INDIANAPOLIS — One by one, players and coaches from the 14 Big Ten schools took turns on the risers that dotted the FieldTurf at Lucas Oil Stadium, each sharing their thoughts on the season ahead during Big Ten football media days the week. last.
Though peppered with questions ranging from conference expansion to off-court opportunities, the players also had more pressing matters on their minds: finding a way to get back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3.
“I’m so excited about this because we have a chance,” Gophers sixth-year senior center John Michael Schmitz said.
For the Gophers, 2022 could be their best shot at playing Indy. Coach PJ Fleck is bringing back a veteran team with hopes of winning the Western Division title that has eluded the Gophers in two of the past three seasons. With the Big Ten adding Southern California and UCLA starting in the fall of 2024, the conference’s divisional roster is certain to change.
Add to the NCAA’s May ruling that conferences must no longer use a divisional format for league title games, and the road to Indy — or wherever the Big Ten places its title game — could become more difficult for teams like the Gophers. Minnesota has faced Eastern powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan twice each and Penn State just once in Fleck’s five years as coach.
“The cultural sustainability goal of all of this is to make sure that every year you have a chance — you’re in the fight, you’re in the hunt, you’re competing for it,” Fleck said. “…We’ve put ourselves in a position to be in the fight, and if a few things go your way, you have a better chance of winning it.”
Additions to Divisions
Since the Big Ten moved from the Legends and Leaders divisions to the East and West in 2014, Eastern teams have won all eight conference championship games – and by an average score of 35-14 . Wisconsin has won four Western titles, while Iowa and the Northwest have won two each.
Twice in the past three years, the Gophers have controlled their destiny by winning the West and qualifying for the title. In 2019, they went 9-0 on aggregate with a win over Penn State, only to fall 23-19 at Iowa the following weekend. The West title went to the Gophers and Wisconsin in the regular season finale, and the Badgers went 38-17. The Gophers and Badgers were tied for the division title at 7-2, but Wisconsin won the head-to-head tiebreaker and trip to Indy. The Gophers finished 11-2 with an Outback Bowl victory over Auburn.
Last year, the Gophers entered November 4-1 in the Big Ten and controlled their fortunes before back-to-back losses to Illinois and Iowa torpedoed their chances. The 27-22 loss to Iowa, in which the Gophers beat the Hawkeyes 409-277, stung more. Had Minnesota won that game and all of the other results, the Gophers would have played for the Big Ten Championship. They went on to finish 9-4 with a guaranteed rate win over West Virginia.
“We could be in the chase, we could be in the conversation, we could be in the discussion,” Fleck said. “I’m not afraid to say that in 6th grade.”
It looks like the Big Ten will keep their current division format through the 2023 season, then adjust when USC and UCLA come on board. Barry Alvarez, a former Wisconsin coach and athletic director, is a special football adviser to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren. Alvarez said the conference is in the early stages of determining its schedule for a 16-team league.
“Everyone has their ideas on the table,” he said, adding he didn’t want to share details of a plan he endorses. “I will tell the commissioner my preference when the time comes.”
Alvarez wants to protect rivalry games — such as Gophers vs. Wisconsin and Iowa vs. Wisconsin — in any new format. Fleck agrees and can’t wait to see how the expansion unfolds.
“It will be interesting to get back in our time machine, get back in that DeLorean and see what happens,” he said.
How the West Was Conquered
While Ohio State has been the powerhouse in the East Division, winning it five times, West has seen parity. Wisconsin won three titles in the first four years. Northwestern followed with titles in 2018 and 2020. Iowa won its titles in 2015 and 2021.
In a Cleveland.com preseason poll of members of the media, Wisconsin received 31 of 36 votes to win the West, Iowa got three and the Gophers got two.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald sees parity as a result of program consistency.
“Church [Ferentz, Iowa coach] and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “Jeff [Brohm] did a great job at Purdue. You look what Bret [Bielema, Illinois coach] made several stops. PJ goes western [Michigan] going and now on a consistent basis in Minnesota. … You insert the tape and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is Iowa, this is Minnesota.’ There is an identity in all these places.”
Fleck and the Gophers have built that identity as his program matures. Minnesota is 11-6 against the West the past three seasons and has two wins over Wisconsin since 2018. Over the past three seasons, the Gophers are 5-3 against the East, including a win over Penn State. The roadblock was Iowa, which is 5-0 against the Fleck Gophers.
Ferentz, entering his 24th season as Iowa coach, expects the division winner to be the team that handles adversity best.
“Generally, it’s always a pretty fine line on how you deal with these things that happen,” he said. “You can’t sit here in July or August and say, ‘OK, September 23, we’re going to go through this.’ That’s what it comes down to.”
Schmitz, an All-America candidate, thinks the opportunity presents itself for the Gophers.
“I have to finish. I have to finish the games,” he said. “It comes with the little details, the focus, the attention that we bring…the tenacity that this team will have to have to get to Indy this year.”
startribune Gt Itly