The Big Ten made big news Sunday by announcing its new division alignment for the 2014 season, as well as a move to nine league games beginning in 2016. We covered all the news here and here and here, but several components of the moves merit further analysis.
During the next few days we'll be breaking down the divisions and the new conference schedule model, their impact now and in the future, as the College Football Playoff is just a year away. These aren't exactly Take Twos, but they're similar, as we'll both be sharing our thoughts on these big-ticket items.
Today's topic is: Balance in the new divisions (or lack thereof)
I get the complaints, I really do. At first glance, the divisions look lopsided with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State on one side. Perhaps the East will dominate the Big Ten for years, relegating the West to Big 12 North type status. I understand the argument for moving Michigan State to the West, which may or may not have created more competitive balance, admittedly a lower priority for the Big Ten in the latest alignment. But I keep thinking how the divisions discussion would be different in 2010, or 2004, or 1998. In 2010, Iowa was coming off of an Orange Bowl championship, its second BCS bowl appearance in eight years. A division featuring Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin, plus a Northwestern program on the rise, would be perceived differently than the one the Big Ten revealed Sunday. In 2004, Purdue was pegged to win the Big Ten by many and had enjoyed a run of quality bowl games under Joe Tiller. Iowa also was surging back then, while Michigan State and Penn State were struggling.
My point is the landscape changes and most teams go through ups and downs. The Big Ten has had tremendous parity: nine different champions since 2000, seven different Rose Bowl participants since 1995. Wisconsin doesn't get enough credit in the discussion for being one of the nation's most consistently good (and sometimes great) programs for the past 20 years. Next to Ohio State, Wisconsin has been the Big Ten's most consistent winner in the past two decades.
I'd put Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin in one group. After that, things get a bit murky. How much do you buy into Northwestern, which has transformed from perennial loser to consistent bowl game participant since the 1995 season? People view Michigan State differently now than they would have five years ago. That's a credit to Mark Dantonio, his assistants and his players, but will the MSU program continue its upward climb? It remains to be seen. Being the East division provides the true litmus test for the Spartans program.
Much of this comes down to if Ohio State and Michigan create significant separation from the rest of the league. If Penn State gets through the sanctions and joins the Buckeyes and Wolverines in most years, the Big Ten East could turn into the Big 12 South based on the attention/exposure it will generate. That's a problem, and the Big Ten then might have to reassess division alignment. The league needs Northwestern to keep winning, and both Iowa and Purdue to regain their old form, to create some balance from the West. So yes, the divisions appear unbalanced, but recent Big Ten history shows that things often don't turn out the way they first appear.
Of course the divisions are unbalanced. The Big Ten basically admitted this when Jim Delany said competitive balance was No. 3 on the list of priorities during the realignment. Geography and protecting rivalries were deemed most important, and on those two fronts, the league hit a grand slam.
But anytime you put Michigan and Ohio State -- the conference's two most dominant programs historically, and the two that really look poised to take off in the near future -- in one division, the scales of power are inevitably going to tip in favor of that division. Then you add in Penn State, another powerhouse with a 100,000-seat stadium, and the scale starts to really lean in one direction. Putting Michigan State with those three all but makes the scale tip over. The East really is, as Indiana athletic director Fred Glass called it, the "Big Boy Division" right now (has anybody called Frisch's about a possible sponsorship?)
Let's give the teams in the West some credit. Nebraska is on the same level with Ohio State and Michigan historically, if not necessarily in the past decade or so. And as Adam mentioned, Wisconsin has earned the right to be included in the list of Big Ten heavyweights. If you look at it in terms of BCS bowl appearances -- not the best measurement, but a decent indication of recent strength -- then the West has 12 compared to 17 for the East. Take away the top two in each division -- Michigan and Ohio State in the East, Nebraska and Wisconsin in the West -- and each side has three all-time BCS appearances.
Or how about Rose Bowl appearances since 1990? Again, it's not a perfect comparison, since the Rose Bowl hasn't always featured the Big Ten champ during the BCS era and Nebraska wasn't a part of the league until two years ago. Still, by that measure, the West has 10 Rose Bowl berths to 11 for the East. And that's not including the Huskers at all (though Ohio State's presence in other BCS bowls during that time skews things quite a bit).
So this could all work out, especially if Iowa and Purdue rebound, Minnesota continues to climb, Northwestern's 10-win season last year was an indication of things to come and Illinois ever turns potential into consistent results. Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland aren't exactly world-beaters, and Penn State will likely decline during the sanctions era. It's instructive to remember that when the SEC first went to division play in the early 1990s, the East was seen as the much stronger division with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. That has now flip-flopped, with Alabama, LSU, Auburn and now Texas A&M making the SEC West that league's seat of power. These things are often cyclical.
But I also wonder if teams in the East who get more regular exposure in the new recruiting hotbeds along the Eastern seaboard -- not to mention Ohio -- will start to pull away some from those in the West. That's a concern, as is what will happen when and if Penn State truly returns to national power status. That would give the East three "brand-name" schools, along with a program in Michigan State that I don't think is going away anytime soon.
The West has a lot of work to do to make sure these divisions aren't as lopsided as they appear on paper. But, hey, at least it would make for a good underdog story in the Big Ten championship game.