasingly top-heavy, with Ohio State, Penn State and either Michigan or Michigan State all battling it out in the top three of the standings. Indiana has fielded some competitive teams, while Rutgers and Maryland routinely hang out in the division's basement.

In the West, Wisconsin is king, but there have been some heated four-way battles for the division title in recent years — including 2018 — when Northwestern won the West. Iowa has had consistent success, and last season, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were knocking on the door of a Big Ten Championship Game appearance.

Heading into 2020, one can easily make the argument the Big Ten West — for the first time since the East-West realignment — is the better division from top to bottom.

Ohio State is a perennial top-five program, and it doesn't look like that's going to change anytime soon. After the Buckeyes, however, things appear to get very competitive between the two divisions.

Penn State has climbed its way back to national relevance, but Wisconsin has been right there for the better part of a decade. Michigan has a blue-blood name, but its on-field performance and projected finish by most experts in 2020 is anything but. Meanwhile in the West, Kirk Ferentz has built one of the more consistent winners in Power 5 football at Iowa, and his 2020 team looks to have an offense unlike anything we've seen from the Hawkeyes in a very long time.

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Michigan State — after a nice run as a top-10 program that included a College Football Playoff berth — has hit a few bumps in the road as of late. The departure of Mark Dantonio is far and away the biggest bump of them all, and the program is trending downward by most accounts. Over in the West, P.J. Fleck appears to have something big brewing in the Twin Cities. His Gophers won 11 games in 2019, including some program-defining triumphs over Penn State and Auburn. There are no signs of the Minnesota program falling off under Fleck's guidance anytime soon.

Back in the East, you have an Indiana team that always seems to be looking for an identity, but never able to log a marquee win. Their in-state rivals in the West — the Purdue Boilermakers — are trending up and will feature one of the nation's most exciting players — Rondale Moore — this coming season.

Maryland and Rutgers have done very little to improve the quality of football in the Big Ten East since they began playing in the league in 2014. Athlon Sports projects the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights will win a combined six games in 2020.

In the West, the Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off a season that ended with an appearance in a bowl game and return 14 starters from that team. Their rivals to the north — the Northwestern Wildcats — continue to pride themselves on being a tough out for most opponents and a dark horse to contend for the division title every season under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

The wild card in all of this is Nebraska.

The Cornhuskers are heading into the third season of the Scott Frost era, and most expect them to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2016. Despite an ugly couple of seasons, there are a lot of people — both in the Cornhusker State and around the country — who still believe Frost can lead the program back to a certain level of national respectability. If that is the case and the process begins this coming season, it will get a lot tougher for people to argue that the Big Ten East — historically a two-deep division — has the more talented overall group of teams in 2020.

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo!, SBNation, Bleacher Report and FantasyPros. He is a three-time FWAA award winner. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.

(Top photo courtesy of @GopherFootball)