Dividing The Big Ten: Succeeding Where Geography Fails

LINCOLN, NE. - JUNE 11: Big Ten Conference Commissioner James Delany (C) University of Nebraska Athletic Director Tom Osbourne (L) at a press conference announcing Nebraska accepting an invitation to join the Big Ten Conference June 11, 2010 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The university will begin integration immediately and start athletic competition as soon as 2011. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Nebraska's a member of the Big Ten now, and Notre Dame can keep holding onto independence now that the pin's been put back in the Big XII grenade. Thus, it's somewhat safe to assume the Big Ten will stay as is for the foreseeable future at 12 teams.

Now, clearly, it is absolutely not in the conference's best interests to stay unidivisional (new word alert). Jim Delany commits to nothing straight off the bat, and he committed to a football championship game at Nebraska's introductory presser. So for a championship game, the Big Ten will need two fair divisions. How best to accomplish this? Three factors need to be taken as equally as possible into account: geography, balance, and context. We'll explain.

GEOGRAPHY

On the first count, if Nebraska is the last and only addition to the conference, there is a glaringly obvious dividing line right at Lake Michigan and the Illinois-Indiana border. That makes the two divisions thus (and to be honest, I'm not married to the division names):

WEST BIG SIX

Nebraska
Iowa
Minnesota
Wisconsin
Illinois
Northwestern

EAST BIG SIX

Purdue
Indiana
Michigan State
Ohio State
Michigan
Penn State

That's all fine and good from a logistical standpoint, but it creates a considerable disparity in traditional athletic success between the east and west. Plus, lest we forget, being in a perennially weak football division didn't exactly work out for Nebraska last time around.

BALANCE

The one curious aspect about Big Ten success is that there are rough binary analogues for success throughout the conference. For example, Michigan and Ohio State are roughly equals, historically (though it's anyone's guess where Michigan goes from here). As are Penn State and Nebraska. In fact, let's go down the line, separating corollaries by west-east:

Michigan-Ohio State
Nebraska-Penn State
Iowa-Wisconsin
Purdue-Michigan State
Minnesota-Illinois-Northwestern-Indiana (these four are all pretty much interchangeable)

The problem here is two-fold: one, first that's mostly football related, and things might change both in the short term and if basketball is introduced as a deciding factor--as it should be. Second, Michigan and Ohio State truly ought to be in the same division, as we'll demonstrate later.

It should be noted that Doug Lesmerieses at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer tried to tackle this very subject on Saturday, and he ended up with an East-West split, except Penn State went to the west and Wisconsin went to the East. And while he created a very competitive balance, matching Penn State with five teams west of Lake Michigan (including Nebraska, who is over 1,000 miles away) seems grossly unfair to Penn State.

Hey, speaking of unfair to Penn State...

Murray-chris-donahue-hawkeyesportscom_medium

Man, that felt good. Anyway.

CONTEXT

If Nebraska and Penn State are the geographic bookends, then they belong in their own divisions. Moreover, Michigan and Ohio State must stay in the same division for one reason: their season-ending rivalry. It's one of the best in all of sports anywhere. It is as sacred as anything in the Big 10. But if Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan are all in the same division, then that probably dooms Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue to join them, right?

Incorrecto, friendo. Because unlike the Big XII, who was crippled by a geographic imbalance, and unlike the ACC, who was crippled by completely arbitrary divisions, the SEC got it right when they switched to 12 teams. How? By protecting inter-divisional rivalries, one per school. Thus, Alabama and Tennessee can still hate, as can Florida and LSU.

Thus, geography does not have to be a dealbreaker. The Michigan schools and/or the Illinois schools and/or the Indiana schools can be split. The Big Ten does not necessarily need to have a Big XII North, nor does it necessarily need to have an ACC Arbitrary. Competitive balance can be attained without significantly sacrificing geographic allegiances.

CONCLUSION

An easy fix would be putting Michigan and Ohio State in opposite divisions but protecting their rivalry, but that would be disastrous for the conference. Why? Because the game has gained massive popularity by closing out the BXI season in lieu of a de jure conference championship. The Big Ten, ostensibly, wants to continue that season-ending conference game. If the two teams were to then meet again with the conference actually on the line a week later, it would detract immensely from the game prior. They must be together.

So, in deference to as many of the necessary divisional pairings as Lesmerises posited earlier (especially the Michigan-OSU pairing), let's divide these teams up properly, and with their protected interdivisional rival.

EAST

Michigan
Ohio State 
Penn State
Northwestern
Indiana
Illinois

WEST

Michigan State
Iowa
Nebraska
Purdue
Wisconsin
Minnesota

And the protected rivalries would be as such:

MSU-Michigan
Iowa-Northwestern
Nebraska-Penn State
Purdue-Indiana

Wisconsin-OSU
Minnesota-Illinois

As you've probably figured out, the bolded pairings are locks, while the unbolded rivalries are interchangeably random. It's not perfect but look at the SEC's setup again: do you really think anybody cares about Arkanas-South Carolina? Some marriages are for convenience's sake.

In fact, the only problem here is that conference kingpin Ohio State doesn't have a solid interdivisional rival with which to pair them. That's not to say the Buckeyes are hurting for rivals, of course, but they're all in the east: Michigan and Penn State are necessarily in the same division as the Buckeyes, and if Michigan State gets split off, they necessarily must maintain their annual rivalry with Michigan. So we gave them Wisconsin, but it could really be anybody else from the West.

In this scenario, the East is necessarily top-heavy, especially if you make the seemingly safe assumption that Michigan's downturn over the last few years is little more than a hiccup. But of the three traditional powers, Michigan gets the closest thing to a free pass in its guaranteed matchup. And even then, Sparty's terrible years are 5-7-ish instead of the 2-10's we often see from the basement of the conference.

Meanwhile, the West features Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa... plus the aforementioned adequate MSU, a team with a Rose Bowl appearance within the last 10 years in Purdue (no slouch; they've gone 36-44 in the BXI over the last 10 years, and have consistently found success with the "1. Add good quarterback 2. Stir vigorously" recipe), and uh, Minnesota. Okay, they suck.

On the hardwood, the balance of power shifts west. In terms of consistent excellence, Wisconsin and Michigan State are the UM/OSU of Big Ten hoops, and they're both in the West. Meanwhile, Purdue has usurped control of the state of Indiana from Indiana. In the East, on the other hand, Ohio State and Illinois are both recent tournament darlings in their own right, and Indiana's lurking; all three programs have significant resources behind them. Plus, if Michigan gets their stuff together, look out.

So that's our plan of action. If we could pick up Penn State and drop them in St. Louis, this would be a much easier process, but BHGP's scientician consultants inform us that that would be impossible. Otherwise, we think we've found current and historical competitive balance in both the major sports while preserving geographic convenience for the most loyal fans: the local and mobile ones.

Agree? Disagree? Let's hear it.

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