Some of us (including me) wanted the Big Ten Conference to simply divide its 12 football teams into two divisions based solely on geography. East and West. Simple.
What, some of us (including me) argued. You think Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Northwestern would hold a candle to Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Ohio State?
The Big Ten clearly thought not. As Scott Dochterman of The Gazette detailed in this report last summer:
Much of the league’s tradition and success reside in the east. Ohio State and Michigan were the league’s most successful programs over the Big Ten century. Penn State has won two national titles over the last 30 years. All three rank at the top among Big Ten schools in attendance, television ratings and revenue.
An East-West divide would tilt the league competitively toward the that trio. That’s something all wanted to avoid.
But how could they know? Times change, fates change, even some powerhouses fade while new ones arise.
Nonetheless, the conference divided the teams the way they divided them, deeming Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State the four premier programs, and deciding to have two in each division. Michigan and Ohio State were placed in separate divisions, which may have been all the balance the league really felt it needed.
Plus, it was widely believed, the league didn’t want to do anything to prevent a Michigan-OSU rematch in the league title-game.
Year One, 2011: The Legends Division teams went 12-6 vs. the Leaders Division teams. OK, it was just one year. You could have a 12-6 result any year. Besides, the league champion (Wisconsin) was from the Leaders.
But now, Penn State football is on the rocks, and for several years. Now, the Legends has a stable of solid programs in Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Nebraska, with Northwestern often capable of breaking through. As Iowa and Nebraska know all too well, Northwestern is legit.
The Leaders has Wisconsin, an Ohio State program sure to round back toward dominant form, three inconsistent programs in Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, and defanged Penn State.
This year, Iowa would have to claw ahead of Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska to reach the league’s title-game. With Ohio State and Penn State serving bowl-bans this season, Wisconsin has to outshine only Illinois, Indiana and Purdue.
Them’s the breaks, right?
“Our structure is set for decades and not years,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Monday. I”t’s based on decades of data and decades of competitiveness, institutions’ competitiveness ebbs and flows. Obviously sanctions will undermine competitiveness in the short term and perhaps the mid-term, but I don’t think that will lead to a serious discussion with realignment of divisions.”
And that’s that.
But I still say an East/West would have been better. Better for geographic rivalries, better economically. That Iowa doesn’t play Wisconsin and Illinois every year is just plain dumb.
Yes, there would be competitive imbalances some years. There often are when you divide leagues by divisions, no matter how you do it.
There is a real competitive imbalance now. It will be six teams will full complements of scholarship players in the Legends, five in the Leaders.
Nebraska got a loaded Big Ten schedule in its first two years in the league. Things will get better there. Penn State is the Cornhuskers’ cross-division rival, and the Huskers will play the Nittany Lions every season.
Michigan, meanwhile, plays Ohio State every year as its cross-division rival.