Leistikow: Iowa can still win the Big Ten West, and the scenario isn't far-fetched

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Practices were indeed held, as scheduled, Monday and Tuesday mornings at the Hansen Football Performance Center.

Contrary to popular belief, the Hawkeyes' football season didn’t end following Saturday’s disappointing 30-24 loss at Penn State.

For Iowa to return to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis for the first time since 2015, it'll need to run the table in November and get a little help. Saturday's 2:30 p.m. CT road game at Purdue kicks off that four-game finish.

“We’re still sitting here 6-2, that’s not a terrible record," strong safety Geno Stone said. Tuesday. "We’re still (able) to make it to the Big Ten championship. We’re still able to reach our goals.”

Absolutely, the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes’ stated goal of winning a Big Ten Conference title took a hit inside Beaver Stadium. And dreams of a College Football Playoff berth likely were put to bed.

But thanks to some results earlier in Saturday, Iowa is mathematically very much alive for a Big Ten West title with four games to go.

It's going to take more help. And it’s going to require much cleaner football than Iowa played in Happy Valley. But it’s not as far-fetched as you might think.

“Obviously this one’s going to sting. Nobody feels good about it. But … we can’t let it beat us twice,” senior defensive end Parker Hesse said after the game. “We’ve got big games ahead of us. We’ve got a lot to accomplish still.”

The simplest path to Indianapolis is (mostly) a straight line.

Iowa’s margin for error to win the West evaporated at Penn State. But the cleanest way to reach the Dec. 1 Big Ten Championship game is to win its final four games and get one more loss out of Wisconsin.

A look at what’s left for the four contenders (and their Big Ten records):

Northwestern (5-1) — vs. Notre Dame (non-conference), at Iowa, at Minnesota, vs. Illinois.

Wisconsin (3-2) — vs. Rutgers, at Penn State, at Purdue, vs. Minnesota.

Purdue (3-2) — vs. Iowa, at Minnesota, vs. Wisconsin, at Indiana.

Iowa (3-2) — at Purdue, vs. Northwestern, at Illinois, vs. Nebraska.

The Big Ten’s first tiebreaker for two teams that finished tied atop a division is head-to-head results. If three or more teams are tied, their records are compared against one another.

Northwestern has the closest thing to a golden ticket to Indianapolis. A win at Iowa, and the Wildcats could even afford to lose one of their final two games (against teams with two combined Big Ten wins) and still win the West thanks to already-pocketed victories at Purdue and vs. Wisconsin.

But, if the Hawkeyes go 4-for-4 in November — a big if, of course — then they would just need a vulnerable Wisconsin team to lose once more. 

In that case, 7-2 Iowa would own the tiebreaker against 7-2 Northwestern.

And if all that happens, bar owners in downtown Indy will need to stock up on Busch Light.

What if there’s a three-way tie at 7-2?

It’s way too early to count out the champ. Two-time defending West winner Wisconsin will not go down without a fight. Let’s say the Badgers and Hawkeyes win out, and those teams and Northwestern tie at 7-2.

Then what?

The three teams would have all beaten each other — Wisconsin over Iowa; Northwestern over Wisconsin; Iowa over Northwestern. So, head-to-head solves nothing.

Next tiebreaker …

The team with the better West Division record is champ. In this scenario, all three would be 5-1 with one loss each to an East Division team (Northwestern and Wisconsin got beat by Michigan; Iowa by Penn State).

Next …

Two more tiebreakers (records against the next-highest placed teams in the West; records against all common conference opponents, of which there are none in the East) wouldn’t resolve anything either.

So …

It would come down to Tiebreaker No. 5: “The best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents.” This was introduced to reward the team that played the most difficult East Division crossover schedule.

Currently, Northwestern’s East opponents are 8-7 (Michigan 5-0; Michigan State 3-2; Rutgers 0-5), Wisconsin’s are 8-7 (Michigan 5-0; Penn State 3-2; Rutgers 0-5) and Iowa’s are 7-9 (Penn State 3-2, Maryland 3-2, Indiana 1-5). If that holds, then the tie between the two leading teams — Northwestern and Wisconsin — is broken by head-to-head result. And in that scenario, Northwestern would be your Big Ten West champ.

From the Hawkeyes’ perspective, a three-way tie doesn’t look promising. For their odds to improve, they’ll need Penn State, Maryland and Indiana to pull big upsets down the stretch. Penn State over Michigan, Maryland over Michigan State, Indiana over Purdue ... those are the types of results Iowa needs.

Can the Hawkeyes sweep November?

According to ESPN's FPI, Iowa's chances are 34.4 percent. That seems generous, but let's go with it.

It’s often said that Iowa plays its best football in November. However, recent history suggests that isn't true. In the past nine seasons, Iowa’s record is a pedestrian 18-18 in November games — and that includes the 4-0 mark in 2015, which stands as Kirk Ferentz’s only perfect November since 2004.

This team, though, has some dynamic offensive pieces and nation's fourth-ranked defense. Going on a run seems plausible, but that starts with winning as a 2½-point underdog in Saturday's 2:30 p.m. CT game at Purdue (ESPN2).

“We know this game is big for us," linebacker Djimon Colbert acknowledged, "with what’s happening in the Big Ten.”

After that, Iowa likely will be favored in its final three games. As for that required Wisconsin loss? According to ESPN's FPI, the Badgers are underdogs Nov. 10 at Penn State (21.1 percent chance of winning) and Nov. 17 at Purdue (44.4 percent).

Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight analytics website lists Iowa's chances at 11 percent to win the Big Ten championship. Those odds grow to 20 percent with a win at Purdue.

Iowa was placed 16th in Tuesday night's initial College Football Playoff rankings, a strong positioning to crack the New Year's Six bowl lineup with a 4-0 November. And by the way, this year’s Big Ten champ is guaranteed a spot in either the playoff or the Rose Bowl.

So yes, there’s still a lot to play for.

“We all realize the opportunity we have," quarterback Nate Stanley said.

Added tight end Noah Fant: “Honestly, we have talked about it. Our whole team as one agrees, we can’t do anything but win all of our games. The rest will play out itself.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.