The Big Ten should realign

Submitted by jmblue on July 24th, 2012 at 12:26 PM

PSU is in deep trouble in football terms.  Some here have tried to argue that maybe they'll weather this like USC did.  That's very, very doubtful.  They are going to have to compete with a 65-man roster from 2013-16, and the four-year bowl ban all but guarantees that good recruits won't come the next couple of years.  The free-transfer policy will likely lead to what underclass talent they have now leaving.

If that weren't enough, PSU as an institution is just starting the nightmare.  More trials are to come.  Civil suits will follow.  The Department of Education will investigate.  The NCAA itself may investigate further to look into inidividual liability.  In other words, this scandal  - which was instigated by the football program - is going to remain on the front pages for years.  That will further cripple recruiting.  Altogether, PSU is not going to be allowed to have a "normal" roster (with four balanced classes) until 2020, and by that point they will likely have stunk on the football field for years, and have invested zero money in facilities (since they won't be able to afford it), so there is no guarantee recruits will suddenly line up to go there.  I would not surprised to see Pitt emerge as the dominant program in Pennsylvania.  (Incidentally, the two programs are going to renew their annual series, which will give Pitt the chance to drive that point home to recruits.)  

Unfortunately for PSU, I expect them to be bad for awhile, maybe for good.  So what does this all mean for the Big Ten?  Consider the current divisions, which were set up in the name of competitive balance.  The Big Ten formed these with the intent to split up the "Big four" (U-M, OSU, Nebraska, PSU) and give each one a protected game against another to keep things competitive.  Here are the two divisions, with each team's protected rival in parentheses:

Legends Bo                                             Leaders Woody

Michigan (OSU)                                       OSU  (U-M)

Nebraska (PSU)                                      Wisconsin (Minn.)

MSU (Indiana)                                         Illinois (NW)

Iowa (Purdue)                                          PSU  (Neb.)

Northwestern (Ill.)                                    Purdue (Iowa)

Minnesota (Wisc.)                                    Indiana (MSU)

If indeed PSU will be down, then not only will the Leaders division likely be weaker than the Legends, but there will be a competitive imbalance in the Legends division as well.  Why?  Because we'll be playing OSU every year while Nebraska, our presumed top competitor, will be playing a downtrodden PSU.  Throw in MSU playing Indiana and we're at a significant disadvantage scheduling-wise.   Likewise, OSU is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Wisconsin, which gets a gimme win against Minnesota while OSU has to play us.  The Big Ten set up these divisions precisely to avoid unbalanced schedules, and yet here we are.  Get ready for Michigan to regularly have the hardest schedule of any conference contender.  (Only Minnesota, which has to play us while we only play them, will have a tougher schedule year-in and year-out.)

The solution?  An east-west geographical split:

East                                                            West

Michigan                                                   Nebraska 

OSU                                                           Wisconsin 

PSU                                                           Iowa

MSU                                                          Northwestern

Indiana                                                     Illinois

Purdue                                                     Minnesota

This would balance things out nicely.  Assuming Wisconsin is here to stay as a conference power, there'd be two power programs in each division.  What's more, this would eliminate the need for cross-divisional protected games altogether, since all the rivalries would be contained within each division.  Rivalries that the league is currently throwing by the wayside, like Wisconsin-Iowa and MSU-PSU (as much as we mock the Land Grant Trophy, MSU fans really liked that rivalry) get restored to annual meetings.  

It will take a couple of years, at least, but at some point, if my pessimistic take on PSU turns out to be true, the league should really look into this.



July 24th, 2012 at 12:43 PM ^

What may seem as a tough schedule now, may in reality be easier years down the road.

Looking at the Big 12, for the longest time the better division was in the North, especially with Colorado and Nebraska.  Missouri was so-so, same with Iowa State.  The South was Texas or Oklahoma.  Only recently did the power switch to the South with the rise of Oklahoma State and the decline of Colorado in the North.


July 24th, 2012 at 3:59 PM ^

I agree. We can't rebalance the divisions every time there's an unexpected shift in the balance of power.

Which is why it was foolish to try it in the first place. The current setup leads to all kind of awkward compromises, like the fact that every team must avoid playing one opponent for four consecutive years, and the possibility of Michigan and OSU playing on back-to-back weeks. This was all done because the league thought it would lead to competitive balance. If the league knew PSU would get slammed, the divisions would not look like this.

Going to a straight East/West split, with no protected crossovers, was always the most logical plan. You'd play the teams in your division every year, and all of the teams in the other division 50% of the time, with those teams rotating on and off at random. No 4-year hiatuses would be necessary, and you could make all the November games be interdivisional, so there'd be no back-to-back matchups.

snarling wolverine

July 24th, 2012 at 2:24 PM ^


I just don't get the mentality that we have to try avoid a difficult schedule. Bring it on.

It's not so much about avoiding a difficult schedule as avoiding having to regularly have the most difficult schedule.  We'll play Ohio 100 percent of the time while Nebraska, MSU and Iowa only play them 40% of the time.   Sure, there are always some irregularities from year to year, but that's a big difference there.  Remember, it's the overall conference record that determines the division standings, not just the divisional record.



July 24th, 2012 at 4:02 PM ^

You're setting up a false dichotomy here.  The options are not just "play OSU out of division every year" or "not play OSU regularly."  No one is suggesting that we shouldn't play them.  

There is another option - realign the divisions so we play them every year, but within the same division so we're not forced to have a harder schedule than our division rivals.


State Street

July 24th, 2012 at 12:34 PM ^

I think the biggest drawback of the current system is this year's mess.

33% of Leaders Division teams can't make the title game this year.  The Legends division has 3 out of the 4 best teams in the conference.  This will have drastic complications on our BCS bid(s). 

Sucks, but not much can be done this year.


July 24th, 2012 at 12:56 PM ^

Remember, this is the conference whose presidents had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a playoff. They're cautious and conservative by nature. For this season, as a practical matter, there is nothing they can do. Teams have made travel plans; tickets have been sold. I'm sure the question of realignment will come up in the offseason.

The geographic approach would have made no sense when Penn State was a perennial power. In the worst case, where they're another Indiana or Minnesota for the next decade, it makes perfect sense. And of course, most people would prefer East/West to Legends/Leaders.

Historically, though, the major powers usually recover from sanctions more quickly than anyone expects. USC's sanctions (for Regie Bush) seemed quite severe at the time, and yet they have the #1 2013 recruiting class (per Rivals). They weren't hit with Penn State's sanctions, but everyone thought that USC would be crippled far longer than is turning out to be the case.

At the same time, there's no assurance that Wisconsin will continue to be a national power. They could revert to their historical mean, and then suddenly the west division would seem awfully weak.

coastal blue

July 24th, 2012 at 1:49 PM ^

USC is entirely different from Penn State. 

Even without the sanctions, they have never come close to USC's level of recruiting. I believe someone stated that from 2003 on, Penn State has has one class in the top 10 on Rivals, while USC has never slipped out of it (or something close). 

Not to mention, the amount of time on the postseason ban will completely dissuade talented players who want to play for championships from setting foot in Happy Valley for at least the next two seasons. This sets them up for at least 5-6 seasons where the talent simply won't be there to compete for even a share of the division title. At the very least.

Schools like Ohio and USC got hit, but they could still sell to incoming freshmen that within a year or two, they would be back competing. And since most freshmen don't play starters minutes, its not that big of a deal. Now, going into this season, you've got to convince players that they might get to play for a shitty bowl game if they get to redshirt. 

We won't see anything close to "traditional" success out of Penn State for the better part of a decade and realistically, a few years beyond that. 

MI Expat NY

July 25th, 2012 at 12:08 AM ^

Does it matter that Wisconsin for the past 15-20 years has easily been the equivalent of Penn State?  In fact, Wisconsin actually has a better Big Ten record than PSU since PSU joined the Big Ten and has won more titles.  If we're accepting PSU as a power, Wisconsin should be as well and we should say the Big Ten has at least 5 traditional powers.  With the inability to spllt the powers equally, going geographical is the most sensical solution.  


July 24th, 2012 at 1:01 PM ^

I agree that the divisions could have been aligned better in the first place.  However, it's not as if they are so out of whack that drastic change needs to be made.

Consider what I believe to be a reasonable ranking of the B1G over the next 7-10 years.  I have italicized the Legends participants

1. Ohio State (sorry; I know it's blasphemy) - Leaders

2. Michigan - Legends

3. Wisconsin - Leaders

4. Nebraska - Legends

5. Michigan State - Legends

6. Iowa - Legends

7. Illinois - Leaders

8. Northwestern - Legends

9. Purdue - Leaders

10. Penn State - Leaders

11. Minnesota - Legends

12. Indiana - Leaders


No, it's not perfectly balanced, but it's also not anything like the SEC West vs. East.  And obviously my rankings are complete guesses; the reality is that over a 7-10 year span, the two divisions will be equal (from a statistical significance perspective).

So, the problem resides in the crossover games.  There is no denying that our primary competitors have easier crossover games than we do.  But, also consider that this alone does not mean we ALWAYS have a tougher schedule.  Look at last two years, for example - missing Wisconsin. 

Comparing us to Michigan State, we play Indiana 40% of the time and Ohio State 100% of the time; they are the opposite.  This certainly gives Michigan State an advantage, but again, that doesn't always result in an easier schedule.

And, the B1G isn't going to completely change the divisional alignments because one team (us) has a semi-legitimate gripe about the schedule difficulty.

Finally,  none of us would ever give up the OSU game because they are expected to be better than Indiana over the long-term.



July 24th, 2012 at 1:32 PM ^

  Big Ten Games Overall
Team W L T Pct W L T Pct
Ohio State 106 29 1 0.783 170 43 1 0.797
Michigan 94 42 0 0.691 146 64 0 0.695
Penn State 86 50 0 0.632 147 62 0 0.703
Wisconsin 79 54 3 0.592 144 66 4 0.682
Iowa 71 64 1 0.526 119 86 1 0.580
Purdue 63 70 3 0.474 104 98 3 0.515
Michigan State 63 72 1 0.467 106 98 1 0.520
Northwestern 59 77 0 0.434 96 106 1 0.475
Illinois 45 90 1 0.335 75 121 1 0.383
Minnesota 44 92 0 0.324 92 111 0 0.453
Indiana 33 103 0 0.243 68 127 0 0.349

Nebraska has won 98 games, albeit in a much weaker conference. Assuming you want to just say B1G=BXII, it goes:

  1. Leaders (Ohio)
  2. Legends (Nebraska)
  3. Legends (Michigan)
  4. Leaders (Penn State)
  5. Leaders (Wisconsin)
  6. Legends (Iowa)
  7. Leaders (Purdue)
  8. Legends (Michigan State)
  9. Legends (Northwestern)
  10. Leaders (Illinois)
  11. Legends (Minnesota)
  12. Leaders (Indiana)

Leaders: 412 wins
Legends: 429 wins


July 24th, 2012 at 7:11 PM ^

nor does it date to 1993, but the Big Ten has more BCS appearances, BCS wins and ties teams with wins (it does trail in teams with appearances by one) than the Big XII does. IMO the appearances and wins aren't that close, and that's a big measure of conference strength.

B1G: 25A, 12W, 7 different schools, 5 schools with wins
BXII: 19A, 8W, 8 different schools, 5 schools with wins

snarling wolverine

July 24th, 2012 at 4:21 PM ^

If it's not broken, don't fix it.

I think people are going to a lot more critical of the setup when we play Ohio on back-to-back weeks, which seems all the more likely now that PSU has been neutered. Ohio is probably going to win their division most of the time, so if we win our division (which will likely require beating the Buckeyes), then we'll have to play them again.

I like playing Ohio, but it should be a once-a-year thing, not twice in eight days. That's the biggest problem I have with the current setup.


July 24th, 2012 at 11:11 PM ^

That is also my biggest problem with this setup.  Imagine 2006 with two divisions - we could have hypothetically beaten Ohio in a rematch in the B1G Championship and then met them again in the National Championship.  Yeah, that'd be kinda cool, I guess, but I think even some diehard The Game fans would get sick of it after three matchups in a row.

At the same time, I don't think that this proves the system as "broken" until we actually do play Ohio twice in two weeks.  If the general board consensus is correct and we meet Ohio in the B1G Championship 3-4 times in the next 10 years, yes, that is a big problem.  But, given that we already have this system in place, let's wait until our worst-case scenario comes to play.

I would like to stress that my first post wasn't an attempt to defend the thought process in the initial division split - there are a multitude of problems.  I just don't think it is as unbalanced and unfair as jmblue implied in the OP.  From a purely competitiveness standpoint, the divisions are still split pretty damn well.

Section 1

July 24th, 2012 at 1:13 PM ^

The teams in the proposed West will never, ever accept it.  Try telling Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Minnesota that they will have to wait and get lucky, before any of them see either Michigan or Ohio State on their schedule, and oh by the way don't hold your breath waiting for a home game with either one.

That is the reason that Michigan and Ohio State were split in the first place, and protecting the great Rivalry game was why each school was paired off with a protected rival.

And I personally don't care about competitive balance.  I just want Michigan to have a great home slate every year, with lots of attractive and tradition-laden opponents filling the home calendar every week.

This isn't the NFL.  I don't care about league balance or W-L records for next year's draft.  Fuck Penn State.  Who the hell wants to play them anyway?


July 24th, 2012 at 1:17 PM ^

 What's more, this would eliminate the need for cross-divisional protected games altogether, since all the rivalries would be contained within each division.

Sort of.  Illinois fans haz a sad since the storied and venerable Illibuck trophy is no longer accounted for, and to boot they're still separated from their truest and deepest rival.

Wait, whatta meesa saying.  Nobody gives a shit about Illinois.


July 24th, 2012 at 1:23 PM ^

Great Lakes: Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern

Great Plains: Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois


This is how I would divide the big ten.  It takes teams and divides them up by the midwest's greatest geographical features.  Also it provides the best crossover games and Penn State or MSU can easily be replaced by ND when the time comes.

Icehole Woody

July 24th, 2012 at 1:29 PM ^

An East-West split makes the most sense.  Our rivalry with Minnesota over the brown jug can take a periodic hiatus as it always has over the years.  And  I never liked the potential to play Ohio State twice a year.  It reduces the importance of The Game.


Go Blue

coastal blue

July 24th, 2012 at 4:28 PM ^

I was half-joking, half-serious.

But I think this will have an "Us against the World" effect on the Penn State fanbase, at least for the first season and have no trouble with sellouts. Sort of a "We Are Marshall" type deal where each win - especially if they open up the season with a win streak - becomes more and more significant to them, as a way to stick it to the NCAA and everyone else. 

We'll see though. A couple of 3-9 seasons and Happy Valley might lose some of its luster. 


July 24th, 2012 at 7:34 PM ^

After the first season when the Us-Against-Them novelty wears off and it's just another losing season, you will see a significant attendance decline.

Being from PA, I can tell you that Penn State is a serious pain in the ass to get to for a football game.  You have to be really motivated to go.  

Their attendance had already been declining because they raised prices too much too fast.  The well of "Penn State loyalty" is not infinitely deep.


Hardware Sushi

July 24th, 2012 at 2:23 PM ^

I don't know, not sure it's time for this yet. My response got long...sorry.

I like your divisional split based on an East/West basis. Aside from competitiveness which I will get to, it sets up decently for keeping rivalries and makes sense geographically. I just don't know if I agree with competitiveness as your rationale for changing what we have now.

Penn State, in my eyes, won't drop below seventh in Keith's "Future 7-10 Year Program Rankings" a few posts above mine. I can't see Penn State, as an overall program, dipping below Illinois (or whoever occupies spot #7 at that time). Penn State will be hurt, no doubt, but we disagree on the severity.

First, the financial side, because it's the easiest to tackle. $60 million is a lot of cheese to anyone but considering Penn State's Athletic Department numbers from USA Today's AD Database, they made net income of $16-plus million for the two years they reported. Add in the fact that the $60m is paid over 5 years, that's not crippling by any means.

Additionally, the Big Ten bowl money will be withheld from Penn State to the tune of ~$13m, or $4m over the 4-year ban. Schools rarely come out ahead on bowl trips; how much actual net income is Penn State losing by not getting a bowl payout? They aren't spending the money on 200 empty hotel rooms, 300 flights for the players and bands, and 20k non-sold tickets to Terrible Bowl Sponsored by Rotel. The financial side of this penalty is mostly a mirage that is essentially PSU tipping money.

On the field, I also think Penn State will be fine. They'll lose some casual fans and a small number that can't stand what happened, but otherwise I think they fanbase will be fine. They're loyal, instense, and most have grown up their whole life as a fan. It's no surprise the biggest focus for football fans (both of Penn State and college football fans as a whole) that the focus since the Freeh report came out is whether current players and recruits will look elsewhere. Fans of big collegiate football programs are maniacs. I can admit this.

Scholarship reductions will hurt. I agree with your point that it's unrealistic to expect PSU to compete at a USC-level while on sanctions, but I disagree that that fact means they can't field a decent to good team with 65 scholarships. A three-deep team on scholarships sits at 66. Most of the time you never hear about the other 15-20 that are on scholarship. Does it lower how many strikes you can have while at bat? Of course - you have to hope you have a higher success rate with recruits panning out.

It's tough to guess what succes Penn state will have recruiting elite prospects, but I'm not buying it. I won't expand too much because I think everyone is just conjecturing on this subject but here's my take: O'Brien was killing it when penalties were uncertain; now that punishment is known, it will only get easier each year that passes. Penn State is still Penn State; they will get good players because people (teenagers especially) have short memories.

Anyway, Penn State's schedule is still going to include 3-4 OOC cupcakes, Indiana, Purdue, and Illinois. Sometimes Minnesota. That's 5-8 wins right there if you have a competent coach and a D1 quarterback at Penn State. They still have all the institutional advantages they used to - Pennsylvania kids growing up as fans, the biggest brand in the Northeast, 100k+ Stadium, brand new weight room, great school, large fanbase.

If you want to change it so that we get Penn State in our division so that's one less team to worry about on our march to the Big Ten championship, OK, or you like the simplicity of East/West, OK, but the East is still considerably tougher than the West in your new scenario AND we lose Minnesota every year. MINNESOTA!


July 24th, 2012 at 2:56 PM ^

Obviously, we can't know, but I think you're severely underestimating the effects of the sanctions on the field and in the stands.


They'll lose some casual fans and a small number that can't stand what happened, but otherwise I think they fanbase will be fine. They're loyal, instense, and most have grown up their whole life as a fan. It's no surprise the biggest focus for football fans (both of Penn State and college football fans as a whole) that the focus since the Freeh report came out is whether current players and recruits will look elsewhere. Fans of big collegiate football programs are maniacs. I can admit this.

Penn State is locationally unique, though, in that the majority of their non-student fans come from long distances, usually upwards of two hours from the state's population centers. The metro area of State College is just over 100,000, and the next closest population center (Harrisburg) is 90 miles away. Compare this to Ann Arbor at 350,000 and 5.2 million in the Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint Combined Statistical Area. Are the same number of people going to commit to travel that often involves overnight hotel stays to watch a team that is 4-8? The closest analogue might be Illinois, who has the majority of their fanbase a couple hours away and regularly struggles to sell tickets. Obviously, Penn State football and Illinois football are different beasts, but we're also talking about a much, much bigger stadium. That place is going to have tens of thousands of empty seats if Penn State is poor and is playing another mediocre Big 10 team.

And because of its isolated geography on the far eastern edge of the conference, Penn State is less able to make up any difference from traveling fans from other teams (the savior here might be the relative proximity of NYC at 5 hours, allowing displaced Big 10 fans there to see their teams if ticket sales fall off).


A three-deep team on scholarships sits at 66. Most of the time you never hear about the other 15-20 that are on scholarship. Does it lower how many strikes you can have while at bat? Of course - you have to hope you have a higher success rate with recruits panning out.

Those 15-20 are also your developmental players, the guys with the potential to become solid 2 year starters as redshirt juniors and seniors. With the sanctions, the ability to redshirt them goes down, because they're going to need the vast majority of players taking up a scholarship slot to contribute. They'll also end up throwing those players in before they're ready, which can either lead to their rapid development or rapid burnout (as we've seen the past five years, early playing time is not always beneficial to a player's long-term success

O'Brien was killing it when penalties were uncertain; now that punishment is known, it will only get easier each year that passes. Penn State is still Penn State; they will get good players because people (teenagers especially) have short memories.

The short memories of teenagers would seem to weigh against the ease of recruiting to Penn State. If teenagers see a poor Penn State for multiple years, that's what they're going to go on. And I think we're going to see a Penn State that loses almost every game against the top of the conference and goes .500 at best against the bottom. They'll be competing with Purdue and Minnesota for recruits. For years, they've underperformed on the recruiting trail. O'Brien seemed to be turning it around but these sanctions are likely to kill this class. One thing sure, this year and this class are key. If Penn State has a decent year this year and if he holds on to Hackenberg and Breneman, O'Brien can likely sell the program's ability to develop players. If not, it could get really bad.

Hardware Sushi

July 24th, 2012 at 4:57 PM ^

I'll try to keep this one shorter and condense them so hopefully they don't get too simple :)

Block quote 1 - The two biggest population centers with Penn State fans - Philly and Pittsburgh - are both 3 hours away from State College. Those metro areas hold approximately 9 million people. It isn't an hour like most metro Detroit locations to Ann Arbor, but it's not like a majority of Penn State fans are making a trip longer than this. Everywhere else in Pennsylvania is about the same distance or closer. Will they sell out every game? Maybe not, but I find it hard to believe they'll fill Beaver Stadium with 40k fans. I just don't see them dipping below 85-90% capacity. Even so, if I'm Penn State's AD and we do have 40k fans showing up, I create a program to allocate tickets to high school teams, charities, and other groups that will show up to the game even if they're getting in for free. More people in the seats, spin it as a charitable act (even if it isn't 100% altruistic).

Block quote 2 - This is the area where I agree with you most. It's tough to get players experience prior to becoming a starter with that few numbers. I think how many players stick around before the 2012 season starts will be the barometer for how well Penn State can weather the reductions. It will be tough, but (from my quick research so maybe this number is off) you can only dress 70 for Big Ten games anyway. Michigan used (by my quick count - I'm sure someone has the exact number) 54 players in a game last year one way or another. It makes us feel better to have 2-deep upperclassmen and develop the 40 other players on scholarship, but in practical terms, they won't use all their scholarship players over the course of a season anyway. Picking up 15 3-stars each year will still put Penn State on better footing than Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, maybe Illinois and Northwestern.

Block quote 3 - I think the short-term memory of the scandal and punishment are much easier to forget for a recruit than a 100k person stadium, the facilities on campus, the atmosphere on gameday and the PSU guys still playing in the NFL. Michigan hasn't won a Big Ten title since the 2013 recruits were 7- and 8-years old, but the idea of Michigan as an iconic program still exists. I think the same can be expected at Penn State. I also think Penn State will have enough Adam Breneman's and likewise talented kids that grew up as Penn State fans with Penn State parents that will still be interested in attending.


July 25th, 2012 at 10:07 AM ^

Brief counterpoint to point 1...

At three hours, you're talking a six hour round trip, and that's without gameday traffic, which I've heard is very bad at Penn State. Let's put it at 8 hours driving time from either Pittsburgh or Philly. That's a substantial time commitment for people to make if they have little hope that PSU is going to win. And are you going to commit to do that 7-8 times a year after two losing seasons? Are students going to turn out in the huge numbers they do now to see a 3-9 team?  Now, PSU has a substantial enough fan base that I doubt you'd ever see attendance down to 40,000. But it wouldn't surprise me, if the next two seasons don't go well, so see it down around 60-70k  in year 3 of the probation. And 60,000 in an 108,000 person stadium is going to look pretty empty. PSU will also likely struggle to sell season tix and generate their version of the mandatory donation to the AD to purchase season tix.

And then, even as the sanctions wane, it's difficult sell recruits on the program when the stadium is 1/3 empty with very little crowd excitement.

I think a lot rests on these first two years before the sanctions really take their toll. If PSU can maintain some semblance of success with a couple home upsets, they likely retain their crowd and can weather the storm somewhat successfully. If not, it's going to be bleak just as the sanctions really cripple the program and could cause significant struggles lasting beyond a decade.


July 25th, 2012 at 12:08 PM ^

344,000 is the census count of the Ann Arbor MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) which I assume includes Pittsfield Township, Ypsi, Dexter, Saline, Chelsea, etc. 115k is the population within Ann Arbor's city limits. For comparison, State College's population is 42,000 with the MSA just over 100k.