Nebraska Football: B1G West May Not Be so Easy for Cornhuskers
When the B1G announced a realignment of divisions in 2014 with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, one overarching perception was that the new West division was significantly weaker than the East. This dope, buying into the conventional wisdom, even called the B1G West the “Big 12 North 2.0.”
But after some reflection, perhaps the conventional wisdom has been harsh on the B1G West.
Let’s take a look at some reasons why Nebraska might not have gotten such a break with the new divisional alignment. Praise should be given to Adam Rittenberg and Brian Bennett of ESPN.com, from whom some of the statistics in this piece have been drawn.
Wisconsin Is in the West
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Maybe it’s the lack of flashy recruits. Maybe it’s the grind-em-down style of offense. Maybe it’s the cheeseheads. Whatever it is, the Badgers don’t seem to get a lot of respect, and with that lack of respect comes the denigration of the B1G West.
The numbers don’t really bear that out. Let’s make a blind comparison of these two teams from 1996-2012.
Team A: 152-67 (.694 win percentage), 16 bowls, 5 BCS bowls
Team B: 118-92 (.562 win percentage), 11 bowls, 0 BCS bowls
Pretty significant drop-off, isn’t it? Team A is Wisconsin, and Team B is Michigan State.
For many, the two schools appear about even, and having Wisconsin swapped for Michigan State seems like a push. But history shows that Wisconsin has been a much stronger team than Michigan State. Indeed, let’s take a look at the Badgers against another blind comparison.
Team C: 148-64 (.698 win percentage), 14 bowls, 6 BCS bowls
Awfully close, isn’t it? So who is this Team C? Michigan. That’s right, looking at resumes, Wisconsin and Michigan are almost indistinguishable.
So if you’re playing the “swap” game in comparing conferences, it would be much more accurate to treat Wisconsin as trading places with Michigan rather than Michigan State. And that, combined with the fact that the Badgers are the three-time defending B1G champions, makes the divisions seem much more balanced.
The Purples Aren’t Going Anywhere
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I took a little heat, and deserved it, for taking a run at Northwestern in a previous column. While it was a little tongue-in-cheek, the fact is that conventional wisdom holds that Northwestern is unlikely to have long-term success in football due to its high academic standards.
That conventional wisdom may be misplaced. The Purples have only had two losing seasons in the last 10 years, the most recent in 2006. Northwestern finally got off its bowl schneid by beating Mississippi State 34-20 in last year’s Gator Bowl.
And with Northwestern’s new indoor practice facility on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago, the Wildcats will have a huge weapon to wage its recruiting battles for top-notch talent in years to come.
Combine that with a dynamic and successful head coach in Pat Fitzgerald, who is a Northwestern alum and feels a loyalty to continue the work of Randy Walker after his untimely death in 2006, throw in the benefits of recruiting to a great American city like Chicago and the Wildcats should be set up as a football program where 10-win seasons—and perhaps contenting for conference titles—can be the expectation.
(Plus, what other school is going to have a dude with a lightsaber celebrating a victory? I mean, come on, a lightsaber!)
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When Nebraska was in the Big 8, Tom Osborne always thought that Missouri was a “sleeping giant” in football. Given Columbia’s proximity to population centers like Kansas City and St. Louis, the Tigers had the potential to draw from a huge pool of talent.
And in addition to those talent pools, those major metropolitan areas held tremendous potential for donors to the Missouri athletic program, which would improve its capacity to compete at the very top level of college athletics.
As the single major state school (sorry, Missouri State), Osborne saw Mizzou’s opportunities and pegged the Tigers as a sleeping giant.
Anyone in the B1G fit Missouri’s profile? The only major state school? Significant metropolitan population from which to draw talent and donors?
Heck, even the fan chants are almost the same. MIZ-ZOU, meet ILL-INI.
Illinois fits Missouri’s profile almost perfectly. Like Mizzou, the Illini are the only major state school in the state where Chicago is located, giving the Illini a huge potential for both talent and donors. Indeed, with two BCS appearances in the last 11 years (2002 Sugar, 2008 Rose), Illinois’ football pedigree is actually a little stronger than Missouri’s.
If Illinois is a sleeping giant, right now the giant is sleeping pretty hard. Last year, Illinois went 2-10 with only one win over an FCS opponent (a 24-7 win against Western Michigan in Champaign to open the season).
But if Illinois can take advantage of some natural opportunities, the Illini certainly could raise the profile of the B1G West.
How Soon We Forget
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One of the arguments for the B1G West being a weak sister is that Iowa and Purdue have been kind of terrible at football lately.
And recently that has been true, with Purdue finishing last season at 6-7 after a humiliating loss to Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Iowa finishing at a disappointing 4-8.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Iowa had a string of three consecutive years of 10-win seasons culminating in BCS bowl victories. From 1997 through 2007, Purdue had only one losing season. So both teams have some football pedigree, even though the programs are currently down.
If either or both can retain some of their past form, the B1G West should be much stronger.
The East Has Its Questions
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Yes, Michigan and Ohio State are historic programs, although we’ve already documented that Michigan’s recent past is on a par with Wisconsin.
But take a look past the top two. We’ve already discussed how Michigan State may be overvalued. If Michigan begins to take off under Brady Hoke, it is entirely possible that Michigan State may suffer in recruiting as well.
Penn State, looked at as an East Division powerhouse, is just going into Year 2 of crippling NCAA sanctions.
While the Lions overperformed in 2012 at 8-4, and while I do think they will be dangerous next year, the loss of scholarships and postseason play will really start to bite into Penn State’s depth in the next few years. For the foreseeable future, it’s hard not to see Penn State taking a significant step backward, with 2012 being the high-water mark.
How about the rest of the East? Indiana, while improving at football, remains the B1G’s historically weakest football school. And the new additions, Rutgers and Maryland, were at best mid-tier football programs in their previous conferences. Both schools are better known for their snappy uniforms rather than their production on the football field.
So while having the two B1G dogs (pardon the pun) in the East, it is not at all a foregone conclusion that the division as a whole is demonstrably stronger
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Let’s just line the two conferences up, head to head, and see how it comes out.
I am making a judgment call, ranking the teams in both conferences from one to seven in terms of their relative strength both this season and in the near future. Then, I will compare one versus one, two versus two, and so on down the list. Teams with an advantage are in italics, and an even matchup will have both teams in italics.
Yes, the East has the best team in the B1G, and arguably three of the top four. But as you go down the list, the West begins matching up much more favorably. So while the East likely is the stronger conference in 2013, don’t be surprised if that pendulum swings quickly westward in the near future.
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