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Tate | The case for the Big Ten West | Sport

The Big Ten West is the perfect football division. Not the best, maybe.

But perfect for members.

Destroying that half of the conference after 2023 would be a crime — a crime no less serious because every September, millions of supporters of these seven universities believed in their hearts and bones that they could finish on top.

Wisconsin and Northwestern have each won two Western titles since 2017, Iowa won last year, Minnesota missed out in 2019 despite going 11-2 overall, and Illinois is now on the precipice after going 4-1 in the league with a convincing 26-9 triumph Saturday at a sold-out Nebraska State.

You won’t find this balance anywhere else. Certainly not with Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East, not with the SEC with Alabama in the West and Georgia in the East, not with Clemson leading the Atlantic Division and the ACC itself.

As for the Big 12 and Pac-12, they’re just too unwieldy without divisions. Already dead in the water in the west are California, Colorado, Stanford, Washington, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona.

Within their reach

But here in Illinois, years of failure have been sustained by what has always been seen as an attainable goal. And it becomes even more attainable after another dominant day at Nebraska.

In fact, if the Illini can win their next two home games against Michigan State on Father’s Day and Purdue on Senior Day, they are all but certain to advance to the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

They briefly trailed the Cornhuskers 9-6 early in the second quarter on a 56-yard run by 6-foot-7 tight end Travis Wakolek. From that point on, Nebraska’s possession resulted in an interception, a fumble, a halftime knee, an interception, an interception, a fumble, a fumble, a fumble and another fumble.

It was no contest, with the Huskers becoming especially inept after quarterback Casey Thompson left the game with a hand injury in the second quarter. Without Thompson and with Big Ten receiver Trey Palmer hauling in one short reception all day, Nebraska committed just two first downs over the final 39 minutes.

Picture that: This top-ranked Illinois defense has allowed just 17 points in the second half of eight games.

And it was an extra “no struggle” because the offense did its job, too, with Tommy DeVito completing 20 of 22 passes, the nation’s leading rusher Chase Brown breaking 100 yards again (149), Isaiah Williams converting nine receptions for 93 yards and the opening TD, and Caleb Griffin returns kickoffs.

Obtaining protection

It is difficult to understand to whom such a stifling defense can be attributed. Illinois pushed its interception total to 15 with three more, the second turning the tide when Sydney Brown calmed the huge crowd with a 37-yard return to the 11. Chase Brown got it from there in two plays, and that 13-9 lead would soon be extended.

Luke Ford’s 17-yard TD catch was nullified just before halftime, but DeVito came right back with a 12-yard TD strike to Chase Brown. It was 20-9 at halftime and there were no more touchdowns as coach Brett Bielema went conservative, settling for a field goal on 4th-and-1 late in the third quarter.

“They had their moment (early) and we weathered it,” Bielema said. “We took one of the best receivers in college football (in Palmer). Every Big Ten win is a big deal.”

Talk about division

Next year will be the last for this Big Ten setup.

In 2024, insiders report that the Big Ten’s divisions will be eliminated (or drastically changed) with the addition of Southern California and UCLA, despite these conference switches receiving objections from Trojan/Bruin fans, students, athletes in other sports, 10 other Pac-12 members, California legislators and the 10-campus California Education System.

Most of the previous talk now points to a cumbersome 16-team Big Ten. One big conference without divisions. why? Because it’s about money, and it’s supposed to allow more Big Ten teams to qualify for the 12-team national playoffs.

But it will leave fans cold until mid-season for those in the bottom half of this long-running league table.

Note that there are 32 teams in the NFL and they are divided into eight divisions of four teams each. All the Chicago Bears need to do to make the playoffs is finish ahead of the Packers, Vikings and Lions (who knows; maybe they will someday). And your beloved Chicago Cubs are in a five-team baseball division with St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t always work, but these pro leagues have found a better way to create divisions to keep hopes alive and create important late-season games.

That’s not possible in a 16-team conference without divisions.


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