The three-year reign of the Big Ten’s alliterate Legends and Leaders divisions ends after bowl action, and to most people it’s a good riddance.
The divisional names had a Dungeons and Dragons sound were considered either too high-brow or over-the-top, depending on your preference. It’s the perfect marketing slogan for the nation’s oldest sports league, but it didn’t quite match what people wanted from their football divisions. What we’ve learned recently is if you try to take sports to a higher level, it generally leaves fans disillusioned and cynical.
But Legends and Leaders did have some high moments over their three-year Big Ten stretch. The divisions were designed to be competitively balanced historically, and they were. In a league as old as the Big Ten, some rivalries are built beyond borders and time zones. The league preserved most of those series (except Iowa-Wisconsin) and maintained a tinge of geography.
With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers next year, the 14-school league shifts to East and West divisions. It’s the right move, but there are a few things we’ll miss with Legends and Leaders.
1. Competitive balance. The Legends and Leaders divisions were arranged by competitive balance. The top six teams over a 17-year time frame were split evenly in opposition divisions. Ohio State and Penn State on one side, Michigan and Nebraska on the other. Wisconsin on one side, Iowa on the other. The goal was to avoid a tilted geographic advantage that causes animosity within a league. Nebraska witnessed that firsthand in the Big 12.
Over Legends and Leaders’ three years, competitive balance worked almost perfectly. This year’s division winners (Michigan State, Ohio State) were unbeaten in Big Ten play. The league’s best teams in 2011 (Wisconsin, Michigan State) faced off that season. The 2012 season provided an aberration when third-place Wisconsin claimed the Leaders spot because Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible. The Badgers then crushed Legends champ Nebraska.
The Legends Division was better head-to-head against the Leaders (33-21 in cross-divisional games), but Leaders champs won the league title two of the three seasons. Over time, competition ebbs and flows, but Legends and Leaders were as balanced as can be expected. That’s what was its original intent.
2. Loss of trophy games. The historic Michigan-Minnesota and Illinois-Ohio State series each enjoyed their 100th meeting this fall. The trophy rivalries are scheduled as non-divisional games in 2014 and 2015 but both cycle to irregular status with East and West divisions.
Only twice from 1914 through 2013 had Illinois and Ohio State failed to play. Likewise, Minnesota and Michigan met every year from 1929 through 1998 and all but four years over the last 85 years. The Little Brown Jug, which is given to the Michigan-Minnesota winner, is the nation’s oldest traveling trophy. The wooden Illibuck between Illinois and Ohio State originally began a live turtle in 1925.
From 2016 through 2019, those games are played just once. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of geographic divisions.
3. Iowa-Wisconsin-Michigan State break apart. These teams are more similar than they are different. They have comparable budgets, stadiums and physical styles of play. They recruit against one another on a daily basis. They’ve also competed in some of the best Big Ten games in recent memory, from the epic 2011 Hail Mary win by Michigan State against Wisconsin to Iowa’s last-second touchdown pass in 2009 against the Spartans.
In each of the last five years one of the three has made a BCS bowl, including the Big Ten’s last four Rose Bowl participants. Over the same span, the teams played one another 13 times with two overtime games (Wisconsin-Michigan State 2012, Iowa-Michigan State 2012) and four epic finishes (both Michigan State-Wisconsin 2011 games, Iowa-Wisconsin 2010, Michigan State-Iowa 2009). As colleague Marc Morehouse says, the schools are three polar bears fighting over the same sheet of ice.
Michigan State strongly was considered for the West Division alongside Iowa and Wisconsin to provide the divisions with competitive balance and continue their trio of “Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots.” Although campus-wise, East Lansing clearly is located in the East Division, Michigan’s upper peninsula drifts as far west as the Quad Cities so there’s a geographic case for it. But the Spartans will stay East.
Wisconsin and Michigan State didn’t play in 2013 and won’t play again until 2016 and then 2019. Iowa and Michigan State are scheduled just once — 2017 in East Lansing — through 2019.
4. Lack of big-time crossover games (for two years, anyway). The Big Ten shifts to parity-based scheduling when the slate grows to nine games. There are plenty of big-boy games on a weekly basis starting in 2016. But for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the only major match-ups are within the division.
There’s no Nebraska-Ohio State, Wisconsin-Michigan or Iowa-Penn State the next two years. In fact, none of those six are playing one another outside of their division. The only high-profile games featuring regular cross-division teams include Michigan State-Nebraska, Michigan-Northwestern and Penn State-Northwestern. If you’re looking for positives, it’s likely the next two Big Ten title games will feature teams who did not meet in regular-season play.
5. No chance for a Michigan-Ohio State rematch. Although I view losing the rematch as a positive, it still had high-profile potential. Maybe it’s for the best the teams never have played twice … and never will (at least until the next round of realignment).
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