Drawing Up Divisions in the New Big Ten

With the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams, divisions will need to be drawn up so that the Big Ten can have a championship game. The Big Ten has stated that competitive balance and preserving rivalries will be the biggest considerations, and that geography will also be a factor. Using these considerations, two basic setups emerge as the most logical solutions. The first is a simple East-West split:

EastIndianaMichiganMichigan StateOhio StatePenn StatePurdue

The second would swap Penn State for Illinois or Northwestern. This would be done in the name of competitive balance, as each division would have two big names. For our purposes, we can assume that Illinois would be put in the East, as they have a protected game against Northwestern, a trophy game with Ohio State, and absolutely hate Michigan (which is hilarious, but I digress).

Crisler*IndianaIllinoisMichiganMichigan StateOhio StatePurdue
PaternoIowaMinnesotaNebraskaNorthwesternPenn StateWisconsin

Both divisions allow for reasonably good competitive balance and protect the majority of current rivalries in the Big Ten. The first set of divisions does a slightly better job of protecting second tier rivalries, including the manufactured Penn State rivalries and the Illinois-Northwestern game, while the second set manages to ensure better long term competitive balance by dividing the big names in the conference.

This leads us to consider a huge factor impacting the formation of divisions, namely the desire to appease every team in the conference and make as many teams happy as possible. The first set of divisions does not do a very good job of this, as Indiana and Purdue would have a very difficult time becoming bowl eligible on a regular or even semi-regular basis in a division with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. Meanwhile, Nebraska would likely prefer to have at least one other name team to play on a yearly basis. Penn State would likely be their preference, considering that they have more history with Penn State than any other of the name teams. For these reasons, the second set of divisions is superior to the first set, as no team would have many strenuous objections to the setup. Penn State would be unhappy though, as they would prefer to play Ohio State, at least, every year, and the Paterno division would not like the fact that Ohio State would have an easy road to the championship game in the near term and that Michigan and Ohio State would head a very top heavy division in the long term.

For these reasons, I believe that the optimal solution can be found by adding a permanent cross-divisional rival, the model currently used by the ACC and SEC. In the case of the second set of divisions, this would be a highly contentious issue, as at least one of the top four schools in the Paterno division (Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, or Wisconsin) would get to play Illinois, Indiana, or Purdue on a yearly basis, something that would be highly damaging to competitive balance, which is the only reason to create the second set of divisions in the first place. On the other hand, using the following set of rivalries, the first set of divisions could be enhanced:

EastIndianaMichiganMichigan StateOhio StatePenn StatePurdue
Cross-divisional rivals are listed in the same column.

These rivalries leave issues of competitive balance, but do manage to make every team happier with the arrangement. For one thing, every currently protected rivalry would be maintained in this setup. Meanwhile, Indiana and Purdue's chances of becoming bowl eligible would be improved, as would Illinois and Northwestern's, Penn State would get to play a team that could conceivably become their biggest rival in Nebraska, Michigan and Minnesota could play for the Little Brown Jug every year, and the string of exciting games between Ohio State and Iowa could continue. The only teams who wouldn't get anything much out of permanent rivalries are Wisconsin and Michigan State, two teams that would get most everything they want anyways out of the divisional setup, as all of their rivalries and trophy games would be preserved and their divisions would be nice from a geographical standpoint. Meanwhile, the only team that would face a significantly more difficult schedule from year to year than anybody else would be Penn State, who would have to play the three big name teams every year the team that would be the unhappiest in a divisional setup designed to ensure competitive balance. As such, they would not be likely to complain.

Now, having written all of this, it should be noted that these divisions could easily be short-lived. I say this because I believe that we just experienced the first round of conference realignment this offseason and that many more changes could be on their way. I have a post in progress on the issue that will be released after more information becomes available on the deal that saved the Big 12, but it should suffice to say that the Big 12 is still highly unstable and between the Big Ten's interest in Texas, the SEC's interest in Texas A&M and Oklahoma, and the Pac 10's interest in virtually everyone in that conference, or at least their willingness to take on deadweight teams in order to get Texas, along with a variety of other factors in play, could easily lead to more massive changes to the conferences in college football.

*Fritz Crisler is perhaps the most important coach in college football history, as he revolutionized how football is played today with the advent of the two-platoon system in football (namely the use of offensive and defensive specialists). He is also the reason that our helmet has wings.

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