Four months ago, when Maryland and Rutgers were added as Big Ten members beginning in 2014, league athletics directors instantly started touting geography as a key tenet for the next round of football realignment. As Adam Rittenberg with ESPN.com reported, either Purdue or Indiana will join the league’s western division and the other will join the east. That rivalry will be protected at all costs (as it should) and there will be no other cross-divisional rivalries, according to the ESPN report.
With the league likely going to a nine-game football schedule in 2016, that means there will be some interesting math to accommodate only one annual cross-divisional game. Over a 12-year period, Purdue and Indiana would meet every season. Those schools then would play every other school in the opposite division four times over those 12 years.
For the other schools, the math gets a little awkward. Iowa, for instance, would play two eastern division schools six times, four schools five times and Purdue/Indiana four times over a 12-year span. Of course that’s based on average.
So which one will move west? Purdue, geographically, is slightly farther west. West Lafayette, Ind., is closer to Champaign, Ill., by about 55 miles and within three hours of Evanston, Ill. Purdue-Northwestern were considered protected rivals (mostly by default) in the 11-team conference. Purdue and Illinois, whose campuses are a mere 95 miles apart, share an 88-game history that includes the Purdue Cannon traveling trophy.
Bloomington, Ind., is farther south, but only about 15 miles farther east than West Lafayette. Illinois-Indiana was a protected rivalry under the old system, not Purdue-Illinois. Indiana University is the state’s flagship institution and the closest to Indianapolis, one of the league’s primary hubs.
Purdue has had intermittent periods of winning, most recently in the late 1990s and early 2000s under quarterbacks Drew Brees and Kyle Orton. Indiana’s success is saved for the hardwood, but with a major stadium renovation there’s potential for football growth.
So which one will it be? It sounds like Illinois might help make that call.
With 14 teams in 2014, there will be a cross-divisional game virtually every weekend, especially late in the season. Indiana and Purdue have played their Old Oaken Bucket game every year since 1925 and only once in the last 94 years have the schools not completed their Big Ten seasons against one another (1931). Splitting Indiana-Purdue into separate divisions sets up the final weekend just about perfectly for traditional and burgeoning rivalries.
Under the current 12-team Legends/Leaders setup, the Big Ten originally wanted divisional-only games for the regular season’s final three weeks. But the Ohio State-Michigan tradition and massive fan bases trumped any changes. Now that geography dictates divisional play, the league can gerrymander the late-season cross-over games so that none will have major divisional implications (no late Wisconsin-Ohio State games, for instance).
Purdue-Indiana fits that plan perfectly. If either program has a chance to win a divisional title, it will have to finish against their greatest rival. The rest of that weekend will include Ohio State-Michigan on Saturday and Iowa-Nebraska on Black Friday. Within divisions, the league could schedule Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Michigan State-Penn State and Rutgers-Maryland on the season’s final weekend.
Although it was a semi-forced protected rivalry (and boasts one of the nation’s worst traveling trophies) Michigan State and Penn State ended their regular seasons against one another from 1994 through 2010. That season finale easily could be changed for Penn State-Maryland.
The Big Ten should also move another game (Northwestern-Illinois, Purdue-Indiana?) to Black Friday to join the Iowa-Nebraska game. Overall, it sounds like a great weekend of football.
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