This may well be a divisional game in 2014 and beyond.
We have discussed the coming realignment of the Big Ten for a while now, and one of the points we've tried to establish is that the split should be more geographic. But while that's a popular stance among Big Ten fans, "popular" doesn't automatically equal "correct." So let's talk about the "why" behind this, and establish what it is about a geographic split that makes the most sense for the Big Ten.
First of all, the Big Ten is the most historically stable conference in America aside from the Ivy League. Per Wikipedia's timeline, of the 10 members that gave the Big Ten its name, only one (Michigan State, a 1953 inductee) has been affiliated with the conference for less than 100 years total. Michigan only joined for good in 1916, but had been a member for over a decade prior to a (relatively) brief hiatus.
That stability is important because it gave rise to multiple regional rivalries for each school. Minnesota and Wisconsin have one of the longest-standing rivalries in football, but both plausibly claim Iowa as a rival as well. Minnesota has a trophy game with Michigan—who has bitter rivalries with both Michigan State and Ohio State. Speaking of the Buckeyes, their focus in football is more singular, but in basketball the rivalry with Indiana has been fantastic. Indiana-Illinois is a great basketball rivalry as well. And so on and so on.
How many rivals do you think your favorite Big Ten team has?
These regional rivalries—even the newer ones like Ohio State-Penn State and Nebraska-Iowa—are not sacrosanct, but they are important, especially when conference expansion is going to start taking conference opponents off the schedule for a while. The old saying goes that you can't please everybody all the time, but if you break up regional foes for the sake of putting the likes of Rutgers or Maryland in the regular rotation, you're not going to please many people, period.
Moreover, if the Big Ten keeps rolling to 16 members (and especially if it goes past that), it's going to have a significant bloc of new members with the distinct possibility that some of those schools are historically familiar with each other.
Maryland-Virginia isn't the bitterest of rivalries, but it is a border game that would be silly for the Big Ten to break up (if the rumors of Virginia being a candidate for expansion are true, anyway). Penn State and Maryland played each other dozens of times before Penn State joined the Big Ten. If Georgia Tech joins the gang, you'd want it playing other former ACC and eastern independent teams more than, say, Illinois, right?
And if we're to take E. Gordon Gee at his word that “there are opportunities to move further south in the (E)ast and possibly a couple of Midwest universities,” that bloc of new Big Ten members is going to be geographically concentrated enough that it makes the most sense to keep them close to each other in the new division.
The Big Ten seems to be well aware of this. ESPN.com reported on Tuesday that geography would drive the divisional split, and Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner drove that point home recently (via CBSSports.com):
So really, the question's been answered as far as why a geographic alignment works best for the Big Ten. There's always going to be a question of competitive balance, but there's just no way to make that a perfect fit year after year with the same programs staying in the same conference. Success is cyclical and unpredictable in college football, even for schools like Michigan and Ohio State.
Accepting that and taking care of the regional affiliations and rivalries first and foremost will be beneficial for the Big Ten, its schools and its fans in the long run.