For the second time in four years, divisional realignment is coming to the Big Ten.
In preparation for the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten has announced a new divisional format that will kick in for the 2014 season. Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers form the Eastern Division, while Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin make up the Western division.
The new alignment emphasizes geography over historic balance, and it also does a fairly good job of preserving the conference’s many historic rivalries. The league will also transition to a nine-game league schedule in 2016, and with the exception of Indiana-Purdue, all of the permanent cross-divisional rivalries have been eliminated.
Some thoughts on the Big Ten’s realignment plan:
1. No more Legends and Leaders Divisions.
Perhaps the only thing that all parties agreed upon was that the much-mocked nicknames of the previous alignment needed to go. Right away, the Big Ten’s realignment plan is an improvement over the previous system.
2. The East division is stacked at the top – at least historically.
Unlike the previous divisional split, the Big Ten decided to make geography its first priority in this latest realignment. As a result, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State were all put in the same division.
This is a pretty big deal. Michigan and Ohio State have won or shared 77 conference titles; the rest of the conference has combined for 86. And even after being stripped of 112 wins, Penn State remains the conference’s fourth-winningest all-time program.
As a result, this division figures to bear a strong resemblance to the SEC East, which historically has been a three-team race almost every year. Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia monopolized the division titles up until quite recently, when South Carolina broke through and replaced the Vols as an annual power.
Michigan State has a chance to play that role in the Big Ten, though it will be very difficult for a program that has not won a Big Ten title since 1987 to overcome the weight of history. In a related story…
3. The league did not do Rutgers and Maryland any favors.
On the one hand, neither school can really complain about membership in the conference, as both stand to benefit handsomely from membership in the Big Ten. They also cannot complain about the geographic soundness of the divide, which should allow more alumni to attend both home and road games in support of each school.
On the other hand, neither school was regarded as a powerhouse football program in their previous conference, and things are only going to get more difficult on the gridiron from here on out. In short, it could be a long time before either school adds a Big Ten crown in football to their history books.
On the other side of the league…
4. Wisconsin will benefit from realignment more than any other school.
It is rather ironic that the school regarded as the biggest loser of the previous divisional split now gets to fill the opposite role this time around.
Under the previous alignment, Wisconsin was sent to the eastern side of the conference along with Ohio State and Penn State in an effort to promote competitive balance. Not only was this an awkward geographic fit – Madison is located to the west of the Michigan Schools – but it also made for a path to a conference championship that would likely go through Columbus and State College.
All of that changes with realignment, as Wisconsin has been moved to the west and away from the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions. As an added bonus, all of the Badgers’ geographic rivals – particularly their evenly-matched series with Iowa – are once again yearly events, and an intense rivalry game against Nebraska almost seems like a foregone conclusion. Speaking of which…
5. Nebraska is set up for dynasty mode – or so it seams.
I mentioned earlier that three of the Big Ten’s four winningest programs historically were placed in the East Division. Nebraska is the lone exception. With only Wisconsin as a serious threat and no permanent rivalry game with Penn State to worry about, it does not figure to take a lot for the Cornhuskers to establish itself as the dominant juggernaut in the West.
On the other hand, the exact same thing was said about Nebraska back when they were placed in the Big 12 North, away from powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma, and the program instead fell to mediocrity. Nebraska won only four Big 12 division titles and one conference crown in the BCS era, and that was during a time when the competition in the North left quite a bit to be desired.
So perhaps it would be wise for Nebraska faithful to hold off on the celebration plans for the Big Ten title. At least until it actually happens, of course.