Last week, someone on Twitter (I believe it was the OSU Alumni handle) linked to this BTN.com poll that had an idea for three different division configurations with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers set for the 2014 season. As I browsed the three different options, I had mixed emotions about each different one. I’ll get to that more in a second, but what makes for a good pair of divisions in the Big Ten Conference? Is it two perfectly balanced divisions? Is it about maintaining rivalries at all costs? Is it about geographic integrity? Oddly enough, these were the three questions I asked myself and they’re actually the three factors that BTN.com asks you to rank in their survey (Competitive balance, preserving rivalries, and geography). I spent some time looking at all of this to see if I could come up with something more ideal than the options set before me.
To delve into the competitive balance argument, I found this Plain Dealer database that, among other benchmarks, compared the records of Big Ten teams since Penn State entered as the 11th conference team in 1993. I think this is an excellent barometer to use. It’s not too short of a time to be inflated by one great recruiting class or one coach’s lucky streak. It’s also not so far back that it brings pre-WWII games and games without the forward pass into the equation. Here’s the PD chart (updated with the 2012 season and adding Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers’s overall records).
|Big Ten Games||Overall||Titles|
Note: Ohio State’s vacated wins from 2010, including their Big Ten Title as well Penn State’s vacated wins and titles from 2005 and 2008 are included in the table above.
What does the chart tell us? Basically, there are five haves and nine have-nots in terms of sustained success in the last 20 years. Ohio State reigns supreme, but Wisconsin and Penn State have had equal amounts of success as Michigan has. In addition, Nebraska is eclipsed only by Ohio State in their overall winning percentage from their Big 12 days that included three national titles.
Let’s start with the option from that survey that I wish worked, but that I just don’t like: The East-West.
East: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers
West: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota
No, No, NO! Maryland and Rutgers do not belong in the same half of the conference. As an OSU fan (and Michigan, Michigan State, and Indiana fans would agree), I don’t want to see both Maryland and Rutgers every single season at the expense of seeing a Wisconsin, Illinois, or Purdue. I think it’s important to put these two in separate divisions and make the cross-division protected rivalry between those two newcomers. Sure, Penn State will only see one of them every single year (and they could be one of the reasons these two schools were chosen in particular), but there’s only so many matchups that can happen in a 8-game (hopefully 9-game soon) conference slate.
After ruling out the East-West case, it comes down to a matter of if you want Ohio State and Michigan, the two most prolific programs in the conference, in the same division or not. If you do, then the Inner-Outer option looks pretty intriguing. If you don’t, then keeping the divisions as is and adding one to each makes most sense. The stacked division didn’t seem to be a problem in the SEC West (Alabama and LSU) or formerly in the Big 12 South (Texas and Oklahoma).
To me, it comes down to what matters more: protecting “The Game” and keeping Ohio State-Michigan as the last regular season game or accumulating a few more division trophies and having the possibility of meeting again for the Big Ten championship game. As an Ohio State fan, my top priority will always be to have Ohio State-Michigan played as the last regular season game each year. Moving it to the middle of October to appease those who don’t want a rematch in the title game just one week later is not an acceptable compromise to me. While I love the idea of seeing these two face off twice in one year (at least once, anyway), I could see how it occurring too frequently (say, 3-4 times in a decade) could diminish the clout of the game. In the end, what I fear is with the underwhelming attendance at the first two Big Ten Championship games, that Jim Delaney and the conference will look to cash in with the chance for the OSU-Michigan title game and move the regular season matchup accordingly.
So, what did I do for my configuration? I compromised, siding mostly with the Inner-Outer strategy, but switching Illinois for Maryland to break up the two new teams. I’ve broken up what I consider to be the top six programs in the conference (OSU, UM, Wisc, Penn St, Neb, and MSU) into three per division with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th most successful programs all on one side to offset Ohio State and Michigan in the same half, considering the drastic dropoff between Michigan State and the other five. For the record, Iowa and Purdue probably both have a faint argument for the sixth best program, but I went with Michigan State considering their relative success under Dantonio.
Division 1: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland
Division 2: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Penn State, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Rutgers
Protected Rivalries: Ohio State-Nebraska, Michigan-Minnesota, Michigan State-Penn State, Indiana-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Purdue-Iowa, Maryland-Rutgers
Did I protect the rivalries (which I set out to do more than respect the map)? According to ESPN’s Big Ten Blog, I did. I kept my hands off the “Hands Off” category, though I did not make sure that two “Handle With Care” category rivalries were preserved. Oddly enough, they were both Buckeye rivalries, The Illibuck between Ohio State and Illinois and Ohio State-Penn State, which is geographic more than anything. As the spokesman for Ohio State in this article, I think I can safely say that there’s the Michigan rivalry and there’s everything else. Sure, the Illinois game is a long-standing trophy, and Penn State has been a good rivalry for the past nearly 20 years. But, I’m attempting to start a new rivalry between two successful programs, Ohio State and Nebraska. Nobody wants to see Ohio State and Nebraska play just twice every decade (in the current 8-game setup), and that includes the TV folks and both fanbases. Michigan and Minnesota battle for the Little Brown Jug each year, while Northwestern and Illinois is an in-state battle. As I mentioned before, I would have Maryland and Rutgers play each other each season. Michigan State and Penn State used to have a protected matchup in the old no-division configuration. Then, I paired Purdue with Iowa and Indiana with Wisconsin. These are far from ideal, but with Wisconsin’s two biggest rivals in their division in Minnesota and Iowa, they should be satisfied.
One more final thing, I’m not nearly as repulsed at the Leaders and Legends division names as most are, but I’m completely fine with changing them and have no real tie to them emotionally. Given that my proposed realignment doesn’t fit any sort of geographic configuration I’m aware of, it would take the creative minds at the Big Ten to come up with something better.
So, how did I do? Take the survey yourself and give your input, and let us hear about it in the comments!
(Photo: Jay LaPrete/AP)