ESPN is ranking the best jobs in college football (and we can talk about that in greater detail in a little bit), and in their blurb about Iowa ($) they dropped this comment:
But the Big Ten West has been so disparate to the East that the conference is likely to reshuffle the teams in the not-too-distant future.
Uh, what? There was a lot of chatter about the "imbalance" between the East and West divisions this year, but this is the first comment I've seen suggesting that the Big Ten was concerned enough to actually consider reshuffling the divisional memberships to make them more competitively balanced. Frankly, it seems unlikely that the Big Ten is inclined to act too rashly in this matter -- they got burned badly the last time they tried to align the divisions based on "competitive balance" rather than the clean logic of geography. Success is also cyclical -- Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan are riding high now, but you don't have to go too far back to remember the not-so-storied tenures of Luke Fickell, John L. Smith, or Rich Rodriguez at those institutions. Nor do other conferences seem to be too fussed about imbalance between the divisions -- the SEC East has been little more than a punchline since Tim Tebow graduated from Florida, but there don't seem to be as much hand-wringing about the imbalance there as the imbalance in the Big Ten.
But still: let's assume the notion discussed above is accurate and the Big Ten really is looking to reshuffle the divisions a bit. What might that entail?
Well, we know that the perceived issue is that there are too many strong teams in the Big East and not enough strong teams in the Big Ten West. So they aren't going to be shipping one of the East also-rans over to the West -- that wouldn't fix anything. Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers will all be staying put. Purdue is the obvious choice for the West to send to the other division -- they're a better fit there geographically and if you're looking to improve the quality of the West, you'd want to replace a bad team with a good one.
So, in descending order of likelihood, here are the options for the Big Ten East teams to put in the West are:
4) Penn State
Penn State was the eastern-most border of the Big Ten until Rutgers and Maryland joined up two years ago and they're still very much an East Coast team; squeezing them into the West doesn't make a lot of sense. It would also disrupt their rivalry with Ohio State and their budding rivalries with Maryland and Rutgers. And, frankly, they're not all that elite on the field -- they haven't won 10 or more games in a season since 2008 and 2009.
3) Ohio State
Geographically, Ohio State is a little more palatable than Penn State and obviously their competitive merits are unmatched -- they won the Big Ten's first national championship since 2002 in 2014 and they've won at least 10 games every year since 2004 (except for 2011). But taking away Ohio State would damage their rivalries with Penn State and Michigan State and require a workaround to maintain the Michigan rivalry (and preserving that rivalry is a major priority).
1b) Michigan State
Adding either Michigan or Michigan State to the Big Ten West would have a little bit of a Legends Division reunion feel, but they're the most sensible choices. Michigan has the legacy of success and seems poised to add to that under Harbaugh, while Michigan State has been the most successful Big Ten team outside of Ohio State of late (five seasons with 11 or more wins since 2010). Either one would bring a great deal of quality to the West. Both teams have rivalries with Ohio State (Michigan's rivalry with Ohio State is far more storied, but Michigan State's rivalry with Ohio State has been far more consequential in recent years) and Penn State that would be impacted by a move to the West, although the value of preserving The Game is certainly higher than the value of preserving the Battle for the Land-Grant Trophy.
Although if we're looking at rivalries, it probably makes more sense to send Michigan State than it does Michigan. If Michigan went instead, you could preserve either Michigan-Ohio State or Michigan-Michigan State as protected cross-divisional games, but probably not both. That would mean that either Michigan-Ohio State or Michigan-Michigan State would not be played annually, which seems like an absurd outcome that should be avoided.
That said, it also probably matters what the Big Ten -- and Ohio State and Michigan -- want The Game to be in the future. Do they want to keep alive the potential for Michigan-Ohio State to be a Big Ten Championship match-up That would also mean that The Game could be played two weeks in a row, if the regular season match-up maintains its traditional spot on the calendar (the final weekend of the season). Or do they want to have The Game serve as a potential semifinal for the Big Ten Championship Game?
Ultimately, Michigan State seems like a more logical choice than Michigan. Losing Michigan State-Ohio State or Michigan State-Penn State on an annual basis is less damaging than losing either Michigan-Michigan State or Michigan-Ohio State and the potential for back-to-back Ohio State-Michigan games is more nauseating than exciting.The potential for a rematch always exists with a conference championship game, but playing the same game twice in two weeks doesn't seem like a very good idea.
Of course, this discussion is only relevant if the Big Ten is actually looking to move any teams around -- and there's been no real indication yet of that being the case.