In a very informative interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Barry Alvarez gives us a bunch of interesting tidbits about the divisional alignment and scheduling process. For those of us who have been trying to figure this puzzle out, the biggest news is confirmation that Iowa and Wisconsin will be split into separate divisions. Having said that, he dropped a few other revealing thoughts on how the divisional framework was being filled in:
Alvarez implied that it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how the 12 schools will be arranged in the two divisions. He said there are four distinct tiers of teams, led by the four that have won national championships in the past 25 years: Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State.
The next level has UW and Iowa “within a hair” of one another, according to Alvarez.
This may come as disappointing news to those who have been trying to make the case that a Big Ten West anchored by Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin would be competitively equal to a Big Ten East featuring Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan--especially since Alvarez began the process with the opinion that the top six teams in the conference had separated themselves from the rest.
Of course, the hottest question in divisional alignment right now is whether or not to split up Michigan and Ohio State; however, this is a pretty boring issue for non-Michighio State fans, since the big four will be split 2-2 no matter what, and will almost certainly end up with protected cross-division rivalries with each other anyways.
The question I find more interesting is where the break between tier 3 and tier 4 occurs, since that determination could have much bigger effects on the final divisional picture. After the jump, I'll take a closer look at this question.
The ADs and other officials making these decisions are no doubt well-educated in all the relative strengths of each team; according to Alvarez, “We have volumes to look at — records over the last 20 years … bowl records, non-conference records, non-conference opponents’ records, conference records, everything." While I'm a slightly obsessive fan, I don't have the time nor interest to delve that deeply into the process. I do, however, have the winning percentages (both overall and conference-only) of all the Big Ten teams since 1993, thanks to stassen.com. Here is what the bottom half of the conference looks like:
Overall Winning Percentage (first number indicates national rank):
Conference Winning Percentage:
Based on what we see here, I would put the break right in the middle of this group, with Purdue, Michigan State, and Northwestern forming "Tier 3" and Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana forming "Tier 4." Minnesota's overall winning percentage would seem to put them closer to the Tier 3 teams than to Illinois and Indiana, which could present an argument for including Minnesota in Tier 3; however, Glen Mason scheduled more than his share of non-conference cream-puffs (that's softer than a cupcake, for those of you keeping score), and that fact will discredit their relative strength of overall record. I don't think anyone would argue for the final alternative, which would be to consider Northwestern part of Tier 4.
So, with that, it's pretty clear how the ADs are breaking down the four tiers:
Tier 1: Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan
Tier 2: Iowa, Wisconsin
Tier 3: Purdue, Michigan State, Northwestern
Tier 4: Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana
There's only one problem in all of this: Tiers 3 and 4 both have odd numbers of teams. That means one division is going to be hamstrung with two Tier 4 teams, while the other division will only have one. I'm not sure how the ADs will correct for this. Give the weaker division (i.e. the one that gets two Tier 4 teams) Minnesota and Illinois, while giving the stronger division the weakest team (Indiana)? Treat Minnesota as a de facto Tier 3 team? It's not particularly clear.
Anyway, here are a couple proposals based on this info:
Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue
Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois.
This is probably my favorite breakdown. The obvious crossovers are PSU-OSU, UM-MSU, Iowa-Nebraska, and Wisconsin-Minnesota. The competitive balance is fantastic; even if Michigan stays down for an extended period, Iowa and Northwestern are strong enough to at least keep OSU on its toes (not to mention Illinois, who seems to come up with random upsets of OSU more frequently than most). Every single current season-ending rivalry stays intact, and Wisconsin--who has sadly been a wallflower during the last dance for many years--gets the season-ender they've been dreaming of in Nebraska. The biggest short-term casualty would be the loss of a protected game between Iowa and Wisconsin, but with the addition of a ninth game in 2015--oh yeah, I forgot to mention, Alvarez confirmed that, too--we'll likely see two protected crossovers, and at the top of that list will be Iowa-Wisconsin. As a PSU fan, the only downside is that based on the current strength of all the programs, a path to a conference championship will always include a second date with OSU, which would obviously be no easy task. Still, this is the alignment I would most like to see. However, if the sky falls and the Michigan-Ohio State creepy lovefest enters a trial separation period, here's what I think we'll see:
Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois
Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana
This one still works pretty well. The last week of the season doesn't quite look the same without "the game," but ending the season with PSU-OSU and UM-MSU should keep everyone's rivalry bad blood at an appropriate level. Again, the rest of the season-enders are kept intact, with the welcome addition of Wisconsin-Nebraska. Protected crossovers get a little messy though--at least for as long as there is only one per team. OSU-Michigan is obvious. Wisconsin-Minnesota is similarly obvious. PSU-Nebraska would be the ratings cash cow, but wouldn't Iowa-Nebraska and PSU-MSU make more sense from a rivalry perspective? I think that for as long as there's only one protected crossover, the latter arrangement is the one we'd see. This is the sort of problem that could (and probably would) be easily solved with the addition of a second protected crossover in 2015: in addition to those already identified, we could have PSU-Nebraska, Michigan-Minnesota, and Iowa-Wisconsin.