The Gophers’ 12-10 win over Iowa last week has rejuvenated Minnesota’s outlook to contend for the Big Ten West Division title.
With five games remaining, Minnesota is 2-2 in the Big Ten and enters Saturday’s home game as a seven-point favorite against Michigan State (0-4).
In the West standings, the third-place Gophers sit one game behind Wisconsin (3-1) and a half-game behind Iowa (3-2). But Minnesota holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Hawkeyes and fourth-place Nebraska (2-2).
This current situation sets up a plausible scenario for the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Nov. 25 to decide the winner of the West.
Here’s how that might shake out:
Wisconsin is a 14-point home underdog against No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) on Saturday, and Minnesota will be a big underdog when the Gophers play the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 18. It’s not going out on a limb to assume Ohio State wins both games.
Let’s also predict the Badgers and Gophers win every other game on their schedules — all of which are against teams below them in the standings.
In that world, Wisconsin will be 6-2 and Minnesota will be 5-3 in conference play when they kick off at Huntington Bank Stadium two days after Thanksgiving.
For that rivalry game to be about more than the Axe, the Hawkeyes would need to provide a path.
Let’s project Iowa beats the three foes below them in the West standings but get tripped up at home by resurgent Rutgers (3-2). If the Scarlet Knights beat the Hawkeyes, Iowa would finish 6-3.
In this hypothetical, a Minnesota win over Wisconsin would put the Gophers in the Big Ten Championship Game.
With a Gophers’ win of the Axe, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin would have identical 6-3 conference records, and the Gophers would hold the three-team tiebreaker over their border rivals: winning percentage in games between the tied teams.
But a Badgers win of the Axe in this scenario would push them to the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.
The likely reality, however, figures to be messier than that.
No team in the West looks like a powerhouse. For instance, Wisconsin needed to score 18 unanswered points for a 25-21 comeback win over Illinois (1-4) last weekend. And Iowa’s offense has not been able to move the ball in any game.
The Gophers will need to iron out their own inconsistencies; that was most glaring in how they coughed up a 21-point lead and lost 38-35 in overtime at Northwestern (1-3) in late September. Without that upset loss, Minnesota would clearly be in a much more advantageous spot within the division.
While the Pioneer Press opted to look at a straight-forward scenario for the stretch run, the Sickos Committee, a group of diehard college football fans, says it has found the opposite — complete chaos.
On social media this week, the group shared a way the division can reach a seven-way tie, with each program finishing 4-5 in the conference and 3-3 in the West. Parsing out how that one is reached and who wins the division is a murky ordeal.
Gophers’ manifest destiny?
Here’s a straight-forward — if certainly not easy — way Minnesota can win the Big Ten West Division:
1 — Wisconsin (3-1 in Big Ten)
No. 3 Ohio State (loss); at Indiana (win); Northwestern (win); Nebraska (win); at Minnesota (loss)
2 — Iowa (3-2)
bye; Northwestern at Wrigley Field (win); Rutgers (loss); Illinois (win); at Nebraska (win)
3 — Minnesota (2-2)
Michigan State (win); Illinois (win); at Purdue (win); at No. 3 Ohio State (loss); Wisconsin (win)
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