CHICAGO — Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team had reason to enjoy much of its 2018 season.
After an inexplicably bad start in nonconference play — punctuated by home losses to Duke and Akron back to back — and a close loss to Michigan, the Wildcats rolled off seven straight league wins and ran away with the West Division title, winning it by three games.
A Big Ten Championship Game loss to Ohio State followed, but Fitzgerald’s group beat a really good Utah team in the Holiday Bowl, capping off a 9-5 season, including an 8-2 mark overall against Big Ten teams.
Offseasons always bring change, but sometimes they bring a sense of disrespect, too. And Fitzgerald seemed to feel it when he took the podium at the league’s media days on Friday.
“We're not great clickbait, I guess, so picking us first isn't real sexy,” he said in response to a question about his team being picked in the middle or lower tier of the Big Ten West by various outlets. “But we'll just earn it. We'll just earn it. That's what's so great about football. The West gets knocked. I enjoy it. That's what I tell our players, enjoy it, and you've got to go out and earn it on the field, and that's what makes our game so great.
“We'll just continue to do that and control what we can control, but yeah, it's always fun to read this time of year how we stink.”
Fitzgerald’s team, mind you, has won 15 of its past 16 regular-season Big Ten games. Perhaps more than disrespect for the Wildcats, the media vote — which featured Nebraska as a slight favorite over Iowa despite 14 first-place votes each — illustrates a more general point: Nobody has the first darn clue of what’s going to happen in the Big Ten West this fall.
“I don’t care who people are picking. I don’t,” Husker coach Scott Frost said. “There are a lot of really good teams in our league and a lot of teams that beat us last year that we didn’t beat. I know we’re better. We’re better than we were a year ago. But we still have to go out and earn anything.
“Picks are picks. Guesses are guesses. Ninety percent of the time you guys are wrong when you guess things.”
That’s probably a fair (and lighthearted) barb from Frost to the reporters gathered at his podium on Thursday. This summer in particular, the guesses are spread far and wide in the West.
Minnesota was picked sixth in the West in an unofficial media poll conducted annually by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but also picked up a first-place vote. College football analyst Phil Steele wrote that he had one model projecting the Gophers to 10-2, but he picked them in a three-way tie for fourth with Northwestern and Purdue. Lindy’s ranks the Gophers’ wide receivers No. 2 in the Big Ten, their running backs No. 3 and their offensive line No. 4.
“It's a wide open West,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said. “… You look at the coaches who have been hired. I mean, Scott Frost at Nebraska and seeing what they're doing in recruiting right now and the elevation of that program instantly, you can just feel that coming. And you look at what Jeff Brohm has done at Purdue and elevating that program on a national stage and the things they were able to do last year. And most all the Big Ten West teams have been able to elevate like that. We feel like we're a part of that, as well.”
Win total projections from betting sites show a similarly scattered story. Westgate projects Nebraska at 8.5, Wisconsin at eight, Iowa and Minnesota at 7.5 and Purdue at seven.
“I think what sets the Big Ten apart from every other league is the quality of teams top to bottom and the competitiveness of this league,” Frost said. “There’s no easy games in this league. You’d better come prepared to play every week. I don’t care who you’re playing, every single team can beat you if you don’t play well, and I’m not sure that exists in every league. I know it exists here.
“This is a fun league to be a part of because you have to plan well, practice well and play well if you expect to get a ‘W’ on Saturday.”
Despite that notion, this year’s media gathering featured a lot of questions — and very little in the way of actionable information — about potentially realigning the divisions in the Big Ten because the East has been stronger recently. Frost and several coaches — from both the West and East — downplayed the notion. Fleck said it could happen and only Penn State’s James Franklin gave a stronger endorsement to looking into the idea than that.
“I don’t think it will be very long before people are talking about the West just as much as they’re talking about the East,” Frost said, “And we have a responsibility to help make that happen, too.”
Will it be stronger than the East in 2019? That might be a stretch, but the wide-open nature of the West side will make it every bit as interesting at the very least.