Nebraska vs. Iowa, 11.23

Coaches Kirk Ferentz (left) of Iowa and Nebraska's Scott Frost shake hands before the start of their Nov. 23 game in Iowa City, Iowa.

OK, I get it, no cheering in the press box.

Except for this: I can cheer for intrigue. Don't look now, but the Big Ten West Division in football quietly has become rich in interesting storylines.

Thank you, Jeff Brohm, for staying at Purdue. That certainly helps matters. He's arguably the nation's hottest college coaching commodity. He showed honor and loyalty in remaining a Boilermaker. Better yet, he gave the division a strong jolt of credibility.

Last year, Nebraska hired the nation's hottest young head coach in Scott Frost, who's in the midst of a colossal rebuilding project. This year, Purdue kept a coach on the rise. Bully for the Big Ten West. If you're a Husker fan, this is what you want. You don't want to finish first in a weak division that the nation derides.

Nobody's saying the West Division occupies the same realm as the beastly East. But say this for the West: It could be a wild race in 2019. And, yeah, there's ample intrigue. There's plenty to discuss. For instance: How would you rank the division's excellent batch of head coaches? You can hurt your brain trying that exercise.

You have Pat Fitzgerald, this year's unanimous choice for Big Ten coach of the year. You want stability in a program? Northwestern has won 15 of its last 16 conference games. It's done it with only two four-star recruits (via the 247sports.com composite) over the last four classes. On Saturday night, Fitz's crew will face Ohio State in the conference championship game.

"We definitely have our work cut out for us because they pride themselves on toughness; you can see it," Buckeyes senior receiver Parris Campbell told reporters this week.

Fitzgerald has built a program that seems unlikely to take a significant step backward anytime soon, such is the Wildcats' momentum, culture and proven systems. All of their success occurs as they enjoy a $260 million athletics complex on a beach of Lake Michigan — a complex that you have to see to believe.

The next-most expensive athletics facilities project in the conference unfolded at Minnesota with the recent completion of a $166 million mecca. Iowa's facilities just received a major upgrade. Even Purdue recently finished a $65 million football facility. Nebraska's facilities are good-to-excellent, but you easily can find better within the Big Ten.

Let's stick with the Boilermakers for a moment. When Nebraska began play in the Big Ten in 2011, Purdue trudged along quietly under Danny Hope, a nondescript leader who didn't seem like a threat to anyone. Darrell Hazell succeeded Hope and steered the program into the ditch, going 3-24 in conference play in three-plus seasons.

Bottom line, Purdue was an afterthought in the minds of Nebraska fans. Not now. Boilermaker fans dream big nowadays. Brohm last year landed four-star recruit Rondale Moore and is poised to add at least four more four-star players to the 2019 roster.

As of Thursday night, Purdue owned the nation's No. 26 recruiting class for 2019, according to 247sports.com (Nebraska ranked No. 22). Brohm, whose specialty is offense, has three four-star defenders in the class. Recruits see a program that defeated three ranked teams this season, including a 49-20 triumph against Ohio State, and is set to play in back-to-back bowl games.

It all adds up to credibility. The Big Ten has to like Brohm's decision to stay put. The conference has to like the high level of coaching in the division. By the way, I'm still not sure how to rank the head coaches. After all, Frost was the consensus national coach of the year in 2017, but in June, the Sporting News ranked him as the No. 8 head coach in the conference, a spot ahead of Brohm.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer was No. 1 followed by Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh, Penn State's James Franklin, Wisconsin's Paul Chryst, Fitzgerald and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.

Chryst obviously has had a tough year at Wisconsin (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten), but he's 41-12 at the school, including 27-8 in the Big Ten. The Badgers' formula is proven. Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine Iowa suffering a severe slide under Ferentz. Same goes for Fitz. And Nebraska fans best keep their eye on P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, which in November throttled Purdue (41-10) and Wisconsin (37-15).

Nebraska showed in the second half of this season it could be a contender in 2019 for first place in the division. Yeah, a contender. No bold predictions here. Just know the race could get wild. Cheers to that. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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