Nebraska will begin Big Ten play in the fall of 2011, and the Internets are full of proposals for splitting the twelve-team conference into two divisions. Many of those proposals are fundamentally flawed, either because they are parochial (obviously to one school’s advantage), or because they ignore what Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney has already said about the conference’s priorities.
In the press conference welcoming Nebraska to the Big Ten, Delaney said that divisional alignment would be based on competitive balance, protecting rivalries, and geography, in that order. He also said that some rivalries are more important than others.
By putting geography third, Delaney sent a clear signal that an east–west split is highly unlikely. As many commenters have noted, that arrangement would put three of the conference's four traditional powers—Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State—in the same division.
A north–south alignment seems equally unlikely. There isn't a huge difference in latitude between the northernmost and southernmost schools in the conference. No one in Illinois thinks of a trip to Michigan as “going north,” even if that’s literally true. It would be an awfully odd way to split up, if geography is the commissioner’s bottom priority.
Last year, three BCS leagues had twelve teams in two six-team divisions: the SEC, the ACC, and the Big XII. All three used the same scheduling formula: teams play all five members of their own division annually, plus three of six in the opposite division on a rotating basis, for a total of eight conference games. This is the most straightforward scheduling plan. It preserves the same number of league games that Big Ten teams play today, and it also ensures that every team plays all of the others reasonably often.
If we assume this format for the Big Ten in 2011, then Michigan and Ohio State will probably be in one division, Nebraska and Penn State in the other. This is the only arrangement that ensures the Wolverines and Buckeyes will play The Game every year. Putting the two in opposite divisions would either eliminate The Game as an annual affair, or create other scheduling headaches. There is simply no good reason to put Michigan and Ohio State in different divisions. Penn State and Nebraska may be at opposite geographic poles, but the commissioner has already said that geography is his last priority.
With the traditional powers evenly divided and geography a minimal concern, the remaining eight teams will probably be divided up based on rivalries, and the commissioner said that some are more important than others. Let us consider, then, how the rivalries might be ranked.
Two groups of rivalries are probably at the bottom of the heap: those that are not contested annually, and those involving Penn State. The Little Brown Jug, involving Michigan and Minnesota, is in the first category. Even the current Big Ten scheduling system does not ensure that these two meet every year. If that’s acceptable today, then surely it is acceptable in the future.
Before Penn State joined the conference in the 1990s, it did not have a notable rivalry with any Big Ten team. Several rivalries were more-or-less invented for the Nittany Lions. They play for two named trophies—the Governor’s Victory Bell with Minnesota and the Land Grand Trophy with Michigan State—plus an annual unnamed tilt with Ohio State. As none of these rivalries is long-standing, they are presumably dispensable.
We move on to the Big Ten’s current protected rivalries—those that are contested every year, under the current system, minus those involving Penn State. Here they are:
Illinois: Indiana, Northwestern
Indiana: Illinois, Purdue
Iowa: Minnesota, Wisconsin
Michigan: Michigan State, Ohio State
Michigan State: Michigan,
Minnesota: Iowa, Wisconsin
Northwestern: Illinois, Purdue
Ohio State: Michigan,
Purdue: Indiana, Northwestern
Wisconsin: Iowa, Minnesota
We have already concluded that Michigan and Ohio State will be in the same division, so that rivalry is taken care of. We can assume that the conference would seek to preserve the same-state rivalries, such as Michigan vs. Michigan State, as most Division I football schools have an opponent in their own state that they play annually.
The adjoining-state rivalries require a bit of discussion. Michigan fans wax poetic about past Ohio State games, but many haven’t a clue about the games that matter to other teams in the conference. I am astonished when I see proposed line-ups that put Wisconsin and Minnesota in separate divisions. Amazingly enough, these two schools have the oldest annually contested rivalry in Division I football. There is no way Wisconsin and Minnesota would give that up. They’ve played every year since 1892. In contrast, Michigan didn’t play MSU until 1898, and it wasn’t an annual meeting until 1902.
The annual Minnesota–Wisconsin game is for a trophy called Paul Bunyon’s axe. There are named trophies for these two schools’ annual games with Iowa too—the Floyd of Rosedale and the Heartland Trophy respectively. In contrast, the annual Illinois–Indiana and Northwestern–Purdue tilts are of no special significance, beyond their longstanding membership in the Big Ten, a fact they share with other teams.
With our background on rivalries complete, we can now try to slot the new twelve-team Big Ten into divisions. It is obviously sensible to put Iowa into the same division as Nebraska, given that they occupy adjoining states. Nebraska does not have a long-standing rivalry with any Big Ten team, but if they were going to develop one, Iowa would be an obvious candidate. As the Hawkeyes and the Wisconsin Badgers are routinely strong football programs, it makes sense to split them, for competitive balance reasons. And given the background recited above, where the Badgers go, the Minnesota Golden Gophers go too.
(Incidentally, Nebraska has played Minnesota 51 times, more than any other team in the conference. But as the two have not met since 1990, this is not likely to be a factor in setting up the divisions.)
We therefore have the following start:
Plains: Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State
Lakes: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin
The Illinois and Indiana schools cannot be slotted into this arrangement without splitting one of the in-state rivalries. Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution. Although Illinois and Northwestern have played every year within living memory, the game was not annual until 1927. They played many times before that, but with numerous gaps. Indiana and Purdue have missed only two years since 1899. The state of Indiana therefore trumps the state of Illinois.
I therefore submit the following alignment as consistent with Jim Delaney’s stated priorities of competitive balance first, rivalries second, and geography third.
Plains: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue
Lakes: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin
This plan has reasonable competitive balance. The only named trophy rivalries that would no longer be contested annually, aside from those involving Penn State, are Iowa–Minnesota, Iowa–Wisconsin, and Illinois–Northwestern. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’d no longer play each other, only that it wouldn’t be annual.
There does not appear to be an alignment that preserves these rivalries without breaking others that are more important, or setting up divisions that are clearly unbalanced. For instance, in the alignment above, if you swap Iowa and Northwestern, then the broken rivalries would be restored, but the Lakes division would be top-heavy, with Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Other re-arrangements meet with similar objections.
Obviously, with the Big Ten’s expansion study still very much alive, the conference might not have 12 teams for very long. But while it does, I think the Plains/Lakes alignment given above does the best job of meeting the Commissioner’s stated priorities of competitive balance first, rivalries second, and geography third.