The Big Ten made a big deal out of competitive equality when it split into divisions for the 2011 football season.
Competition was the No. 1 component in balancing divisional play, and rightly so. The newest member, Nebraska, was part of an acrimonious geographical split when the Big Eight morphed into the Big 12 back in 1996. The power and money were based in the South Division. When Nebraska slumped from national title contender to erstwhile divisional challenger, the North Division crumbled in league title games, culminating in a 70-3 Colorado loss to Texas in 2005.
Big Ten officials wanted to avoid those scenarios. They wanted divisions of balanced, competitive programs playing for the league title. With 100-plus years of tradition, geography was important but not vital when stacking the deck in realignment.
The league used a results-based tier system over a 17-year time period as its guide. The first tier consisted of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and newcomer Nebraska. The league split those fantastic four into opposite divisions and made sure Ohio State and Michigan always had the opportunity to meet for the league – not divisional — championship. The second tier included Wisconsin and Iowa, two historical rivals that never elevated their programs to permanent elite status but had won titles and were highly competitive.
All six schools were divided. To fill out the remainder of the divisions, rivalry preservation became the second tenet, which worked in nearly all cases (except for Wisconsin-Iowa). Geography played a small role.
In two years much has changed. The Big Ten will expand to Maryland and Rutgers, adding both in presumably 2014. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany touted the ideas of those schools forming natural rivalries with Penn State and perhaps Ohio State.
“I think that geography will have to play probably a more important role in the evolution of the next divisional structure,” Delany said after Rutgers was accepted.
If geography now plays a more vital role in divisional realignment, then perhaps geography should play the only role. The best way to preserve historic rivalries, incorporate new series among Eastern additions, and give a boost to the league’s slumping championship game is to split the league East-West and divide the great state of Michigan.
There are many reasons why an East-West divide makes sense, so he’s a breakdown of why it will work in 2014 when two years ago geography was considered the third alternative.
1. REGIONS ARE COMPETITIVELY BALANCED
The Big Ten chose to analyze data from 1993-2009 when deciding competitive balance. It picked that time period because Penn State entered the league in 1993, it coincides with the Bowl Alliance/Coalition/Championship Series debut along with the 85-scholarship limit in football. Plus, the league didn’t want a team slump or a magical two-year run to cloud perceptions.
When examining the most important numbers of a now 20-year period — 1993-2012 — and including all 14 members, an East-West divide is almost competitively equal. The Eastern schools (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Purdue) compiled a 966-721-5 overall record and were 549-551 in conference play. The Western schools (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan State) were 954-755-8 overall and 538-572 in league play. Remember that Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska had varying numbers of games in their former conferences.
Over 20 seasons, the Eastern schools have advanced to 22 BCS-level bowl games, while the Western schools competed in 18. As for the Rose Bowl, the Eastern schools earned nine trips while the Western schools also made nine. (Current Big Ten teams did not compete in the 2002, 2005 Rose Bowls).
Despite the data confirming my argument, the 20-year time frame should be obsolete. What happened in the 1990s (Nebraska and Penn State dominating the college landscape) has little bearing on today’s world. The 21st century should be the standard to decide divisional relevance.
From 2001-2012, the Eastern schools compiled a 604-443 overall record and 336-319 in conference play. Ohio State’s massive success (124-29 overall, 77-19 in Big Ten play) accounts for the strong record, while Indiana was the flip in conference play (19-77). Among Eastern schools, Michigan was second-best (64-32) and Penn State was third (57-39).
Over the same 12-year span, the Western schools finished 588-446 overall and 326-353 in league play. Wisconsin (59-39), Nebraska (59-41) and Iowa (56-40) posted winning league records.
The Eastern schools nearly doubled the Western schools in BCS bowl appearances (15 to 8 ) but Ohio State had eight by itself.
As far as Big Ten Championship Game appearances the last two seasons, Western schools earned all four nods, although Ohio State was disqualified from competing this year.
Based on competitive equality, Ohio State’s success skews any divisional alignment, regardless of geography.
2. RIVALRY PRESERVATION/ENHANCEMENT
The Big Ten’s backbone consists of rivalry games and trophies. Michigan-Ohio State is the league’s ultimate rivalry and possibly the best in college sports. Minnesota-Wisconsin is major college football’s most-played series. Indiana-Purdue plays for a bucket, Iowa-Minnesota fights for a pig and Michigan-Michigan State competes for an ugly, fictional giant.
But there are other rivalries and series that don’t fit into a three-century box or need more consideration. Wisconsin-Iowa is tied 42-42-2. Nebraska and Wisconsin have 80,000-plus stadiums, wear the same color and their administrators (beginning in 2013) graduated from the other school. Nebraska fans want to drive and fill up stadiums, such as TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Michigan State and Wisconsin have played in some of the league’s greatest recent games. Michigan State wants to compete every-other year in Chicago. Illinois-Iowa remains a starchy rivalry despite its current four-year absence. Northwestern boasts rivalries with Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State.
On the Eastern side, Maryland-Penn State played nearly every year from 1960 through 1993. That’s a 200-mile trip. Penn State and Rutgers played 14 straight seasons spanning the 1980s and half the 1990s. There’s no better way to gain East Coast attention than to allow the Eastern teams to play one another every year.
All of those facts provide context, but the most pressing question is what happens to Ohio State-Michigan? Two years ago Delany made the case that those teams never should play each other with just a divisional title at stake. While the history shared between those programs dwarfs all others in the league (except for Nebraska and maybe Penn State), it’s also fair to speculate how an Ohio State-Michigan rematch could damage the league championship game.
Delany wanted to shift Ohio State-Michigan and all other non-divisional games to early November so the final three weeks could consist of only division-deciding games. Once that idea was floated, both schools’ fan groups blasted the possibility from e-mailing administrators to starting Facebook pages. The league retreated, and Ohio State-Michigan maintained its traditional end-of-season time slot.
However, a championship game rematch one week after the regular-season finale looks clunky in all venues. The Pac-12 experienced a rematch this year. After Stanford-UCLA played before 68,228 fans at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 24, only 31,622 showed up six days later at Stanford. Had the game been held at neutral site, it might have looked like a college baseball crowd.
If Ohio State-Michigan held a divisional “winner-take-all” game like so many of its previous conference predecessors (see 2006), would it devalue the league’s best rivalry game or enhance it?
3. EXPANDING THE BRAND
This year’s Big Ten Championship Game should set off alarm bells for any league administrator. The game boasted two name programs, although one (Wisconsin) finished third in its division and advanced to the title game only because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible. Wisconsin blew out Nebraska 70-31 to earn its second straight championship game victory.
Yet the stadium was significantly empty. Attendance was recorded at 41,260, down nearly 23,000 spectators from the previous year. The television rating fell from 4.3 in 2011 to 2.5 this year. It even didn’t have to compete with the massive SEC match-up of Alabama-Georgia, which registered a 10.0 for CBS. The Big Ten title game on Fox even lost head-to-head with ABC’s Texas-Kansas State (3.3 rating).
Part of the decline was due to the league’s image, the teams’ previous match-up and Wisconsin was 7-5 entering the game. But in the teams’ previous Big Ten match-ups since since 2011, Wisconsin boasted a crowd of 81,384, and Nebraska’s attendance recorded at 85,962. So basically 25 percent of the fans that attended those games showed up when the Rose Bowl title was at stake.
The league needs Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State to compete in the game. They bring eyeballs to the television and put fannies in the seats. If any of those teams compete against Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan State or Northwestern, the ratings and attendance will be fine. But with Legends and Leaders and a rematch in a down season, the league’s crowning event provided a laugh track for Southeastern Conference media and fans.
In an East-West divide, if another Eastern team advances past those heavyweights, that’s an even better story. Rutgers and Maryland would bring vast amount of feel-good interest. Indiana or Purdue would conquer the stadium because of its proximity. But that might happen once every 10 years.
As for the west, the northwest quadrant of Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin all want to play one another annually. Northwestern and Illinois have similar histories over the last 20 years as Indiana and Purdue. Michigan State appears to have reached program consistency under Mark Dantonio. There could be a clear “East vs. West” rivalry and mentality that could help shape the league moving forward and keep it healthy.
If Ohio State and Michigan are placed in the same division, the league could then preserve the last three or four weeks for strict divisional play outside of one game per week. The schedule makers could then select a match-up unlikely to re-occur that season — Minnesota-Maryland, Iowa-Purdue, Illinois-Indiana — to maintain the championship build-up.
Likewise, the league should continue to protect cross-divisional rivalries. Michigan-Michigan State is obvious. Northwestern-Purdue and Illinois-Indiana were protected under the 11-team system. If Wisconsin wants to keep playing Penn State every year, terrific. Nebraska-Ohio State would garner similar emotions for Cornhusker fans as the old Nebraska-Texas games in the Big 12. Iowa and Minnesota could connect with East Coast recruiting grounds for annual battles against Maryland and Rutgers.
The nine-game schedule also is paramount to ensure league members “play each more, not less” as Delany has said repeatedly. Teams would play two years, then cycle off for four. While that’s rough, that’s better than playing two years and cycling off for 10.
In 2010 when Big Ten officials and school administrators met multiple times to divide the league in half, competitive equality not only made sense, it was legitimately balanced. Iowa and Wisconsin had engaged in limited success, Penn State was still a power, Michigan was in a tailspin and Michigan State was inconsistent. But in three years that has changed.
Wisconsin now has won the last three league championships. Michigan State posted a 14-2 Big Ten record in 2010-11. Penn State will miss the postseason four consecutive years after a massive cover-up among the school hierarchy involving a former assistant football coach sexually assaulting children at the football facility. That includes significant losses of scholarships, which likely sets the program back for several years.
Maryland and Rutgers bring little more than geography to the football field. They want to establish ties with Penn State, and Delany wants that, too.
If Michigan and Ohio State agree to play in the same division, the league will be competitively balanced, gain a national brand in the title game nearly every year, solidify long-standing rivalries and introduce new series in key markets. It could help save on travel expenses and allow fans to see games involving their teams in nearby venues.
It’s the right time for the Big Ten to make geography the first tenet in realignment’s next round. Everything else takes care of itself.