So far this year, it looks as if Minnesota and Northwestern have done a role reversal from last year in the Big Ten West.
When the teams meet on Saturday in Evanston, Ill, it will be a matter of whether the Golden Gophers can continue their ascent, or if the Wildcats can start a winning stretch going into the final month of the season.
After struggling last year in the pandemic-shortened year, Minnesota (5-2, 3-1 Big 10) is tied for first with Iowa in the league standings and looks to be a contender to get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
After winning the West division and appearing in the Big Ten championship game for a second time last year, Northwestern has had a rough year, starting off 3-4 and 1-3 in league play.
Minnesota enters red-hot, having won three straight since an upset loss at home to Bowling Green.
The Golden Gophers have since won at Purdue, at home against Nebraska, and last week, at home against Maryland (34-16).
Minnesota has been injury-riddled at running back all season, but new players keep stepping up.
Freshmen Ky Thomas and Mar'Keise Irving each ran for more than 100 yards against Maryland, picking up the slack - and then some -- for a depleted unit.
With star back Mohamed Ibrahim and backup Trey Potts out for the season with injuries, Thomas and Irving will be relied upon the rest of the year.
Thomas, who ran for 139 yards on 21 carries, in particular caught the eye of Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck.
"He has matured more than anyone else on this football team in a short amount of time," Fleck said. "If you would've told me last year that Ky Thomas would be our starting running back this year, I wouldn't think he would be ready for that with his maturity level. When you look at him now, he's grown a lot."
Helping the cause is that Minnesota has a veteran offensive line and one of the league's top quarterbacks in Tanner Morgan.
"They're physical," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said of Minnesota. "I'm really impressed with both sides of the line of scrimmage."
Northwestern is hoping to bounce back from a 33-7 loss at Michigan, the second time in three games Northwestern's offense could muster only a touchdown on offense.
The Wildcats enter second-to-last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (19.7 points per game) and are 12th in points allowed (25.1).
--Field Level Media