(Note: Further Big Ten expansion is certainly possible, but for the purpose of this post the assumption is that only Nebraska will be joining the conference.)
Now that Nebraska is officially a member of the Big Ten and the conference now has 12 schools, it's necessary to start looking ahead to some of the things that need to be done in preparation for the Cornhuskers' arrival in 2011. For example, one of the biggest things that needs to be figured out is how to split the conference up into two divisions. With a Big Ten championship game expected to happen starting in 2011, the Big Ten will have to decide just how the two six-team divisions should be set up.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany didn't get too specific about when divisions will be decided on, but he did outline three main criteria that will be kept in mind during the process:
- Maintaining rivalries
The competitiveness aspect of deciding these divisions really comes down to keeping an equal balance of the top teams. Just looking at the tradition and history of success for the Big Ten's top programs, this criterion mainly involves Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska. These are four of the winningest programs in college football, with all of them placing in the top seven on the all-time victories list. While schools like Iowa and Wisconsin certainly have had success of their own over the years, the big four are the most well-known programs because of their tradition of winning.
The toughest part of dealing with "competitiveness" and spreading out the teams so there is a good balance is determining how far back to go when looking at the programs. You could easily just look at the all-time list of wins and spread the teams out based on historical figures, but those numbers aren't relevant to what is going on today. At the same time, it would be dangerous to just look at what teams have done the last couple of years and create divisions based on those records. While it is a much better indicator of where the programs are at than going back to the early 1900s, what if a team has had a couple of down years? Take Michigan, for example. Should a historically great program not be taken into serious consideration when spreading out teams just because they've had a couple of bad seasons? The obvious answer is no. Penn State, for example, went through a very rough stretch from 2000-04 where it won an average of five games a season. Since then, however, the Nittany Lions have gotten back to their winning ways by averaging 10 victories a year.
Just like with the divisions in the Big Ten, there is a need for balance when taking competitiveness into account. While it is important to take a picture of where each program is at right now and what the forecast is for their future, it is equally important to look back at what each program has done over an extended period of time. I'm not saying that the Big Ten should go all the way back to the beginning of college football, but it is necessary to go back long enough ago to see if there are trends that exist with certain programs.
Keeping this in mind, I decided to go back to 1993 for my research on records and winning percentage to compare the competitiveness of potential divisions. 1993 is when Penn State started playing football in the Big Ten, so I figured that was a good starting point for historical numbers. I also recorded separate numbers going back 10 years (2000) and five years (2005) in order to see if the more recent records differ from the past considerably or not all that much.
Before I get to specific numbers and how competitive potential divisions are, let's delve into the rivalries/geography aspect of this process. Jim Delany stressed that rivalries are important to the Big Ten, but he did point out that not all rivalries are the same.
Delany has often talked about the intimacy of a league and how vital rivalries are to its fabric. "They're part of who we are," he said Friday. But he added that rivalries have to be evaluated independently to see which ones are worth preserving in an expanded league. "We’re going into this with the idea that rivalries really matter," Delany said. "But not all rivalries are equal."
What Delany is saying is that Northwestern/Purdue is not on the same level as Michigan/Ohio State (obviously). What this indicates to me is that Delany will make sure not to split up rivalries like "The Game," which could lessen the magnitude of the annual meeting since the possibility of a rematch in the title game would exist.
Michigan/Ohio State is far from the only big rivalry in the Big Ten. That is exactly why the conference implemented protected rivalries, giving each team two rivals that are on the schedule every season. Since the Big Ten plays eight conference games, two teams are rotated off the schedule every two years, making it possible that rivalries could be interrupted. Because there are protected rivalries, however, the main ones for each team take place every year:
- Iowa vs. Minnesota
- Iowa vs. Wisconsin
- Minnesota vs. Wisconsin
- Illinois vs. Northwestern
- Illinois vs. Indiana
- Indiana vs. Purdue
- Purdue vs. Northwestern
- Ohio State vs. Michigan
- Ohio State vs. Penn State
- Michigan vs. Michigan State
- Michigan State vs. Penn State
Geography comes into play because splitting up the divisions based on location could easily lessen these rivalries. It's not like the rivalries would stop being played since each team could have a protected inter-division game, but as already mentioned, what happens if Michigan and Ohio State have to rematch in the conference title game a week after playing the actual rivalry game. Sure, it would be a different experience and something that happens only once every few years, but it is not an ideal scenario.
The two main ideas for geography-based divisions are East-West and North-South. The East-West setup is about as perfect as it gets geography-wise, as the six teams in the Eastern time zone would be in the East and the six teams in the Central time zone would be in the West. It is a perfect split down the middle of Big Ten country, and it keeps teams in close proximity to the rest of their division, making traveling easier.
The North-South setup isn't quite as nice for dividing up teams. For starters, there is no clear dividing line like with the time zones in the East-West scenario. Also, teams are spread out across Big Ten country instead of being clustered together. Travel isn't necessarily that big of a deal, especially when you consider that divisions may only be in use for football, but it would be nice for fans to have five divisional games all somewhat nearby in their region. For teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, for example, they are all sort of clustered together in the same region. In a North-South setup, however, Minnesota and Wisconsin would be in different divisions than Iowa and Nebraska. Those teams could still all play each other, but it wouldn't be an every year thing.
The worst part about a North-South setup is that it would split up some rivalries, namely Michigan and Ohio State. It seems many want that to happen since U-M and OSU are seen as the top programs in the Big Ten historically, but that is just a bad idea all around as previously discussed. Already Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon has expressed his displeasure for the idea of separating the Wolverines and Buckeyes, and some higher-ups at OSU have voiced similar feelings.
Overall, four currently protected rivalries would be separated in a North-South setup, whereas only two would be split up in the East-West format. While it's likely that a North-South setup would include one protected inter-division game each year, only half of the Big Ten would end up playing an actual rival. The rest of the conference would have games protected against teams that aren't anything more than fellow conference members. Sure, rivalries could develop over time, but as you'll see below, it is just much more convenient to go with an East-West setup.
Rivalries broken up in East-West setup:
Indiana vs. Illinois
Purdue vs. Northwestern
Rivalries broken up in North-South setup:
Michigan vs. Ohio State
Michigan State vs. Penn State
Illinois vs. Northwestern
Purdue vs. Northwestern
As far as the broken up rivalries go, the biggest ones are all in the North-South setup. U-M/OSU and MSU/PSU are played in the final week of the season right now, and more often than not Illinois and Northwestern conclude their conference schedule with each other. In the East-West setup, the rivalries broken up are not as large, and the Purdue/Northwestern "rivalry" would be broken up in both setups anyways.
One possible solution to combat the problem of rematches is to have the three last-week rivalries played earlier in the season, but good luck getting Michigan and Ohio State on board with that plan. MSU and PSU probably wouldn't have a huge issue with it since that is really a manufactured rivalry, and Illinois and Northwestern don't always play in the final week anyways. I just don't see the Big Ten being able to move U-M and OSU, so the North-South setup would just have to forge ahead with the possibility of the Wolverines and Buckeyes playing in consecutive weeks.
It's obvious that I am on the East-West bandwagon, but let's bring the "competitiveness" criterion into the mix. After all, Jim Delany's top priority is to maintain a competitive balance, so while rivalries and geography will be taken into consideration, the two divisions have to be equal when all is said and done.
Before jumping into what the division-by-division numbers are, let's just look at the raw numbers (sorted by winning percentage) dating back to 1993, 2000 and 2005.
The common theme across each set of years is that Ohio State is the top dog in the Big Ten. While all of the teams have gone through times where they struggled, the Buckeyes' worst record for a single season dating back to 1993 was 6-6, and that was a one-time occurrence. As a result, Ohio State has been able to maintain elite status in all time spans, especially since 2005.
The other common theme is that Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa are all in the top six in some order no matter the time period. As a result, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana are in the bottom six in every time frame. All of these schools have had great seasons (by their standards) at one time or another, but they are just far more inconsistent than the top six. This allows us to essentially separate the Big Ten based on past success right from the get-go. Ohio State is at the top of the ladder; Nebraska, Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa are a little bit farther down; and Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana occupy the bottom rungs.
What this data shows us already is that it whichever division has Ohio State will be stronger. The key to achieving a competitive balance is what the rest of the divisions look like. Using the East-West and North-South setups, let's break down the average winning percentages to see how equal or unequal the divisions are.
In the East-West setup, the East is much stronger thanks in part to Ohio State's consistently high winning percentage. The other top teams (U-M and PSU) helped the cause as well, but that was more about increasing the difference in winning percentage over the West rather than giving the East the edge. The bottom three teams in the East were also better than their West counterparts, though the numbers were closer and in the since 2000 time frame the West's bottom three actually had a higher winning percentage (.460 for the West, .455 for the East).
The bottom three teams in the East definitely provided a stable backup, but it was the top of the division that made paydirt. Since 1993, for example, three of the top four teams in the Big Ten were from the East (OSU, PSU, U-M). In the time since 2000, however, the West actually controlled three of the top five spots but still had a lesser winning percentage because OSU was so much farther ahead of the rest of the pack. Then, in the time since 2005, the East jumped back to a wide margin thanks to OSU winning even more games and PSU reemerging. Even though Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa controlled the third, fourth and fifth spots since 2005, the margin wasn't even close because OSU and PSU were so good.
The North-South setup is much more balanced despite Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State all being in the same division. This is mainly because the North's bottom three outperformed the South's bottom three by a pretty wide margin in every time frame. That narrowed the gap in the since 1993 and 2005 time frames and actually helped the North overtake the South in the since 2000 example. Penn State's fall to sixth in winning percentage and Wisconsin's rise to second were the biggest factors that led to the North's higher average in 2000. The numbers in the since 2005 time frame went back to almost exactly what the since 1993 example produced, with OSU, PSU and Nebraska taking three of the top four spots.
The thing that is obvious from the North-South setup is that the South's top three is really good and the bottom three is really bad. To be more specific, it's actually Illinois and Indiana dragging down the numbers for the South. Those two teams are at the bottom in all three time frames, making things much closer than the East-West example, where the Illini and Hoosiers are separated. Their separation makes the top three's numbers more significant, which is why the margins are greater.
Taking all of these numbers into consideration, you can start to see why geography is not necessarily the best way to divide up a conference. The East-West setup isn't balanced in part because Ohio State is always at the top and at least one of Penn State and Michigan are up there as well. On the flip side, there is much more balance with the North-South format, but that has more to do with the bottom three teams, which would likely only have made an appearance in the title game a few times since 1993 if one existed. The bottom three teams help balance things out numbers-wise, but in reality it is more important to keep a balance amongst the top three teams in each division.
The obvious solution to this problem is to just throw geography out the window. While that could create some logistical issues with traveling and all that, it would still be possible to maintain most rivalries as well as a competitive balance. Scenarios could differ based on which rivalries you want to break up, but one possible setup could be to use the East-West format and then swap Penn State and Iowa. This creates geographical outliers and issues with the rivalries for each team, but it would also create more balance between the two divisions.
Alternative ideas could be to swap Ohio State for Nebraska or Michigan for Wisconsin. All of these scenarios would break up rivalries and create the possibility of rematches in the title game, but they would seemingly appease those who worry about competitive balance being a big issue. The notion is that Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State shouldn't all be in the same division because they are too strong, and any of these aforementioned scenarios would break up that trio.
The problem I'm having with this idea that U-M, OSU and PSU need to be broken up is that it seems to be based on historical success more than anything. Yes, all three programs have a great history of winning, but the reality of the situation is that what happened when Fielding Yost's teams ruled college football is not relevant to right now. Some may argue that what happened in the 1990s isn't relevant to right now either and we should look at more recent happenings, but that just further debunks the notion that the "big three" teams need to be broken up. After all, in the since 2000 example, Michigan ranked just fourth in winning percentage and Penn State was six. Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa were second, third and fourth, respectively. In the since 2005 time frame, those three teams controlled the third, fourth and fifth spots. OSU and PSU were first and second, but Michigan was only sixth.
The point I'm trying to make here more than anything is that it's tough to sort out teams because the time frame to compare competitiveness is going to differ from person to person and because things change quickly. No perfect solution exists, and that is magnified by these two main issues. For example, look at Penn State in the early 2000s. The Nittany Lions went through some tough times, but since then they have been at the top of the conference every year. It's just the opposite for Michigan. The Wolverines have only recently stumbled upon tough times, but there's no telling how long this stench of mediocrity will exist in Ann Arbor. That's why it's necessary to look at a bigger picture of the past, but even if you come up with a solid setup that appears to keep things competitive, everything could change in one offseason. Sure, you could throw out all rivalries and just realign every year, but that setup is so unfeasible that it isn't worth talking about, especially since teams can quickly go from a cellar dweller to a champion and back to the bottom in a matter of years, defeating the purpose entirely.
The way I see it, the Big Ten is going to struggle to find a competitive balance that everybody agrees on no matter what they do. Since there is no exact formula out there to decide which division each team should play in, it's going to be a guessing game as far as competitiveness is concerned. As long as common sense is used and the top six teams are spread out equally, however, some competitive balance will exist.
This is a long-winded way to come to such a simple conclusion, but at the end of the day I believe the best way to divide up the new Big Ten is to just go with the East-West setup. It makes perfect sense geographically and all but two rivalries would be kept within specific divisions. What's more, the two rivalries that would be broken up aren't all that big compared to the other ones in the conference. Besides, the likely scheduling system -- games against five divisional opponents and three teams from the other division, rotated every two years -- would keep those two rivalries going; they would just go on and off for two years at a time.
Although the numbers show that the East and West wouldn't be completely equal, it's not like the difference is so large that the West would be lucky to ever win the title game. It's far from that, actually. Nebraska brings a long-time tradition of winning to the Big Ten and has already shown lots of promise under Bo Pelini. Iowa and Wisconsin have solid programs that have done very well over time. Illinois and Northwestern have each had great seasons over the years to make it to some big-time bowl games. Finally, Minnesota's program is taking steps toward heading in the right direction.
Most people in this debate are so certain that the East would run the Big Ten because it has Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, but this supposed is far from a certainty. For starters, the Wolverines haven't even been to a bowl game in the last two seasons, and who knows how year three of the Rich Rodriguez era will go. The Nittany Lions have been elite for the last five or so years, but what happens when Joe Paterno finally retires? And for Ohio State, well, they are really showing no signs of letting up or having a down year. Even so, that only increases the need for the Buckeyes to have some competition in the East. What fun would it be if OSU was in the conference title game every single year? While there's a need for competition between the two divisions, there's also a need for competition in the divisions. For now only Penn State is really near Ohio State's level, so for all of this talk about how strong the East would be, I'm not so sure they would be better than the West from top to bottom at this point in time.
I'm sure everybody feels a little bit differently about how to divide up the new Big Ten, but for me I think it's best to keep it simple. No, geography shouldn't necessarily dictate the divisions, but in this case it doesn't make sense to not go with what the map presents -- a relatively balanced setup that maintains all of the important rivalries and almost every protected rivalry as well. If you want to argue that the West needs another big-name, high-profile program then go for it, but from a football standpoint the East-West setup is as balanced as it gets without separating rivals and over-complicating things. No solution to this issue will ever be perfect, so at the end of the day I vote for the simplest, most logical option out there. I hope Jim Delany and those involved in deciding the divisions do too.