Sunday, April 28, 2013
Winners and losers in Big Ten realignment
By Brian Bennett
As expected, Big Ten officials on Sunday approved new East-West divisions for 2014 and a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2016.
As with any big decision, some benefit more than others. With that in mind, we take a look at the winners and losers of the Big Ten's new plan going forward:
The Badgers have won three straight Big Ten titles, so they hardly need much of a break. But there's no denying that life almost certainly will be easier for Wisconsin in the West than it would have been in the East. It won't have to compete with Michigan, Penn State or Ohio State for division titles and will have only one traditional power (Nebraska) on its side. Plus, the Badgers will be grouped with traditional rivals Iowa and Minnesota.
Loser: Michigan State
Many, including me, thought that putting the Spartans in the West made sense to balance out the divisions. But competitive balance wasn't the priority this time around for the Big Ten. So now Michigan State will have to knock heads with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State every year just in its own division. And the Spartans already have Alabama and Notre Dame on the 2016 schedule, which is shaping up to be a murderer's row.
On the one hand, the Huskers will play in what sure looks like the easier division. On the other hand, Nebraska fans didn't think they'd be leaving the Big 12 only to not play Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State every year. Some Big Red supporters are worried the Big Ten West will turn into another version of the Big 12 North. The good news is that the Big Ten is sure to schedule crossover games between the Huskers and the Eastern powers as much as possible.
Winner: The Big Ten's coffers
The nine-game schedule begins in the fall of 2016. Not coincidentally, the Big Ten's current TV contract expires after the 2015-16 academic year. The league will have 63 conference games to offer to network executives for the next contract instead of the current 48. That's what those in the business call "inventory," and now the Big Ten has more to sell, as well as the additional large markets that Rutgers and Maryland bring.
Losers: The Little Brown Jug and Illibuck rivalries
No division alignment could have saved every one of the Big Ten's trophy series. The two most notable victims in the East-West split are the annual Little Brown Jug game between Michigan and Minnesota, and the Illibuck series between Ohio State and Illinois. The Michigan-Minnesota rivalry has some cool history to it, but with only three Gophers victories since 1968, it hasn't exactly been competitive. Few will miss the Illibuck game, either.
Winner: The Game
The Michigan-Ohio State game will naturally be continued on the last weekend of the regular season, and now it could often be a critical matchup for the East Division title. Maybe more importantly, this new alignment prevents the Big Ten's top rivalry from being restaged a week later in the conference championship game. Although some would love to see the two teams play a rematch in Indianapolis, the rivalry will be stronger if it remains a once-a-year affair. This is the last year that the Buckeyes and Wolverines could potentially meet in back-to-back weeks.
Losers: The Big Ten's bottom tier
Bad news for teams like Indiana, Maryland and others that will hope to sneak into a bowl at 6-6: Life is about to get rougher. The Big Ten's scheduling model now leaves only three nonconference games, and FCS opponents will be taboo beginning in 2016. For a team like Purdue, which wants to play Notre Dame every year, there's not much margin for error. Even if you schedule three non-league patsies, you have to win at least three Big Ten games, which won't be easy in years when your team has five road conference contests. Indiana, for example, will also have to contend with Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State every year.
Winner: Our memories
No more need for mnemonic devices to remember which teams are in which division (M's and N's, plus Iowa ...). Now, anyone with a basic understanding of geography can instantly figure out who's where. If nothing else, the new alignment is simple and blessedly easy to comprehend.
Losers: Big Ten haters
Get your Legends and Leaders jokes in this year. Those oft-ridiculed names are going away after the 2013 season, and thankfully so. They made for easy punch lines by Twitter comedians and other critics of the league. Big Ten haters will have to work a little harder when East and West come aboard.
Winner: The SEC
The Big Ten joins the Pac-12 and Big 12 as major conferences playing nine conference games, and the ACC will have five of its teams playing eight conference games plus Notre Dame every year. The SEC remains at eight games. Playing more conference games is great for fans and TV, but it also means more losses throughout the league and makes it harder for teams to go unbeaten -- the Big Ten champ will have to run a gantlet of 10 conference games, including the title game. The SEC will continue to benefit from the perception that its teams beat one another up during league play while also playing fewer conference games. That could have big ramifications on the selection process for the upcoming College Football Playoff.