Friday, December 18, 2009
The Big Ten's division dilemma
By ESPN.com staff
Should the Big Ten decide to add a 12th member in the coming months, the league's next duty would be splitting teams into two divisions. Warning: this process might get a little messy.
I'm here to help.
If the Big Ten expands, it should not make geography a major priority in figuring out divisions. This isn't the Big 12 or the Pac-10, and the distances between Big Ten campuses aren't that great. Competitive balance should be a much greater concern than having things look pretty on paper.
So no matter if the 12th member is located in New Jersey or Missouri, New York or Nebraska, follow this rule: DO NOT put Penn State in the same division as both Ohio State and Michigan.
It could create a lot more problems than a little extra travel. Need evidence? Look at the Big 12 South.
Now Ohio State and Michigan must be in the same division for obvious reasons. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have to play each other every year to continue the best rivalry in college football. Whether you want to admit it or not, the Ohio State-Michigan game remains one of the Big Ten's greatest treasures and traditions. Being in the same division ensures this. Plus, you don't want to see an Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the Big Ten championship game.
If you put Penn State in the same division, you have your three traditional powers all together, which would create competitive imbalance. At least one of those three teams has won or shared the Big Ten title in nine out of the last 10 seasons. Solution: Put Penn State in the opposite division.
Sure, it looks a bit odd to have a school located East of both Ohio State and Michigan playing in a different division. But get over it. The Atlanta Falcons used to play in the NFC West. The Dallas Cowboys still play in the NFC East. Duke and North Carolina play in a different ACC division than NC State, even though all three schools are located within a 30-mile radius.
Penn State head coach Joe Paterno has been the most vocal advocate of expansion, so I don't think he'd quibble about division alignment.
The Nittany Lions wouldn't play Ohio State every year, which is a shame, but they would face teams like Wisconsin and Iowa annually. And if the Big Ten adds a team from the East, say Rutgers, it could pair that team and Penn State in the same division. Plus, Penn State would have arguably an easier path to the league title game.
You can label the divisions however you'd like (East-West, North-South, Bo-Woody, Joe-Pa). Just don't let geography be the deciding factor for alignment.
Here's my plan for the divisions, which preserves most of the league's key rivalries:
Illinois might have a gripe about this, but the Illibuck rivalry against Ohio State would be preserved. The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry isn't very big at all, and Iowa isn't one of Illinois' protected rivals right now.