Big 10 Division Speculation

June 11, 2010

Written by Jon Miller

We have all gone through the exercise of predicting what Big Ten divisions might look like with hypothetical expansion scenarios.  Today is the first day we can do this with at least a few degrees of certainty, even though I don’t think the Big Ten is going to stop at just one team.

That’s a factor to keep in mind; the Big Ten knows that they will likely ‘act again’ as Jim Delaney said nearly two weeks ago in the ‘act and act again’ possible scenario.  Nebraska was Act 1.  There will probably be an Act 2 & 3.  Who knows if there will be an Act 5 & 6.  I actually hope that is not the case, wishfully thinking that 14 will be the max number and include Notre Dame and either Rutgers or Maryland.

So knowing the Big Ten is forward thinking in all of this, I believe we have to keep that in mind as we look at possible divisional alignments in the Big Ten at 12 teams.  They won’t want to adopt radical change right now only to make more radical changes in the future.  I think they will set the divisions up right now with a few future expansion schools in mind with plans where to plug them into the structure they are going to create over the next few months.

Here are a few things that I believe are going to be ‘rules’ if you will.

Let’s start out by listing what Jim Delaney said on Friday when asked about divisional alignment within the league.  He said three main factors will be taken into account: competitive fairness, maintenance of rivalries and geography.  He said that competitive fairness was the most important factor.

What this means to me is that the league will try to balance the divisions with regards to historical football success, while trying as much as possible to maintain rivalries while giving some credence to where you are on the map compared to your divisional mates.  He said that rivalries matter in the league and it’s a part of the league’s history and fabric, but that “not all rivalries are equal”

With these thoughts in mind, here are a few of my thoughts before laying out my best guess at what the divisions will look like.

1. Michigan and Ohio State stay in the same division:  I know some of you may not hold this as an anchor rule for divisional alignment, but I do.  I don’t think those teams will want the possibility of playing one another more than once per year, but will certainly want to continue to play one another each season, so they stay in the same division.  This is one of the 10 best rivalries in all of American sports, so I believe you can bank on these two being in the same division to not only continue the annual end of season rivalry game, but to protect it from being cheapened by playing one another more than once per season.

2. Penn State and Nebraska will be in the division opposite Michigan and Ohio State:  Going back to Delaney’s comment on competitive fairness, you put the two other programs with 800 all time wins from your league in the opposite division.  (By the way, two other programs have won 800 or more games; Texas and Notre Dame.)   I realize this doesn’t satisfy the geographical aspect, but it was listed third by Delaney, and I don’t believe that was an accident.  The Big Ten saw what the geographical division in the Big 12 did to the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, one of the sport’s great annual traditions; it killed it.  The Big Ten won’t worry too much about geography when it has to honor its first commitment to competitive fairness, which is why I think the Huskers and Nittany Lions wind up in the same division.

Those are my two tent pole ‘rules’ to begin the rest of this discussion.  Now, for the divisions:

DIVISION A

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Michigan
Ohio State
Michigan State
Indiana
Purdue
Illinois

DIVISION B

Penn State
Nebraska
Iowa
Minnesota
Wisconsin
Northwestern

DIVISION A RIVALRY ANALYSIS: The Big Ten keeps the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry intact, along with Michigan-Ohio State. The Buckeyes don’t really have another historical or geographical rival. The Indiana-Purdue rivalry is maintained as well. The battle for the Little Brown Jug between Michigan and Minnesota is not protected, and a great deal of history is lost. The Illinois-Northwestern trophy game is also lost. Again, not all rivalries are equal, per Delaney, and I am just putting that quote into practice.

DIVISION B RIVALRY ANALYSIS: Iowa-Minnesota, Iowa-Wisconsin and Minnesota-Wisconsin are maintained. Nebraska-Iowa and Nebraska-Penn State are born. Nebraska-Wisconsin will be a pretty big deal to Badger fans, too and after a few years of trading paint, to Husker fans, too. As of right now, those are three opponents for Nebraska, in their league, that appear on somewhat equal footing. You cannot say that about Nebraska’s Big 12 North rivalries. Kansas State flashed for a bit, and Kansas broke a hideous losing streak to the Cornhuskers a few years back. But here is Nebraska’s record against Big 12 North teams over the past three decades:

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vs Missouri: 26-4
vs Kansas: 28-2
vs Kansas State: 25-5
vs Colorado: 22-7-1
vs Iowa State: 26-4

Those aren’t rivalries folks, those are felonious assault charges in waiting. Based on what we have seen the past decade, I have a hard time believing that Nebraska is going to ring the bell in Division B as listed above on par with what they have done to those Big 12 North teams. Then again, I wouldn’t have thought Iowa would beat Penn State seven of the last eight years and eight of the last ten, so they might find someone’s number.

With these Divisions as listed, the only square peg is Penn State playing in the western division. That seems to be unavoidable and something I have felt likely all along. That will create more conspiracy theories amongst the Penn State faithful, but here is the reality; Penn State is already traveling by plane to play every in league road game. The only longer flight for them will be into Lincoln, and that’s what, another 40 minutes beyond the flying time to Iowa City? Meaning, it’s not a big deal, because State College is a ‘you can’t get there from here’ place that requires flights for their football program.

SPOTLIGHT RIVALRIES: I think the last weekend of the regular season, Thanksgiving Weekend, also referred to as Rivalry Weekend by ESPN, will include the following games:

Michigan-Ohio State: Traditional 11:00am start, ABC
Penn State-Nebraska: 2:30pm start, ABC
Michigan State-Illinois
Indiana-Purdue
Iowa-Wisconsin: 7pm BTN
Minnesota-Northwestern

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A few thoughts…as much as I want to see Iowa-Nebraska play on this weekend, I am coming around to the thinking of my radio co-host Steve Deace who has maintained the Nebraska-Penn State game would be the second end of a dream double-header that weekend. That’s four teams with 800 wins, playing in back to back games where you don’t have to change the channel. I hope he’s wrong, and I hope I am wrong, but if I remove my black and gold glasses and look at this from a historical perspective, it seems likely.

Iowa vs Wisconsin to be the new season ender is a pretty good consolation prize. I know some will want Iowa-Minnesota to keep ending the season, but Wisconsin is far more relevant and a better TV game for the Big Ten Network, and that is going to play a part in this.

I put this as a 7pm game because I think the days of November Big Ten games starting no later than 2:30pm are going to come to an end. There IS NOT a league rule that prohibits it, and I don’t think it’s something the schools really want to do. But this is about television and the money that goes along with it, so it will happen.

Some day, when the Big Ten sits down with ABC/ESPN to redo their TV deal, perhaps the Big Ten Network says ‘we’re good. Thanks for the memories’ and keeps every game. That will likely depend on future expansion additions (see Notre Dame). If Notre Dame makes its way into the league, I think they land in Division B, by the way.

Also, the notion of playing more than eight conference games is a possibility. But if you play nine, that means unbalanced home and road totals. If you play ten, the most home games you will get in a year is seven, which is not going to sound too good to University Presidents looking at home gate revenues. If they stay with eight, you play your five division rivals, then play three teams from the opposite division on a two-year home and home basis, then the other three the next two years, similar to what the Big 12 has done

To end this, here is how I rank the current Big Ten rivalry games as objectively as I possibly can, taking history and current relevance into account:

1. Michigan-Ohio State
2. Minnesota-Wisconsin: Paul Bunyan’s Axe: the oldest and most played rivalry in Division I football; 119 meetings
3. Iowa-Minnesota: We know the history, and it’s an old rivalry
4. Minnesota-Michigan: The Little Brown Jug is the oldest traveling trophy in the league, and this was the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry game of the first half of the last century, but it’s not even protected now
5. Indiana-Purdue: The Old Oaken Bucket game goes back to 1925. There was more buzz then than now
6. Michigan-Michigan State: The Paul Bunyan Trophy dates back to the 1950’s, the rivalry much longer

Here is a link to these games for more history on each one.

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