Who would have imagined that Big Ten football would provide the fall's most compelling pennant race?
The Big Ten West won't produce a wild card, only a winner that advances to the conference title game in Indianapolis.
With four weeks left, Nebraska (4-1 Big Ten), Wisconsin (3-1), Iowa (3-1) and Minnesota (3-1) essentially are tied. And here's the remarkable thing: Each team still has to play the other three.
"It's the way it should be," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "It's going to be fun. It's great for the Big Ten. It's unbelievable publicity for the conference."
Northwestern went 1-3 against the group, playing Minnesota tight, hanging in for three quarters against Nebraska and getting blown out at Iowa.
Asked to handicap the race, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald replied: "Health will play a role, big time. The team that has all of its weapons and an ability to improve has the advantage. All those teams still in it have venues and crowds and fan bases that are relentless. It will probably come down to whose defense makes the most plays, who can create turnovers and who can win in the kicking game."
Here's a closer look at the contenders …
Remaining schedule: Off, at Wisconsin, Minnesota, at Iowa.
Reason to believe: The Cornhuskers can bash you on the ground with I-back Ameer Abdullah and option-operator Tommy Armstrong. Receivers Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp are tough and experienced, and the secondary is among the Big Ten's best.
Reason to doubt: Abdullah sprained his left knee Saturday against Purdue. Coach Bo Pelini said he expects him to be 100 percent for the Wisconsin game but "that can always change."
Remaining schedule: at Minnesota, at Illinois, Wisconsin, Nebraska.
Reason to believe: Played flawlessly Saturday against Northwestern. Quarterback Jake Rudock never has been better (12.6 yards per passing attempt), and 240-pound back Mark Weisman followed his NFL-caliber tackles to perfection. Playing host to Wisconsin and Nebraska could be huge.
Reason to doubt: The Hawkeyes don't have a star like Melvin Gordon or Abdullah. And just more than two weeks ago, they gave up 38 points at Maryland.
Remaining schedule: at Purdue, Nebraska, at Iowa, Minnesota.
Reason to believe: Gordon and fellow tailback Corey Clement make the league's most productive offense (6.9 yards per play) weather-proof. And the defense has been outrageous lately, allowing a total of seven points to Maryland and Rutgers. "We're not a bunch of guys out there wowing you," Andersen said. "We're balanced and play good team defense."
Reason to doubt: There's still barely a passing threat, as Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy overthrew open receivers at Rutgers. They combined to complete just 8 of 20 passes in the game.