Big Ten Realignment: How the Conference Should Handle Divisions in 2014

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Big Ten Realignment: How the Conference Should Handle Divisions in 2014
The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The latest waves of college football conference realignment have slowed down following another big move by the Big Ten, this time to the east coast to grab Maryland and Rutgers. There was a feeling that Penn State may leave the league if the conference moved more to the west and left the Nittany Lions out on the east island surrounded by ACC and Big East teams.

However, the move was likely all about potential money, and more specifically television money. The Big Ten is trying to reach major markets such as Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York by adding these teams. In addition, the Big Ten may not be done yet, as evidenced by comments of Jim Delany and other officials around the league.

But for now, the Big Ten is "content" to stay at 14 until the landscape shifts once again. Assuming that the conference makes it to 2014 with this alignment of members (and the planning must begin in early 2013 for that possibility), then the divisions must be split once again.

How should the Big Ten split the divisions this time? Competitive balance was the name of the game when the conference went to 12 teams, but that has not turned out so well thanks to items out of the conference's control such as the sanctions at Penn State and now the loss of Bret Bielema at Wisconsin.

Here are a few options to consider:

 

Option 1: Legends/Leaders Tack-On

The only other major conference to make the jump to 14 teams is the SEC, although the ACC is headed in that direction as well by 2014. The SEC decided to not mess with division alignments that had been set for nearly two decades, even though Missouri and Texas A&M both extended the territory of the conference to the west. Instead, Missouri got moved to the East and A&M got moved to the West.

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Future B1G battle?
The Big Ten could be so enamored with the job done putting together Legends and Leaders that the conference leaders may want to keep the divisions the same. If so, then Rutgers and Maryland will need to be split, and one will have to go mostly westward to the Legends Division. Right now, the Legends Division is stronger and looks to stay that way for a while.

Rutgers has a better football program than Maryland right now, so Rutgers goes to the Leaders and Maryland goes to the Legends. Every other team stays the same.

Legends: Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, MSU, Northwestern, Nebraska, Maryland

Leaders: Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, PSU, OSU, Wisconsin, Rutgers

The major benefit to this plan is that every team will be guaranteed a game on the east coast once every two years. This could be a profitable endeavor for the conference, but it may not make much sense forcing all that cross-country travel. Plus, one of the major reasons to bring these teams in was to give Penn State regional rivals, and splitting the teams does not serve that goal.

 

Option 2: Proper Geographical Split

It appears that the fans of the Big Ten conference have spoken loud and clear about wanting the focus to be more geography-based this time around. Having Wisconsin in the Leaders Division may have made sense in a strictly competitive-balance standpoint, but the Badgers stick out like a sore thumb in the middle of Legends Division territory.

That has left Wisconsin away from traditional rivals Minnesota and Iowa and has added a larger travel burden overall. That is the first thing that must change in a proper geographical split. The primary question is which state splits schools between the two divisions: Illinois, Indiana or Michigan. Three teams from the six in those states must go to each division in an east-west split, so one state will be divided.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Splitting Illinois and leaving the Indiana schools in the Leaders Division would keep things mostly the same, as only Wisconsin would change divisions. That may seem like a bad idea for competitive balance, but it would disrupt what has been set in motion the least. If Indiana or Michigan is split, then the other of those states would send both teams to the Leaders Division.

Although it seems more likely that the Illinois split would be done, I think this is the opportunity to put Michigan and Ohio State together, as they belong. The Indiana schools get split so that Purdue stays in the same division as close teams Northwestern and Illinois, and the divisions break out as follows:

East: Maryland, Rutgers, PSU, OSU, MSU, Michigan, Indiana

West: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue

The risk of this alignment would be an imbalance of power and interest, as three big-name brands would be placed in the East Division. However, this would put a ton on the line every year when Michigan and Ohio State meet, and that may be enough to let this happen and see if it works.

Plus, the West Division would have all three of the teams that have played in the conference championship so far. This would perhaps not be as lopsided as it seems on paper.

 

Option 3: Competitive Balance, Part 2

If all the "smartest guys in the room" figured out that the best thing for the conference was competitive balance, then perhaps this approach should be reused with a bit more focus on where programs are headed currently.

The top tier of the Big Ten appears to be Michigan and Ohio State, followed closely by Nebraska and Wisconsin. Those four teams need to be split evenly, and then the rest will fall into place. A second tier of the conference is likely composed of Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa and Penn State. That leaves a final six pack of Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, Northwestern and Purdue.

Considering that the league does want to honor geography as well as competitive balance, Rutgers and Penn State will go into one division while Michigan State and Iowa go into the other. Although it makes sense with geography to move Michigan and Ohio State into the division with Rutgers and Penn State, I doubt Jim Delany will ignore the movement of both teams to a tier above all others. These two teams must be split.

To change things up, Ohio State and Nebraska get shipped into the division with Penn State and Rutgers, while Michigan and Wisconsin join Iowa and Michigan State. Then the final pieces can fall into place from the lower tier and we end up with the following divisions.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin takes all comers
Leaders: Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois

Legends: Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern

This split has the same problem of putting three big-name brands out of four in the same division. Plus, the travel on Nebraska would be absolutely brutal during division play, which could cause some strife with a big-name program. That may not be acceptable for the Cornhuskers, who moved to this conference but likely wanted to keep primarily Midwestern rivals.

 

Option 4: Split the Rivals

If Legends and Leaders is as meaningless and hollow as most fans seem to think, then perhaps the divisions should be split in an incomprehensible way. After all, this has worked for the ACC for years, and nobody is fighting for Atlantic and Coastal to change. Having some fun making fans around the nation forget who is in what division could keep the league interesting and quirky to outsiders.

The best way to do this is to take all the natural geographic pairs of teams and split them up. These pairs include: Iowa-Nebraska, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Michigan-Michigan State, Purdue-Indiana, Ohio State-Penn State and Maryland-Rutgers. Pick one team out of a hat from each pair to go into a division, luck of the draw, see what happens.

That would make for a great television special if nothing else. Call it "The Decision, Part II." Here's what came up with some coin flips, for good measure.

Legends: Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland

Leaders: Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Rutgers

Of course, the problems with this plan are plentiful. There's absolutely no sense to the division alignments, although rivalry weekend would be great every single year for cross-division protected games.

Still, this is but a pipe dream that would allow us all to poke fun at the smartest men in the room. Sadly, it has about as much chance of happening as the world ending at the end of the Mayan calendar.

 

Option 5: Prepare for the Future

If it is true that the Big Ten is going to 16 teams, then the conference likely knows what the next targets are. After all, Rutgers was a target when Nebraska was picked up, but the conference had no need to move beyond 12 at that time. Texas and Oklahoma would be great, but it seems far more likely that the ACC will be raided by the Big Ten again next time.

Plus, the contiguous states have more options when going east. Many say North Carolina and Georgia Tech would be on the top of the list. I think Georgia Tech is going too far south for this league, so North Carolina will likely be paired with another school like Virginia, which has strong academics and keeps a nice presence along the eastern seaboard.

With the Big Ten opening an office on the east coast to be a secondary office to the home in Chicago, it seems that the likelihood of adding teams like Kansas or Kentucky are not likely. As a result, the divisions could be set up now to make it easy to incorporate the two new east teams in an eastern division later.

Which Option should the Big Ten Follow?

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Obviously, the four new teams plus Ohio State and Penn State would be six of the eight teams heading to that division, and then an evaluation would need to be made on whether to keep the Indiana schools or the Michigan schools heading east. The Indiana schools seem to make the most sense, especially considering precedent.

However, that means either Illinois or one of the Michigan schools needs to hold one spot in that division until the next two teams are officially added. Given the middling nature of the ACC teams likely to be added, Illinois is too bad and Michigan is too good to add. Thus, the Spartans head east with the knowledge that this is merely temporary.

East: Maryland, Rutgers, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State

West: Michigan, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska

This division lineup has a lot of immediate competitive balance, although Rutgers and Michigan State will have to continue playing well to shore up the middle of the East division. The four big-name brands are split as desired, and the league is easily ready to add two more eastern teams. What's not to like?

 

Final Verdict

Despite the league sending all indications that geography is the most important factor this time, I still think the four so-called big-name brands (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) will be split two-and-two across the divisions. As a result, this limits what you can do and stay reasonable geographically.

Option 2 and Option 5 seem to have the most plausible chance based on that fact being a determining factor. Thus, I expect Wisconsin and possibly one other team to be headed west into the Legends Division when the two new teams come in and get added to the Leaders Division. This will keep things mostly the same but will serve the new goals of the superconference.

How would you split the divisions? Please comment below and let me know.

Thanks for reading! Please keep the conversation going below, and feel free to follow me on Twitter.

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