The two big football questions going into May's Big Ten athletics directors meetings in Chicago remain football divisions and football schedules.
Following Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and athletics director Gary Barta in the last month, we know that a nine-game league schedule, as opposed to 10, is probably going to happen.
“It does sound like we’re going to nine games,” Ferentz said. “It sounds like that train’s going down the track right now, too."
Barta has also said the league would go with a geographical model for the football divisions in the 2014 season, when the conference welcomes Maryland and Rutgers.
“It looks like we’re headed toward a little more of an east-west divisional set up,” Barta said. “I think there would be a lot of pluses to that. One of the benefits we would have is if it goes that way, all of the sudden we’ll play Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern, all of the people around us.
“It would be nice from that perspective.”
ESPN.com Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg reports Tuesday that the east-west shift is down to Indiana or Purdue. The reported last month that time zones would be the deciding factor. With eight schools in the east and six in the central, one school needed to change its clock.
The natural thought is Michigan State. Coach Mark Dantonio has the Spartans in bowl games every season and had them at a championship level two years ago. But, according to ESPN.com, that's not happening. Michigan State wants to play Michigan every season. Ohio State wants to have top competition in the Horseshoe every year (Michigan State wins that over Purdue and Indiana nearly any way you cut it).
Here are how the divisions will likely fall:
Purdue or Indiana
Purdue or Indiana
Your first question will be competitive balance.
Three of the four traditional bluebloods (Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State) will be in the east. Nebraska will be in the west. This puts the onus on Wisconsin to maintain (remember, it didn't win the Leaders Division last season with Ohio State serving its one-season postseason ban).
To a certain extent, there's now pressure on Nebraska to not only maintain, but to become the national title contender it once was. An interesting poll question for Nebraska fans would be do you consider last season a success? The Huskers won six straight, won the Legends title and earned a berth in the B1G title game, but they suffered an embarrassing loss in Indianapolis, falling 70-31 to Wisconsin, and fell to Georgia, 45-31, in the Capital One.
This move says the conference believes in Northwestern and Pat Fitzgerald. How much is a good question. The Wildcats did just win their first bowl game in 64 years last season.
And there's Iowa. Rittenberg posed the question on Twitter what would've been said if this divisional split would've happened in 2010, with the Hawkeyes coming off an Orange Bowl victory.
Wonder how reaction to proposed divisions would change if this were 2010 and Iowa coming off of Orange Bowl title. Iowa still a factor.— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) March 19, 2013
Iowa is coming off 4-8. Ferentz fired two assistants and lost another to Rutgers. In the last 14 months, Iowa has changed both coordinators and has brought in six new faces on the coaching staff.
Attrition also has chopped some depth out of Iowa's roster. In the 2009 class (fifth-year seniors), Iowa lost 11 of 19 recruits. The 2010 class has lost eight of 21. The reasons vary from discipline to injuries to transfer. Ferentz would tell you every team has attrition and it does.
Iowa will begin spring practice with no idea who'll play quarterback. Also one of the returning starters at defensive tackle (Louis Trinca-Pasat) will be out with a shoulder injury. Where will the pass rush come from? Plenty of questions.
Barta has said from the minute the new wave of expansion happened that he'd be happy if every year Iowa played Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Northwestern. Looks like that will happen. Ball's in Iowa's court to compete.
Same goes for Michigan State, which will need to prove itself every season against a toothy league schedule. MSU hasn't had a long run of big success. And Wisconsin is hardly guaranteed to maintain "big dog" status, especially with a first-year coach in Gary Andersen.
The bottom line for the current middle tier -- Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Northwestern -- is compete.
Will it feel like the Big Ten if Iowa only plays Ohio State and Michigan four times each in 12 years?
Other points from Rittenberg:
-- Indiana and Purdue's pursuit of the Old Oaken bucket would continue. It would be the only protected crossover rivalry, thus leaving the conference flexibility in scheduling.-- Nine-game schedule likely will kick in for the 2016 season.