After last week's victory over Northwestern, the Gopher football team controls its own destiny toward making its first appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Entering Saturday, the Gophers sit atop the Big Ten West with a 4-1 conference record. With four games remaining, the Gophers could run the table to claim their first division title since the conference went to a divisional format in 2013 but that path has plenty of obstacles.
Saturday vs. Illinois
The Fighting Illini will come into Huntington Bank Stadium with a 2-4 record in the Big Ten, but one of those wins was in Happy Valley against a top-10 Penn State team.
Illinois coach Brett Bielema also has success against the Gophers, going 7-0 during his seven-year stint at Wisconsin (2006-12). Although his current team has more talent, his glacial-paced offense is a challenge for anyone.
Nov. 13 at No. 22 Iowa
If the Gophers get past Illinois, they'll hit the road for a Nov. 13 matchup with Iowa. The Hawkeyes started 6-0 and climbed all the way to second in the polls but have come crashing back to earth with losses to Purdue and Wisconsin.
Although Kirk Ferentz's team has struggled lately, its defense is a major concern for the Gophers. The Hawkeyes rank fifth with 20 takeaways and sixth with a +9 turnover margin on the season, which has helped their offense operate on a shorter field.
Ferentz and P.J. Fleck have no love lost after the Hawkeyes "took the pig [and] left the timeouts" during Iowa's 35-7 victory last season but the Gophers will need to pick up their first win in Iowa City since 1999 if they want to win the division.
Nov. 20 at Indiana
The Hoosiers were one of the best stories of the 2020 season but haven't been able to sustain that success this year.
Indiana's season hit a snag when star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. suffered a sprained AC joint in his throwing shoulder but the junior plans to play again this season. It's unclear whether he'll be ready for the matchup with the Gophers but it will still be a challenge thanks to their defense.
The Hoosiers are allowing 127.4 rushing yards per game which could make things difficult for Minnesota to move the ball. With two scholarship backs remaining on the roster, this is a trap game despite Indiana's 0-5 conference record.
Nov. 27 vs. No. 21 Wisconsin
If the Gophers can get past the first three games, the division could come down to the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe.
The Badgers' schedule lines up well for that to happen as they'll travel to Rutgers (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) and host Northwestern (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) and Nebraska (3-6, 1-5 Big Ten) before the season finale in Minneapolis.
Wisconsin started 1-3 but has been better as of late, winning four straight games against fellow contenders Iowa and Purdue. If the Badgers have found their offense, it presents another issue for Minnesota but playing at home should be a benefit in an attempt to reclaim the axe.
What about the other contenders?
We already discussed Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) and Minnesota's path to the title and if either run the table, they'll be in position to make the trip to Indianapolis.
But Purdue and Iowa are tied with the Badgers with a 3-2 conference record and shouldn't be taken lightly.
If Iowa can take care of the Gophers on Nov. 13, they'll have a chance to win the division with wins at Northwestern (Nov. 6), against Illinois (Nov. 20) and at Nebraska (Nov. 26).
Purdue has the strongest schedule of the contenders with Saturday's home matchup with No. 3 Michigan State and a trip to No. 6 Ohio State on Nov. 13. The Boilermakers will also travel to Northwestern and host Indiana, making their path much more difficult.
But if the Gophers take care of their business, they'll be able to win the division. With a stout defense and a rushing attack that's improving, it's a possibility the Gophers could wind up in Indianapolis.