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Big Game Hunting: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa get out of the gate in Big Ten West race

Don’t look it up. Don’t even think about it. Just answer this question with the first name that pops into your head:

Who’s in first place in the Big Ten West?

No, it’s not Ohio State or Michigan (wrong division). No, it’s not the Packers (wrong league). No, it’s not Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa (none of which has played a Big Ten game yet).

It’s definitely not Nebraska (already fired its coach) or Purdue (coach under heavy fire) or even Illinois, an encouraging 3-1 overall but with only one conference game played — and lost — so far.

Are you picking up what I’m putting down here? The West’s first-place team — alone at 1-0 — is none other than Northwestern, which couldn’t even beat Duke or Southern Illinois in Evanston. But a 1-0 start is no joke, not this season, when the division appears to be more up for grabs than ever.

Three pretty good West teams — maybe the best three — open conference play Saturday on the road against East foes. Minnesota (-3) at Michigan State (2:30 p.m., BTN) is a chance for the Gophers to get to 4-0 and bust into the Top 25, where they ought to be already. Iowa (-7½) at Rutgers (6 p.m., FS1) is a chance for the Hawkeyes to get away from their fans in Iowa City, who burst new blood vessels with the offense’s every three-and-out. And Wisconsin (+19) at No. 3 Ohio State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7) is a chance for the Badgers to … avoid embarrassing themselves? To at least give the Buckeyes a game? To make like it’s 2004 and actually win again in Columbus?

The Gophers have faced a weak schedule so far, but they’ve been essentially flawless and arrived in East Lansing ranked No. 2 in the land in both total offense (554.7 yards per game) and total defense (170.3). Running back Mo Ibrahim, who missed nearly all of last season after tearing up his knee, is a new man. No. 1 receiver Chris Autman-Bell got knocked out for the rest of the year during last week’s blowout of Colorado, though, and that’s a hard hit.

“There’s a lot of people on this football team [who] can make a ton of plays for us,” coach P.J. Fleck said.

Michigan State has some guys, too. Spartans, 34-30.

Minnesota’s gaudy stats aside, the Big Ten’s best defense doesn’t belong to the Gophers. You won’t find it at Michigan, Wisconsin or Penn State. In this league, nobody does “D” like Iowa. Rutgers has gotten bigger, stronger and faster during Greg Schiano’s second act as coach, but the Scarlet Knights are still learning to apply those advancements toward winning ugly. This is an Iowa game, folks. By definition, it’s going to be ugly. Hawkeyes, 16-13, in a game as electric as a Ferentz dinner conversation.

Wisconsin’s Leonhard will try to get his defense locked in for the big, bad Buckeyes.

Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The best assistant coach in the conference, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, undoubtedly picked up some things from Notre Dame’s strong performance against QB C.J. Stroud, receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and the rest of Ohio State’s sensational offense. But the dam inevitably breaks if the Badgers don’t put repeated long drives ending in touchdowns on the board themselves.

“You’ve got to execute. You’ve got to play,” said their coach, Paul Chryst. “This game is no different.”

Oh, it’s different. Buckeyes, 35-20.

OTHER WEEK 4 PICKS

No. 5 Clemson (-7) at No. 21 Wake Forest (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Even last year, when Wake won the division, it still got hammered by Clemson by 21. As good and opportunistic as the Demon Deacons are, matching up physically with the Tigers remains a bridge too far. Tigers by 10.

Notre Dame (+1½) at North Carolina (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Irish should be able to run it, throw it and pile up points against a terrible Tar Heels “D,” but the Mack Brown Band is in its element in wild, high-scoring affairs. Pile up? More like pile on. Heels by a kick.

Northern Illinois (+26½) at No. 8 Kentucky (6 p.m., ESPN): Of all the years to have to pay the Wildcats a visit. Wouldn’t it be easier to play them in basketball? UK, 41-16.

No. 10 Arkansas (+2½) vs. No. 23 Texas A&M (6 p.m., ESPN) in Arlington, Texas: Arkansas snapped a nine-game head-to-head losing streak in 2021 and has caught the Aggies for now. Better get ’em again before Jimbo Fisher’s parade of five-star recruits takes hold. Hogs in overtime.

Miami (Ohio) (+7½) at Northwestern (6:30 p.m., BTN): The RedHawks played close first halves against both Kentucky and Cincinnati but got smoked in the second halves of those games. Not that they’re any worse at finishing than the Wildcats. It’s another losable game for NU, but aren’t they all? ’Cats, 24-21.

My favorite favorite: No. 4 Michigan (-16½) vs. Maryland (11 a.m., Fox-32): Terps QB Taulia Tagovailoa is a constant threat, but the Wolverines have won six straight in this division series by an average of about five touchdowns.

My favorite underdog: No. 20 Florida (+11) at No. 11 Tennessee (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): The Gators are 16-1 against the Vols since 2005. Florida, man, outright.

Last week: 7-1 straight up, 3-5 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 17-8 straight up, 14-11 vs. the spread.



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