Monday, December 21, 2009

Big Ten Division Projections

Given the financial uncertainty that any non-Notre Dame addition would bring to the conference, there is no guarantee that this query into expansion will have a different result than the last two. While certain outspoken figureheads within the conference—most notably Barry Alvarez and Joe Paterno—have expressed a desire to expand, expansion is, by no means, a sure thing especially considering those likely to be at least somewhat opposed are Michigan, Ohio State, and the Big Ten Commissioner. So, any speculation of a non-Notre Dame addition needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

There has been much consternation on the interwebs about the difficulty of breaking the conference into two divisions should a 12th team be added. Nobody wants to see a repeat of the Big XII mess that has resulted in two disproportionate football divisions. The Big Ten needs to learn from the Big XII’s mistakes and make sure that forming two evenly matched divisions is the #1 priority.

Fortunately, I think that will prove to be a fairly easy endeavor if the Big Ten does it right. In fact, it doesn’t even matter which university the Big Ten adds. The dynamics are already in place to form divisions that make sense by virtually every measure. Before I get into what those divisional breakdowns should be, I want to identify some of the elements that need to be considered.

1). In my opinion, the key to perfecting the divisional breakdowns is to put Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions. If the Big Ten adds a 12th team and moves to the two divisions/championship game format, then the Michigan-Ohio State game will suffer no matter how the divisions are broken up. If they are in the same division, then they can’t play for the championship. If they are in opposite divisions then that presents the very likely possibility of rematches in back to back weeks or, even worse, moving “The Game” to October. The Big Ten does not want a situation like the Big XII where Texas and Oklahoma are in the same division making it impossible for divisional competitiveness and for the two best teams in the conference to play for the championship. As for wanting to avoid the possibility of two Michigan-Ohio State games in one season, I’m not sure why that should even be a consideration. Any time a conference plays a championship game, the possibility of rematches are unavoidable whether it’s Michigan-Ohio State or Illinois-Northwestern.

2). Two equally competitive divisions should be a primary goal.

3). Traditional rivalries should be protected as much as possible.

4). Although it is certainly possible to simply put together competitive divisions irrespective of geography, the goal for a number of reasons should be to accomplish competitiveness with two distinct geographic regions.

If having geographically meaningful divisions is a priority, then there is really only two ways to do it. The Big Ten can opt for a North/South breakdown like the Big XII, or an East/West breakdown like the SEC. The only way to see if either works geographically and competitively is to write it out. I’ll be using Pittsburgh as the 12th team in the following scenarios. It’s pretty obvious right away that an East/West breakdown won’t work. Ohio St., Michigan, Penn St., Michigan St., Pittsburgh and Indiana would be the “East Division” and Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Northwestern would be the “West Division.” That would present an even more egregious talent discrepancy between divisions than what the Big XII faces. So, East/West is out.

The other option is North/South. The six northern most schools—all north of the 41st parallel—are Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern. The six southern most schools—all south of the 41st parallel— would be Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Indiana, and Pittsburgh. Since all of the likely 12th-team candidates are south of the 41st parallel, this layout works for any addition whether it be Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers or another school.

A North/South breakdown would be a “slam dunk” competitively. Michigan and Ohio State—historically speaking—are the two best football programs in the conference. Northwestern and Indiana—historically speaking—are the two worst football programs in the conference. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, and Minnesota are very similar to Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Illinois, respectively. By sheer coincidence, I don’t think it’s possible to breakdown the conference more evenly. Geographically and competitively, a North/South divisional breakdown works very well.

Of course, competitiveness and geographic structure aren’t the only considerations. Maintaining existing rivalries is equally important. Fortunately, it looks like a North/South breakdown does a pretty good job of preserving rivalries. There are 11 “permanent” rivalry games acknowledged by the Big Ten. A North/South divisional breakdown would preserve all but four of those games (and since Northwestern-Purdue is a rivalry in name only, it really ends up being all but three).

(games in “green” are inherent to a North/South breakdown; games in “red” are not)

Clearly, Michigan-Ohio State, Michigan State-Penn State, and Illinois-Northwestern are games that absolutely need to be played. Fortunately, the Big Ten would simply need to follow the precedent set by other 12-team conferences which allow for interdivisional games to be protected. For instance, Florida plays LSU every year despite being in different divisions in the SEC. With such a large number of rivalries that would be inherent to a North/South breakdown, it would be very easy for the Big Ten to protect the handful that wouldn’t be.

It seems pretty apparent that having “North” and “South” regions would result in two competitively balanced divisions that make sense geographically while maintaining most existing rivalries. If Pittsburgh is extended an invitation, it would seamlessly transition into a division with longtime rival, Penn State. If it happens to be Notre Dame, then Iowa would move to the “South” division and Notre Dame would play in the “North” where it would maintain existing rivalries with Michigan and Michigan State. Virtually any addition would easily fit into the North/South template.


Ottolini said...

Awesome. If it broke down north/south I'd be excited no matter who
The 12th school was. I was looking east/west and didn't even consider this. Having said that, if I was OSU, I'd fight the north/south split with everything I had. Once we're 'back' we play in the championship game every year in that scenario. OSU, not as much. I think Penn State>Wisconsin and Pitt>msu. If ND joined, thus shifting things a bit, that would provide the most competitive balance in my opinion.

J.R. Ewing said...

I'll lump my comments on the first two chapters into this one comment. Well done as always. And second post about Texas out of three! If only Texas were located in the Great Lakes region, but alas I do not think we'd leave the fertile recruiting ground, ditch our state rivals, and require plane trips for team and fans to join the Big 10.

Nebraska on the other hand seems like it might consider. Since the expansion from the Big 8 to Big 12 stripped it of its annual OU rivalry, it seems they don't have as much to lose as most. Except Iowa State and Mizzou which have even less to lose.

I think you're spot on with the divisions. You have to be a little careful in dividing up powers, because those can change over time. When the Big 12 was formed, Baylor was one year removed from a co-conference title, Texas A&M was the clear class of the newly formed South, both Kansas schools won 10 games, and Nebraska hadn't lost a conference game in three years. A couple of key coaching hires later and all of the sudden it's Texas and OU that are too good for their own company.

As for the schedule, I agree it makes sense to have some permanent matchups in the Big 10, but it didn't (and probably still doesn't) for the Big 12. While the Nebraska/OU rivalry was lost, that's about all you could point to, the SWC teams had rarely played anyone besides Colorado in decades (besides Texas vs. OU). You'd have to find someone for Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, etc. to play in the other division that wouldn't be natural. The SEC has permanent rivals, and that's now costing us no Florida/Alabama regular season matchups for years to come. One thing I wish the Big 12 would consider is going to a 9 game conference schedule. Then it's 2 years on, only 1 off for the interdivision matchups. And I'd like to think we'd get one less Florida Atlantic or North Texas meaningless game. I think the Pac 10 gets an annual SoS boost by their setup, seems like every year I look down the computer rankings and see half of them with Top 10 toughest schedules.

Be wary of the much envied conference title game. It can cost you as much as help. Ohio State benefited by being in the clubhouse in 2007 and watching teams crumble around them. If a 12th team doesn't present itself, I would recommend the Pac 10 model, go to 9 conference games for SoS, and spread the season out until the first weekend in December to keep the teams fresh, physically and in voters minds.

Whew, long enough. Out!

Jake said...


Penn State is tough for sure but Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue are pretty easy teams for OSU. Pittsburgh is better this year but I’m not convinced that the stache can turn that program into anything better than it was this season which is still well below OSU. I actually think Michigan would have a slightly tougher division. I think I’d rather have Penn St, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Purdue, and Indiana. IMO, Northwestern > Indiana, Minnesota=Purdue, Iowa> Illinois, Pittsburgh=Michigan State (until stache proves otherwise), and Wiscy=Penn St. (I haven’t looked but I’d be surprised if PSU has been more successful than Wiscy over the last 15 years). Of course, a lot depends on how consistent teams like Iowa and Purdue become.

Let's just hope the Big Ten gets it right. My confidence in governing bodies doing the right thing is not all that high.


Good points on the landscape of the original Big XII. Historically, the Big Ten hasn’t been as volatile as the Big XII for some reason. Other than a few down years here and there, the pecking order is almost always the same. Hopefully moving to two divisions wouldn’t change the dynamics of the division. I’m not sure why it would but it happened in the Big XII.
My next post is going to be on the ramifications of a championship game. It all comes down to money vs. pride. It brings in cash but at the expense of the success of the conference.

Peace out!


Powered by Blogger