The Big Ten will formally announce its divisional alignment plans and the 2011-2012 conference football schedules tonight at 7 EST/6 CST on the Big Ten Network. However, according to ESPN's Andy Katz (who is generally pretty good at this stuff), the divisions have already been leaked. Iowa will join a division with Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Northwestern. Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois will make up the other division. No word yet on if protected cross-divisional games will be created, though the split of Ohio State and Michigan virtually guarantees there will be; who Iowa's opponent could be in that game is nothing more than speculation (we'll get to that in a second).
From the standpoint of competitive balance, these divisions fall in line with the idle chatter of the divisional alignment intelligentsia of the past few weeks. Ever since word leaked that Ohio State and Michigan could be split up, this Northwest/Southeast split -- with the exception made to get Wisconsin into an otherwise top-heavy division -- made the most sense. It preserves geographic and traditional ties, for the most part; Michigan State will still play Michigan, Iowa will still play Minnesota, and Purdue will still play Indiana in what I assume is a shirts-versus-skins basketball game in the parking lot outside Ross-Ade.
The main source of intrigue, then, is who will play in the guaranteed interdivisional skirmishes. The only guarantee seems to be Ohio State-Michigan. Otherwise, it will come down to that eternal Big Ten question: Does money trump tradition? Below, a list of potential opponents for the rest of the Division of Awesome.
Nebraska -- Penn State, as the other new kid on the block and traditional power without a partner, makes the most sense here from a financial standpoint, but Penn State has recent history with other teams in the DOA (wait, we should change that name...). Still, if you're adding the Huskers to drive up national recognition, there's really no other match. Nebraska-Wisconsin would obliterate two different longstanding rivalries (and wouldn't make as much for the brand as NU-PSU), and there's no cache in a Nebraska rivalry with the other three basketball schools in the Division of Suck.
Minnesota -- Here's the test case. Should the conference want to preserve tradition, we're getting Paul Bunyan's Axe on an annual basis. Should they throw traditional rivalries to the wind (or merely balance those traditions with financial considerations), there's a good chance Wisconsin-Minnesota is kaput, so that the Badgers can face Iowa or Nebraska. In that scenario, hello Indiana!
Michigan State -- Sparty has its 17-year "rivalry" for the Land Grant Trophy with Penn State in play. Somehow, that doesn't strike me as enough to continue the round-peg-square-failhole matchup as a guaranteed future game. I don't know if there's any history between MSU and Purdue, but I'd wager there's about to be. Plus, Purdue is also a land grant university, so they can just transfer that abomination of a trophy to the new series.
Northwestern -- jNWU gets its wish, as its obsession with Iowa is maintained in the new divisional alignment. There's the Land of Lincoln game with Illinois to preserve, and while Illinois is also more obsessed with Iowa than any other opponent, there's no need to kill that series just so Iowa can throttle Zook annually. They deserve each other so much.
Iowa -- Unfortunately, should Minnesota get Wisconsin and Nebraska take Penn State, Iowa is the odd man out. Illinois will be with Northwestern (and, even if not, nobody cares about Illinois football). Despite its constant politicking for a more worthy opponent, Ohio State is likely stuck playing Michigan every year. That leaves whichever of the Indiana schools Michigan State doesn't end up dating. My guess is Indiana, just because Iowa-Indiana sounds slightly more legitimate, and there's at least some sports-related animosity in play.
Feel free to join us at 6:30 EST/5:30 CST for our first open thread of the season, as we bitch moan complain analyze the new conferences, protected games, and the snowball's chance in hell that the 2011 team can win its division. Because it's never too early.
UPDATE: Multiple reports have Iowa playing Purdue, with Michigan-OSU, Nebraska-PSU, MSU-Indiana, jNWU-Illinois, and Minnesota-Wisconsin rounding it out. Also, this blows.