The Big Ten is expanding to 14 teams in 2014 by adding the Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers Scarlet Knights to the conference lineup. That expansion will bring a crucial opportunity for the conference to realign and affect its future.
Whether or not the Big Ten has access to the playoff (also coming in 2014) will depend on how many teams it can put near the top of the rankings when the selection committee draws up the plans in December of each year.
Currently, the Big Ten is planning to split into an East Division and West Division in 2014. They will look like this:
Here are the reasons that the Big Ten should create a North Division and a South Division, split at 40.68 latitude (determined from Lat-Long.com). Here is what that layout would look like:
There are four reasons to consider splitting North-South instead of East-West:
1. Keeping the power balanced between divisions.
2. The national championships.
3. Data bias due to a recent addition to the conference.
4. Preserving the balance of power through future expansion to 16 teams.
The Big Ten would gain more in the long run with the North-South configuration.
Balance of Power
Recently, Ohio State and Michigan have been the best teams in the Big Ten. They are the only two Big Ten teams, Ohio State and Michigan, that have won national championships since 1990. (Nebraska won three, but wasn't in the Big Ten at the time.)
Ohio State currently has Urban Meyer at the helm, and he has a nice resume from Florida. Michigan is under Brady Hoke, and he has the Wolverines on a return path to glory as well. Michigan and Ohio State are shaping up to be the headliners of the conference.
Putting them in the same division is taking a huge risk with the conference championship game. If one division is decidedly weaker, then the title game would end up lopsided more often than not. The 2012 edition of the game could become the norm.
On top of all that, the power doesn't all reside with Ohio State and Michigan. A little information about the national championships will help with analysis.
The National Championships
The North-South division split looks more biased at first glance, but let's move to the data bias section to help clarify the situation.
Data Bias: 1994-1997 Nebraska Cornhuskers
The 1995 'Huskers are considered to be among the best college football teams in history. Nebraska won three national titles from 1994 to 1997, and it provides a huge bias for the Big Ten to account for when deciding how to align its divisions.
To say that teams like that don't come along very often is an understatement. Let's take the statistical anomaly out of the equation and see how the divisions compare without the legendary 'Huskers (who were not a part of the Big Ten at the time).
Championships without Nebraska's non-Big Ten stats:
Now that the newest addition to the Big Ten is removed from the equation, it's easy to see that the North-South split more evenly distributes historical success all the way back to 1936.
Nebraska is a quality team for the conference, but its success in another conference has skewed the data toward the West.
Preserving the Future
If the Big Ten decides to become a 16-team "superconference," then it needs to think about what will happen should that occur. In the planned East-West configuration, Ohio State and Michigan are already in the same division.
In the North-South arrangement, both teams are situated far enough apart that adding two schools to either the north or south side of the 40.68-lattitude line of demarcation would keep those squads in opposite divisions.
As the conference moves forward, the only danger would be if Wisconsin turned out to be a consistent power. If that happened, then the Big Ten would need to add two teams to the north side of the line. In that case, Nebraska would move into the South Division and balance the scales once again.
For verification of that point, here is the North-South proposed alignment once again (Minnesota is the northernmost school, and Maryland is the southernmost):
The Big Ten has the right idea by getting rid of the "Legends" and "Leaders" tags. Those did not go over well at all. They also have the correct approach by attempting to keep the power balanced between the divisions.
The only major issue with the conference's approach is that mid-90s Nebraska is a big, fat statistical monkey wrench. The only logical solution is to try to come up with a great alignment without Nebraska, then apply that setup to the 'Huskers after the fact.
The proposed North-South split would even out the recent national championships between Big Ten powers, and it would preserve the balance of power. Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin would each have a better shot at finishing the season undefeated during the years that they don't all have to play each other.
With fewer losses among the top-tier teams, the Big Ten would be rolling much more favorable dice in an effort to gain entry to the playoffs.