- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten on Sunday announced new divisions (East and West) for the 2014 season and a move to a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2016. The league also is adopting a more aggressive approach to nonconference scheduling for the College Football Playoff environment -- at least one game per year against a major-conference school and no FCS games -- that it hopes to have in place by 2016.
ESPN.com caught up with league commissioner Jim Delany on Sunday to discuss some of the key issues.
On the approach to realigning the divisions for a 14-team league ...
Delany: We started into it in November soon after [the additions of Rutgers and Maryland]. We included Rutgers and Maryland in all of our discussions, culminating in the review today by the presidents. We met six times. Early on, we decided that we wanted to prioritize geography. We've got a conference that goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Colorado border and from the Canadian border in some cases to the mid South. Therefore, we thought geography was a good way to bind the conference together. We also wanted to preserve as much tradition as we could, and we do that through the protection of the rivalries. Before, we had 12 of the 13 trophies protected. This time, we have 10, and the three that are not will occur at least once every four years. Likewise, if you're a student-athlete, you'll have a chance to play everybody at least once in a four-year cycle, even though it's a bigger conference. The presidents and athletic directors were on board, too, with the idea of playing as much as we can. That takes our conference schedule from 48 games to 63 annually, so you have over a 30 percent increase in conference games, but only a 16 percent increase in conference membership.
We wanted to strengthen our schedules by playing each other more, but also by monitoring and asking that everybody schedule at least one comparable opponent. We were at about 20 percent of our games against BCS [automatic-qualifying conferences]. That moves that to a minimum of 33 percent, so one in every three years will be against a BCS opponent. And then we made a decision not to play others from divisions [FCS] where they have fewer scholarships. We think it's good for the fans, we think it's good for the players. It strengthens our schedule from the perspective of the postseason and it binds the conference together in a powerful way.
It turned out sort of the way we started, which was number one, respect geography, number two, preserve rivalries and then competitive balance.
On competitive balance as a lower priority this time around ...
Delany: It was a third principle. It was the first one in our last go-round. We seeded everybody 1 through 6, and we had four schools, based on 20-year history, who we all thought were No. 1 seeds (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska). So we split them, and then we split Iowa and Wisconsin, and then we split Northwestern and Michigan State. This time around, with two new members on the East Coast, we changed our thinking, we adapted to a new set of circumstances and we put competitive balance third. The only way we could have seriously engaged there was to move Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan, based on the 20-year history, into the West. We weren't willing to do that. So we'll see.
We look at the SEC over the last 25 years, and they started off in a period where [East division members] Georgia, Florida and Tennessee dominated, and then in the last decade, LSU, Alabama and Auburn [from the West division] have been stronger. So we expect it to go back and forth. We look at Nebraska and Wisconsin as elite programs. We think Iowa has played in big-time BCS games. We see Northwestern with 10 wins, and we see new leadership at Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue, and it's hard to predict. But we think there's a lot of parity in the Big Ten. We've had nine different teams go to the Rose Bowl in the last 24 years. We've had six or seven teams play in BCS bowls, so we think we can handle it. Obviously, we won't know for a decade exactly how that plays out.
On why Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan couldn't move to the West, or Michigan State, a team a lot of fans have brought up as one that could create more balance ...
Delany: If you were going to balance the bracket, you would have to [move] Penn State, Michigan or Ohio State, and all three felt strongly that this should be geographic. Both Michigan and Ohio State felt like they should be in the same division. In the case of Michigan State, they have a very strong football program, but when we looked at them last time, they were what I would describe as a 3 seed. And Purdue was a 4 seed. Moving a 3 seed over wasn't really going to be the answer to competitive balance anyway. In the case of Purdue last time, they'd been to a lot of bowl games, they'd been to the Rose Bowl, they've had good years, a little down in the last couple years but still bowl-eligible. Michigan State's a good football program, but it wasn't going to make things equal competitively. It may have had an effect. It depends upon what you think Michigan State and Purdue will do over the next decade.
On crossover schedules and rotations ...
Delany: The strong majority view was that we not have assigned crossovers, so we could play each other as much as we could over a long period of time. Obviously, Indiana and Purdue have the Bucket game, it's historic and we wanted to preserve that. It made Purdue comfortable going West, Indiana comfortable going East and it preserved that tradition. An awful lot of our rivalries could be taken care of through divisional play. If you look at the schedules, what you'll see is over time, the crossovers rotate. In the first 18 years, you're going to see a lot of competition between teams at the top of either division. We call that a bit of parity-based scheduling. You'll see Wisconsin and Nebraska and Iowa playing a lot of competition against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. But it will eventually rotate. BTN did some surveys. We didn't rely on them but we followed the results. We had 62,000 people who participated. By and large, this aligns with what we think is fan-friendly in terms of regionalization, protection of rivals and so on. About 80 percent of fans were supportive of nine or 10 games.
On the possibility of 10 conference games and the need for teams to play seven home games per year ...
Delany: It was fully explored. A negative of the nine is the 5-4 [home games vs. road games]. But we're able to get the 5-4 to be identical in each division, so the people you're playing against are all playing five or four. The 10 would have been nice, but we were having difficulty seeing 28 nonconference games and being able to accomplish what we wanted with major matchups. While we explored it, we felt we'd have a much harder time getting to seven home games. A lot of these budgets are predicated on it. We thought it was a reach. Who's to say in the future where we might go, but right now, we thought nine was the right place to be.
On the new scheduling principles Big Ten teams want to adopt ...
Delany: We're shooting for 2016, but we have some contractual issues. People are going to try to make it work. The conference is going to try to help as much as we can and coordinate and communicate to other conferences who have a desire to upgrade schedules. You're only talking about three or four weeks, and then you're pretty much going to conference play. Everybody's looking for improved schedules. I think they will be. And the committee we finally establish will have guidelines in that direction. We're not saying everybody has to play the same schedule, but if you're a Top 10-type program, we want you to be scheduling a Top 10-type program. If you're in the middle, we understand that.
For the most part, [the FCS games] were wins, and in a lot of cases, they weren't good matchups. They're good football teams, but it's hard to compete when you're 25 scholarships less. We think it's a balanced package. We think it's progressive with what's happening in the future. All in all, we feel pretty good about it.
On division names and Legends/Leaders going away ...
Delany: We're East and we're West. It's pure geography. Last time, we were a combination of competitive balance and geography being last. Those names weren't available to us last time, so we didn't have much discussion on it. It's just a reflection on each division.
People can have the discussion [on Legends and Leaders] now or in the future, but for us, it was a good-faith effort. If they weren't accepted, and I take it to some extent, they weren't, but among the athletic directors and presidents, it was pretty cut and dried that if you go with geography, geographic names are the right way to go.
15hDavid M. Hale