Hlas column: Big Ten's football divisional balancing act won't hinge on geography

Published: August 24 2010 | 2:44 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 5:13 am in
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For several weeks, Iíve hoped the Big Ten would align its two football divisions strictly on geography once it goes to 12 teams in 2011.

The reason was purely selfish. I wanted Iowa aligned with Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin because I cover these games. Itís easier to get from Cedar Rapids to those five schools rather than the six that are east of Illinois.

The six West teams could be as potent overall as the six in the East, Iíve felt. Especially if Penn State has a drop-off following the approaching retirement of Joe Paterno, and if it takes Michigan more time to snap out of its football funk.

Whoís to say the threesome of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa canít battle straight-up with the East trio of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan now and forever? Well, now, anyhow.

But you canít fight it. The Big Ten almost certainly wonít have a geographic split of its dozen schools when it announces its format sometime soon.

ďWe are aware of geography, but we are not driven by it,Ē Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany has said. In other words, no East/West.

When it comes to population and national name-recognition, the East would have much more. Iowa and Wisconsin can moan about that and point to recent successes on the gridiron, but nobody in the conference resonates as much with America than OSU, PSU and Michigan.

Except perhaps Nebraska. And the Cornhuskers still have to raise their game a wee bit to return to the lofty status they enjoyed for decades.

Since 2005, the six easternmost Big Ten programs have been to a total of eight BCS bowls. The westernmost six have been to two. Nebraskaís last BCS game was nine seasons ago.

Two eastern (Ohio State, Penn State) and three western (Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin) are in this yearís preseason Top 25, so thatís an argument for geographic balance. But the populations of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan compared to Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin outweights that in more than just the literal sense.

So Iowa will be in the same division with Penn State or Michigan or Ohio State, which is fine. But scuttlebutt that Michigan and Ohio State might be placed in opposite divisions is not. Nor is the probability Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin wonít all be in the same division.

If the Big Ten doesnít keep its best traditional rivals together, itís purely by choice, not necessity.

Putting Ohio State and Michigan in different divisions would be just plain dumb if it happens. The only reason that makes sense is the Big Ten secretly wouldnít want to rule out a possible Michigan-OSU title game.

But bowl games rarely pit teams that have already played each other during the season. Itís hard to promote a game in which you already have seen how the two teams will do against each other, unless their first meeting was contested to the final play.

Keep OSU and Michigan together, have them meet on the last Saturday of the regular-season, and see if either wins its division. Youíll still have a good league-title game if itís Ohio State or Michigan against Nebraska or Iowa or Wisconsin or Penn State or anybody.

In fact, use the last weekend of the regular-season to load up on rivalry games like Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Purdue, Wisconsin-Minnesota and (newly formed rivals Iowa-Nebraska. Or Iowa-Minnesota and Wisconsin-Nebraska.

Put two of those games on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and the others the day after. The Big Ten would own, absolutely own, college football for those two days.

Then, on the following Saturday you have a title-game that the nation would watch with great interest. And youíre one step closer to global domination.

Which is all the Big Ten really wants, anyhow.

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