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Overreaction Monday: The Right Divisional Alignment is No Divisional Alignment

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The Big Ten is overthinking things if they juggle teams between divisions

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

So I guess there’s a new Big Ten divisional storyline emerging after some consternation at Big Ten Media Days?

The conference’s two biggest talkers, P.J. Fleck and James Franklin, were the only two I noticed (feel free to add others in the comments) who felt like things are a changing in the conference landscape. It all seems kind of dumb from my view because what exists currently has a excellent level of parity between divisions. Only one combination has been repeated in the eight years of the game (Ohio State Buckeyes - Wisconsin Badgers in 2014 and 2017)

It’s particularly interesting to see Franklin kvetch, as his Nittany Lions might have had to play a Buckeyes team again in 2016, when they came from behind to beat Wisconsin and advance to the Rose Bowl, where PSU blew a bigger lead to USC.

(But enough talking smack about a team Iowa hasn’t beaten since <checks notes> yeash, 2010.)

What it comes downs to is any shuffling of teams among the two divisions is nothing more than moving chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Whoever wins the Big Ten is probably going to have to go through Ohio State. Since the East/West alignment, the winner of the conference has either: 1) Been OSU or 2) beaten the Buckeyes. Ultimately, it’s a fancy way of saying the West has never won which I suppose is Franklin’s point to begin with.

So why try to engineer the divisions the way the Legends and Leaders were (and rightly maligned) when there’s a simpler solution the Gazette’s own Marc Morehouse propositioned:

(Scott Dochterman provided his own more detailed idea on Twitter as well)

Frankly, the math on this is just way too easy: for each six year period, each team has one annual rival and plays every other team four times. The math checks out at nine conference games per season (6 * 9 = 6 + 12 * 4) and it allows some rotation of rivalries, trophy and otherwise, to continue with legitimate regularity. As of now, teams are guaranteed to play opponents in the other division just twice in six years, with annual pairs rotating every six.

The current alignment doesn’t provide the much regularity for teams across divisions while placing undue focus on matchups simply because of proximity.

The rivalries, as I see them, are:

Tier 0: Ohio State-Michigan

This should be continued annually ad infinitum. Michigan State would want to play the Wolverines annually at some point, but they’re allowed to be wrong. Irrespective of Ohio State’s recent (which is putting it kindly) dominance, this game deserves to be played every season the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

MSU-Michigan would probably fall into a Tier 1 rivalry but it’s not OSU-Michigan. Sorry, Sparty.

Tier 1: Wisconsin-Minnesota, Minnesota-Iowa, Indiana-Purdue

There is a longevity and real/organic hatred amongst each of these pairs. Since IU and Purdue have no real rivals outside of each other, they’ll go ahead and continue along as annual rivals. They rightfully have the only annual protected crossover as it is, so let’s keep the Bucket annual.

It’s actually kind of interesting to identify Minnesota as the eskimo brother between Wisconsin and Iowa, but I’m not sure anyone would complain with that. There’s the Axe and Floyd and there’s no easy way to split the baby (Minnesota) so this will have to do.

Tier 2: Illinois-Northwestern, Iowa-Wisconsin, Iowa-Nebraska

The in-state/border components play a factor here, as does the current annual alignment and trophy setups. Let Illinois and Northwestern have each other as long as they’d like (and 100 years more), but make them play the games in Wrigley. That was fun.

Iowa’s current three trophy setup has been fortuitous for Kirk with the addition of the Cy-Hawk, but will find itself not guaranteed to be an annual affair. By declaring these games as rivals, Iowa would play one of Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Nebraska every year, which seems right. Sometimes Iowa would be lucky enough to play all three in the same season!

Tier 3: Penn State-Michigan State

I mean, there’s a trophy but this was totally created to make these two feel good about their status as betas when PSU arrived to the Big Ten in 1990.

Tier 4: Maryland-Rutgers

Jim Delany chased markets to get these two so they deserve each other. Maybe the Big Ten decides to shake up some of this stuff in the future but this is the default pair at the bottom of the barrel.


Really, all of this is driven by the desire to have Michigan and OSU play each other annually. That’s gonna happen as long as the Big Ten is a conference, even if it’s 36 teams and it’s the teams from the Big Ten and Pac 12 and Big 12. Simply put, “The Game” is college football.

But until that 36-team super conference comes to fruition, there are rivalries to maintain annually (IU-Purdue/NW-Illinois, betas, and barrel bottoms) and others with regularity (Quadrangle of Hate) so the variability and overall balance provided by the four games in six seasons against non-rivals is a clear opportunity for the Big Ten to build a schedule.

In such a scenario, the “best two” teams would play each other in the conference championship in a similar way to the Big 12’s current setup. Obviously there will be some tiebreakers to sort out - especially if there’s some insane case where three teams go 9-0 (God help us) - but such a discussion is probably a net positive for the conference than a net negative.

The other main concern is the potential of having a matchup take place one week right after the other, particularly OSU/Michigan. The solution to such a dilemma could be as simple as making a tiebreaker between two or more teams tied for second “record against the first place team.” It’s not unlike a current tiebreaker which bounces the record of teams tied for first in one division against the top teams from the other division (tiebreaker 6).

The setup would also provide a template for the SEC to move to a more challenging and variable conference schedule, which they desperately need.

Ultimately, the changes to the conference’s alignment - and schedule - are too easy to make. So it’s pretty obvious that the conference would go in a more convoluted alignment or add teams in the future.

Here’s hoping they move towards simplicity while maintaining continuity with the above solution.