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Does the Big Ten West Have Any Hope of Catching up to the East?

Pat Fitzgerald

Pat Fitzgerald

“I think stats are for losers. The only stat that matters is wins at the end of the year.”

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald gave that quote in the 2013 offseason after his Wildcats went 10–3 with what appeared to be pretty mediocre overall stats. He is one of the most recent coaches to say it, but coaches have been saying it since both football and football stats existed.

Technically, Fitzgerald was right, of course — wins determine conference champions, and wins certainly play a significant role in deciding who plays for the national title. But if you’re looking to predict what will happen moving forward, or if you’re trying to distinguish between teams with similar win totals, then the win column doesn’t give you very much. You might need stats for that.

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Advanced stats can add much-needed context to a team’s profile. They can adjust for opponent; they can adjust for the wild variations in tempo that we see in today’s college football. They can drop hints regarding who’s lucky and who’s not, or whose results are sustainable or not.

Advanced stats and win columns rarely disagreed more than they did when it came to the Big Ten West in 2015. The division produced three 10-win teams and, in Iowa, very nearly a College Football Playoff participant; it did not, however, produce a top-30 team according to the S&P+ ratings, my opponent-adjusted ratings, based on play-by-play and drive stats, that I have posted at since 2008.

In ESPN’s FPI, 10–3 Wisconsin led the way at No. 26. In Brian Fremeau’s FEI, also a Football Outsiders measure, no one ranked higher than No. 29 — and that was 6–7 Nebraska. At No. 22, 12–2 Iowa was the only West team in the top 40 according to Jeff Sagarin’s long-running rankings.

The scoffing at these low ratings was constant throughout the season. Iowa began the season 12–0, while 10-win Northwestern beat Stanford and Duke while losing only to Michigan and Iowa. Wisconsin, for that matter, lost to only these two teams and Alabama.

But whether we like to admit it or not, margins matter. Iowa’s narrow wins over Pitt, Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska did not suggest elite status, and while Northwestern lost only twice in the regular season, the Wildcats lost by a combined 78–10 in those games.

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Obviously a lot of the scoffing ended when Iowa lost by 29 to Stanford in the Rose Bowl and Northwestern lost by 39 to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Over the last five seasons, the seven teams currently in the Big Ten West have just once ranked in the S&P+ top 10 (2011 Wisconsin ranked exactly 10th) and have only 11 times ranked in the top 40, an average of 2.2 per year. Worse yet, the coaches responsible for nine of those 11 top-40 finishes in that span have since left: Bo Pelini did it three times at Nebraska, Bret Bielema did it twice at Wisconsin, Gary Andersen did it twice at Wisconsin, and Jerry Kill did it twice at Minnesota. Only Kirk Ferentz (No. 29 Iowa in 2013) and Paul Chryst (No. 31 Wisconsin in 2015) remain.

While historically well-off programs in the Big Ten East have hired big names such as Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh in recent years, the West has taken a more low-profile route to hiring.

•  Though Chryst had an obvious history with Wisconsin (he’s a former UW quarterback and spent time on staff in 2002 and 2005-11), the Badgers still replaced Andersen with a guy who was 19–19 in three years at Pitt.

•  Nebraska fired Bo Pelini, who had averaged 9.4 wins per year since 2008, and replaced him with Mike Riley, who was 29–33 in his last five years at Oregon State.

•  Minnesota promoted from within when Jerry Kill retired last year.

•  Perhaps most damning at the moment, Purdue retained Darrell Hazell despite a 6–30 record through three seasons.

By comparison, Illinois’ hire of just-fired NFL coach Lovie Smith was met by fans with relative enthusiasm. Any hire can work out well, but in terms of pure ambition and spending, these hires have been rather conservative.

So is there hope moving forward? Possibly. Iowa and Nebraska both return quite a few stellar contributors from last year’s squads, which, by the numbers, weren’t as far apart as the win column would suggest. But while Purdue and Minnesota each return an average amount of experience and Northwestern isn’t far behind, both Illinois and Wisconsin are replacing large chunks of their respective two-deeps. Perhaps both the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers can approach double-digit wins, and perhaps they can finish the season stronger than Iowa and Northwestern did this past year. But division depth still appears to be an issue, and the future isn’t exactly bright in that regard — according to the 247Sports Composite, only one Big Ten West recruiting class has ranked better than 25th since 2009: Nebraska’s 2013 class, which ranked 22nd. These teams are performing around the level to which they’re recruiting.

When you draw up conference divisions, you have to make a choice: Do you divide teams by approximate geography, or do you attempt to distribute them in an effort to make two competitively equal divisions? I tend to lean toward the former because quality is cyclical. Blueblood programs are good more often than anybody, but it is still hit-or-miss. Case in point: the ACC, which separated Miami and Florida State into different divisions to enjoy the spoils of a decade of UM-FSU conference title games. Twelve years into Miami’s ACC membership, however, the Hurricanes and Seminoles have yet to face off for the conference championship.

The Big Ten first chose the competitiveness route with the maligned and awkwardly named Leaders and Legends divisions. But when Maryland and Rutgers came aboard, the thought of either being a division mate with a faraway school like Iowa or Nebraska was too nonsensical, so the East and West divisions were created. And in doing so, the conference has created a divide nearly as wide as that of the SEC East and West.

This could indeed be cyclical. Nebraska could still return to power under Riley, and for all we know, Meyer and Harbaugh could both leave for the NFL, or retirement, or a flight to Mars. And their replacement hires could bomb, thereby evening out the divisions again. But that’s what it’s going to take. As things currently stand, the East has all the upside, and the West is hoping for lightning in a bottle. Stats may be for losers, but you don’t need too many stats at your disposal to see some serious imbalance in the Midwest.

-By Bill Connelly, SB Nation