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Illinois needs help to win the West Division < Illinois

In his usual optimistic way, Minnesota coach PJ Fleck tried to come to terms with how his team’s Big Ten title chances had slipped away.

“There are some things that we look back on and you’ll always circle a game or two,” he said. “None of us wanted it to happen the way it happened, but it happened. You have to be thankful for that. If you’re grateful for your life, you can’t choose what you’re grateful for.”

Minnesota (7-4, 4-4) is now out of contention for the conference championship game. The race for the Big Ten West lies with Iowa (7-4, 5-3) and Purdue (7-4, 5-3), with Illinois (7-4, 4-4) still having a slim chance at good.

The Hawkeyes, bottom of the conference in both passing and rushing, can secure a spot in the title game with a win over Nebraska on Friday. When that happens, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois — three teams that have never reached the championship game in Indianapolis — will miss a golden opportunity.

For Fleck’s Golden Gophers, those disappointments add up. They went 11-2 in 2019 and finished first in the division, but Wisconsin went to the championship game after beating the Gophers in the regular-season finals. Minnesota finished one game behind Iowa last year.

“In the West, everyone had a chance. It’s not just us,” Fleck said. “Every single team has had a chance at some point to win the West outright and run away with it. That’s what makes the West so competitive. The parity is pretty close between all the teams in this division.”

Fleck is right about that parity – especially this season – but only four of the West’s seven teams have been there since the title game began in 2011. Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin have been there for the past three seasons, and Nebraska made it back to the Conference and was split into Leaders and Legends divisions.

In this respect, the West is no different from the East, which is considered more top-heavy. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State made it to Indianapolis.

The conditions for youngsters from the west seemed promising this year. Nebraska’s program has stalled, and Wisconsin has had enough problems that coach Paul Chryst was fired in early October. Iowa’s offense has always been a target of ridicule — but if the Hawkeyes win on Friday, they’ll be playing for the championship against Michigan-Ohio State winner. Just like last year.

“That’s our culture, man,” said quarterback Spencer Petras after Iowa beat Minnesota 13-10 for the fourth straight year. “It starts with our head coach, his leadership. I can’t say enough about our leaders on defense. We put them in a lot of tough situations that Ohio State game and it would be easy for a unit to go on offense right? But they didn’t.”

After losing to the Buckeyes 54-10, the Hawkeyes beat Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota to get to this point.

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If Iowa loses to Nebraska, Purdue can reach the title game on Saturday with a win over rival Indiana. Iowa is playing a day early, although Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm is trying not to draw too much attention to it, at least publicly.

“I know it’s Friday,” he said. “I don’t know when the game is. I’m sure when we’re out it’s going to show up on people’s phones, stuff like that. But as you know, in a rivalry game that means a lot, we have a big one ahead of us, so we just have to focus on that.

Illinois coach Bret Bielema on the sidelines during a game against Nebraska on October 29, 2022 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Illinois needs both Iowa and Purdue to lose. If that happens, the Illini can make it to Indianapolis by beating Northwestern. Illinois has beaten both Iowa and Minnesota, but a three-game losing streak has the Illini in need of some help.

This season has been a big step forward for Illinois and coach Bret Bielema, but the road to the Big Ten title becomes more difficult after USC and UCLA joined the conference.

For Minnesota, this path will become more difficult even sooner. Next year, the Gophers’ schedule includes crossover games against Michigan and Ohio State from the East. So this season was possibly the division title shot they had to take.

“Disappointed, not discouraged. That’s how I would sum it up,” Fleck said after the loss to Iowa. “You know, I was told a long time ago: close gets you caught, almost gets you fired.”

AP’s Dave Campbell, Michael Marot and Eric Olson contributed.

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