When the Big Ten first expanded to twelve teams in 2011 and implemented divisions, they were totally nonsensical. Instead of using any geographical designations, the divisions were called “Legends” and “Leaders” and were almost randomly assigned. Although “competitively balanced”, this was an extremely inefficient arrangement travel for both teams and fans of all sports. This lasted for just three seasons before it was scrapped for a more obvious East/West split, but this was met with its own problems. The three “traditional” powers in the conference (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State) are now all in the East, while the West was left with little in terms of star power. In fact, since the 2001 Illinois team, Wisconsin is the only team in the now-West to have won the Big Ten (and they only did it twice). The West has a few teams starting to put things together, though, so perhaps soon teams with great history like Minnesota and Nebraska can join Wisconsin as contenders for the Big Ten throne.
Illinois Fighting Illini
Things don’t look great for the Fighting Illini this year, but when have they ever? They went 3-9 last year and are a decent bet to lose eight or more this year. They scheduled possibly two of the best G5 teams in the country, hosting WKU and going to USF in consecutive weeks, so the only gimmie on the schedule is Ball State in week one.
If you squint really hard, though, you might be able to visualize what Auburn would look like in various alternate uniforms. I’m sure Clint would disagree (seriously, he’s the best with anything uniform related, check him out at @Clintau24), but the colors are virtually the same to Auburn’s. Orange jerseys, check. Orange helmet, check. Blue and orange pants, you got it. For what it’s worth, none of their combinations even touch ours.
Iowa is one of those teams that has virtually no history or connections with Auburn. Their head coach, Kirk Ferentz, has been there since 1999, and there generally isn’t much turnaround for the assistants. They could win the division this year, but they’re a much more likely bet to win 7-8 games and go on their merry way.
So, I present to you the one Auburn connection I can find... Yet again, it’s Gene Chizik. Remember yesterday when we said Chizik only had five wins in two years at Iowa State? Well, his first career win was against Iowa in 2007. It’s all I got, folks.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
So far, Auburn has not played any of the teams discussed in this division. The trend continues with Minnesota, giving me little material to work with here. The good news is, like Tom Herman at Texas, PJ Fleck makes his own fun. Even though he is at Minnesota, a long dormant but early superpower of college football, I gurantee Fleck will be making waves in the Big Ten this season. I wouldn’t say it’s likely, but I sure am hoping the Golden Gophers row the boat all the way to Indianapolis this December for the conference championship game.
Here’s a fun fact. Mike Riley, Nebraska head football coach and universally considered “great guy”, played his college football at Alabama (DUN DUN DUNNNN). Generally, I wouldn’t really consider that to be an Auburn connection, but Coach Riley played defensive back for the Tide from 1971-1974. That’s right, that means he was on the field for the 1972 Iron Bowl, which as you may remember, was the Punt Bama Punt game! I can’t find any information about if Riley played in the game or not, but still, any time someone was a part of one of the best Iron Bowl moments, you bring it up. I can’t really bring myself to root against the guy, however, as I feel he’s payed his penance for going to Bama.
The only time Auburn and Northwestern met on the field, the game was bananas, so let’s take some time to appreciate it. If you’ll recall, the game was the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day 2010, Chizik’s first year at Auburn. The game saw the Auburn defense pick off Mike Kafka five times, including one for a pick-6, but the Wildcats quarterback still completed 47 of 78 passes for over 500 yards and four scores. As the game came down to the end of regulation, Northwestern had a chance to win with a 44 yard field goal, but it was hooked right by kicker Stefan Demos. Wes Byrum then kicked his last field goal in an Auburn uniform to take the lead in overtime. With NW back on the field, it appeared Auburn had won when it forced and recovered a fumble on a big sack. After the team stormed the field, a review called Kafka down before the fumble, giving the Wildcats a second chance. The drive would stall, forcing a field goal chance to tie, but Demos missed again knocking it off the upright. Auburn stormed the field AGAIN, but unfortunately for all parties, Demos was roughed up enough on the attempt to both draw a flag AND knock him out of the game. When NW ended up at fourth and goal from the five and without a kicker, head coach Pat Fitzgerald went for the win and called a fake field goal end-around. Luckily enough, Neiko Thorpe stuffed him at the two, and the game FINALLY ended. I saw the game recently on an SEC Network replay, and it was exhilarating still even knowing the outcome. It was the first football game in the year 2010, and little did Auburn fans know it was only going to get crazier.
Finally, someone that is playing an SEC team! The Boilermakes go to Missouri in week 3 to take on the SEC East’s Tigers, one week before Auburn does. Purdue is a team on the up and up from rock bottom, finally (hopefully?), so this could be a good barometer of where Missouri is. If they struggle with Purdue, then Auburn shouldn’t have a problem. If Missouri handles them easily, then the game at Faurot Field on September 23 could be a fun one.
With this last team in the West, I wanted to talk about Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard. He doesn’t really have any personal ties to Auburn, except the time he picked off Jason Campbell in the 2003 Music City Bowl. However, he does have a really cool career path. Leonhard was a walk-on for the Badgers, having no D1 offers, but earned All-Big Ten honors twice as a safety and punt returner. After several productive years in Madison, he went undrafted in the NFL Draft in 2005. However, Leonhard still had a solid (though not spectacular) NFL career, playing in at least ten NFL games every season of his ten year career, with at least one turnover in eight of them. After a year studying college offenses, Leonhard took a job coaching DB’s at his alma matter in 2016, and was promoted to defensive coordinator at age 34 in just his second year coaching. We’ll see how Leonhard’s first defense pans out this season, but I’m sure sure Badger fans are excited to see him back nonetheless.