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Midweek Musings: The Big Ten Got the Divisions Right

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Wisconsin has ruled the West, while the East cannibalizes itself - but that’s perfectly okay

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome, friends, to a new weekly piece here on Black Shoe Diaries. Each week I’ll hit you up with some hot takes on the sporting world - and you can tell me just how wrong I am!

It’s the off season, which means actual football discussion is usually minimal-to-none. Other than recruiting news or the occasional medical report, the stretch between the Blue-White Game and fall practice beginning is a dull time for football fans. A time for reflection on the past season, expectations for the next season, and introspection as a fan.

Lately, I’ve been pondering something: just how bad did the Big Ten mess up when it switched from Legends and Leaders to East and West? Most people here will tell you just how imbalanced the East-West setup has been since its inception. They’ll point out that Wisconsin has won the West 3 of the 4 years the divisions have been in place - and that the East has won all four conference championship games, by an average score of 35-16. They’ll also point out that the Big Ten champion has been left out of the playoffs the last two years, in no small part because each of those champions has had two losses. If only the East hadn’t eaten itself, the champ would have been in the playoffs!

Given some of these stats, as well as the fact that the preseason prognostications have Wisconsin running roughshod through the West again, it would seem to lend credence to an ongoing argument: move Michigan State to the West, and the divisions will be more balanced.

At the moment, there are four top 15 teams in the East, according to the Coaches Poll: #3 Ohio State, #9 Penn State, #12 Michigan State, and #14 Michigan. Compare that with the West, which only has Wisconsin at number 7. Due to its geographic location (no way PSU all the way to the east would move) and its ranking among rivalries (The Game will trump all), Michigan State is the logical choice to relocate. Move Michigan State over, and you’ve got a better split of top teams.

But who would you exchange the Spartans for? The only protected crossover still in existence is the Old Oaken Bucket between Indiana and Purdue. Bringing Purdue over means exchanging a mid-level team for a top-level team, and gets rid of all protected crossovers. Doing so would mean your divisions look like this:

East

Indiana

Maryland

Michigan

Ohio State

Penn State

Purdue

Rutgers

West

Illinois

Iowa

Michigan State

Minnesota

Nebraska

Northwestern

Wisconsin

At the top tier, you have OSU, PSU, and UM in the East, with MSU and Wisconsin in the West, which seems pretty good. But the middle to bottom is where things get a bit dicey.

The middle tier in the West is comprised of Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern - teams that have all had some bad years, sure, but routinely put together quality seasons. Iowa won the B1G West just 3 years ago, and throttled the Buckeyes last year (after almost beating PSU as well). Nebraska has had some questionable coaching decisions, but if anyone can turn the Cornhuskers around, it’s Scott Frost. And Northwestern has had two 10-win seasons in the past 3 years. That’s a solid middle tier, who can rise to challenge MSU and Wisconsin with regularity.

How about the East? Purdue and . . . ? Even Purdue is a little questionable - they’re trending in the right direction under Jeff Brohm, but they have yet to show it on the field. Can you safely say that any of the other East teams can regularly challenge the top tier?

Which leaves us with the bottom. In the West you have Illinois, which is currently a tire fire, and Minnesota. I’m not saying Minnesota is going to start challenging Wisconsin any time soon, but they’re much closer to the middle pack than the bottom.

And in the East, you have Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers. In the past four years, Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers have gone a combined 3-33 against OSU, PSU, and UM. The average score of those games has been 44-15. All three of those wins came in 2014, the first year that Rutgers and Maryland played in the Big Ten.

And therein lies the problem - the top of the East is very, very good. The bottom of the East is very, very bad. Switching a top team from the East for a middle team from the West does nothing to significantly alter the story, at least as far as the East is concerned. The big three remaining in the East are still going to beat each other up, while feasting on the lower teams. In the short term, the West’s story may change slightly by having Michigan State push Wisconsin for the division title, but they’ll already be facing challenges from a tough middle tier.

So does switching Michigan State with Purdue suddenly make the divisions balanced? In the short term, perhaps. If it could be enacted today, for the 2018 season, Wisconsin is no longer the runaway favorite to win the West. The East is still just as lopsided as ever, however.

And in the long term, you may very well end up with the West being significantly tougher. Imagine Wisconsin and MSU, with improved Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern, plus Minnesota nipping along at their heels. Any of those teams have the chance for 9+ win seasons. That would be 5-6 very tough teams in one division.

Compare that with the East, which would still be 3 tough teams, one mediocre team in Purdue, and 3 bottom-dwellers.

No. It’s better to let the course play out. Give it time, and the West will begin to balance itself out. Jim Delaney knows this, which is why there has been exactly zero discussion on realigning the divisions. A few tough years for the West is not enough to say the divisions are so imbalanced that they need to be switched. They’re perfect as they are.

But what do you think? Am I wrong? Should the divisions be changed, or is it better to ride it out? Take the poll and let me know in the comments below!

Poll

Should the East and West divisions be changed?

This poll is closed

  • 44%
    Yes - swap Michigan State and Purdue
    (303 votes)
  • 46%
    No - they’ll balance out in the long term
    (316 votes)
  • 9%
    Maybe - add comments below
    (64 votes)
683 votes total Vote Now