Before the season, if one asked who might win the Big Ten West, you might have said Wisconsin, Iowa or, if you were feeling spicy, Minnesota. Despite it being a relatively open race, Illinois probably wasn’t on your radar.
Now, Illinois is sitting at the top of the division. The Illini have the nation’s No. 1 total defense and scoring defense (granted, they played Iowa). Currently, they’re sitting at a surprising 6-1, including a 3-1 conference mark, with the only blemish on their record coming in a narrow loss to Indiana in Week 2. Somehow, on his second stint as a Big Ten head coach, Bret Bielema has already managed to turn around a team that’s struggled for the better part of two decades to find its footing in the conference.
Moreover, Illinois beat those aforementioned presumed Big Ten West champs in succession in the last three weeks: Wisconsin, Iowa, then Minnesota.
With the Big Ten East already hurtling toward the final week’s matchup of what are currently top-five Ohio State and Michigan teams, the story of their opponent from the West became a little less interesting as the division collapsed by the midway point of the season. At this point, Illinois is the only ranked team in the West (No. 17).
However, there are reasons to be excited about a possible postseason matchup with Illinois. One of the fun things about the Big Ten conference is its preponderance of trophy games, with 16 trophies currently in rotation (there will be 17 when USC and UCLA join and battle for the Victory Bell).
Ohio State has just a single trophy game: the longstanding Illibuck with Illinois, a tradition dating back to 1925. The Illibuck itself is a carved wooden turtle and the second-oldest trophy in the Big Ten behind the Little Brown Jug. It is arguably the cutest trophy, though Floyd of Rosedale is pretty adorable, too.
That trophy could get new meaning this year: Ohio State and Illinois could very reasonably face off for the Illibuck in the postseason for the first time ever. In fact, it would be the first time in the Big Ten that two teams played for a rivalry trophy in the conference title game.
(Caveat: this column is certainly forward-looking. There is a lot of football for Ohio State to play before the Buckeyes can secure a spot in the Big Ten Title!)
Of note, Wisconsin and Nebraska, who play annually for the Freedom Trophy, are the only two teams with a trophy game who have faced off in the Big Ten Championship (2012). However, the Freedom Trophy wasn’t implemented until 2014.
The Buckeyes and Illini played every season from 1914-2002, then again from 2005-2015. However, one of the victims of conference expansion, the last time the two teams played was in 2017. They were supposed to renew the rivalry in 2020, but COVID got in the way. The legend of the Illibuck has faded somewhat from memory given five seasons without play, which is something of a tragedy for the historic pairing. Playing with even more on the line could renew things in dramatic fashion, even if the championship game pairing seems a little dull at first glance.
Just this week, the Big Ten has said it would revisit the division question at a later time when USC and UCLA’s arrival is a little more imminent. Depending on how things shake out, given there are so many trophy games played between the conference’s members, we might encounter a Big Ten Championship/trophy game scenario more often henceforth, and maybe even trophies changing hands within mere weeks instead of an entire year.