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Midweek Musings - My Kingdom for Balanced Divisions

Even just a little evenness would be nice

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Purdue vs Michigan Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2022 Big Ten Conference Championship Game (CCG) in the rearview mirror, I think it’s time we discuss divisional imbalance once again.

When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2012, the Big Ten adopted divisions for the first time. They were (hilariously) named Legends and Leaders, and were broken up as such:

Legends and Leaders

Legends Leaders
Legends Leaders
Iowa Illinois
Michigan Indiana
Michigan State Ohio State
Minnesota Penn State
Nebraska Purdue
Northwestern Wisconsin

The Big Ten shunned a geographic split, and instead opted to balance geography with power. Naming conventions aside, it actually worked. Aside from splitting up Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State, it also brought in a handful of protected cross-division games:

  • Ohio State - Michigan
  • Wisconsin - Minnesota
  • Penn State - Nebraska
  • Illinois - Northwestern
  • Purdue - Iowa
  • Indiana - Michigan State

The result of this original split was a competitive conference that kept various power levels split up, protected historical rivalries, and introduced a handful of new ones.

The best thing that this setup brought was parity when it came to the CCG.

In 2011 and 2012, Wisconsin of the Leaders won as back-to-back B1G champs, defeating Michigan State and Nebraska, respectively. The 2011 game had a final score of 42-39, while the 2012 game had a laughable 70-31 tally. In 2013, Michigan State of the Legends took down Ohio State 34-24.

Then Maryland and Rutgers joined, adding two more east coast teams to the conference, and the B1G did away with Legends and Leaders. They finally succumbed to the geographic pressure of their sprawling conference, and split the teams up east-west. Ideally, that would again preserve regional rivalries, while also making travel easier for teams playing against division foes. Here are the divisions as they stand:

East and West

East West
East West
Indiana Illinois
Maryland Iowa
Michigan Minnesota
Michigan State Nebraska
Ohio State Northwestern
Penn State Purdue
Rutgers Wisconsin

We all know the problems inherent in this setup, but in case you’re just emerging from a 9-year coma, let me elucidate. Since the turn of the century, there have really only been five teams with any sort of sustained success in the Big Ten:

  • Michigan
  • Michigan State
  • Ohio State
  • Penn State
  • Wisconsin

Other teams have had the occasional run to the top of the rankings, including Iowa and Northwestern, but those have typically been flashes in a pan for a couple years, rather than ongoing, continued success. Looking at that list of five teams, can you quickly compare to the table above and see the problem?

Four of the five best teams in the conference reside in the East. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the East is undefeated in the B1G CCG. Since 2014, nine (9) CCGs have been played, and the East has won every single one, by an average score of 36-16.

To put it bluntly, the realigned divisions have been a disaster. The West is typically one good team and a whole host of mediocrity. Meanwhile, the East tends to cannibalize itself. Ohio State has done its best to stay above the fray, but most every other team has suffered random losses because of the week-to-week grind that is the B1G East.

Now, we’re left with a ray of sunshine on the horizon, in the shape of conference expansion. In 2024, 10 years after the last expansion, USC and UCLA are set to join the conference. Whereas the last two teams to join were east coast, these two are as far west as you can get on the contiguous US mainland.

What will that portend? Assuredly, the Big Ten is going to redo the divisions. The question becomes what will those divisions look like? Two divisions of 8 teams each means each team would only play two non-division teams per year (assuming the B1G sticks with nine conference games). It would take a full 4 years to play each team in the other division once, and 8 years to do both a home and away against them. For members of the supposed same conference, that seems a bit sketchy.

Geography is now a bigger consideration, as Lincoln-Piscataway is one thing, but Los Angeles-Piscataway is something else entirely. Shoot, even Lincoln-Los Angeles is a headache.

I’ll have more on conference expansion and realignment in the off-season. But no matter what happens, I hope that Kevin Warren learns from the mistakes of his predecessor, and comes up with a good, balanced way to divvy up the Big Ten. Because one division running the table like it has is bad for the conference, and in turn bad for the sport of college football.