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Iowa’s path to the Big Ten Championship widens without divisions

As conference alignment comes into focus amidst new rules, the Big Ten is exploring their options slowly and the Hawkeyes may be left holding the bag

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NCAA Football: Big Ten Football Championship-Iowa vs Michigan Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten just got done with their meetings and much of the very online discussion has swirled around divisions as the NCAA simultaneously relaxed “restrictions for FBS football conference championship games.

The Pac-12 immediately announced their intentions to move towards a Big 12-style conference game with the top two teams facing off, irrespective of the divisional alignment which will remain in place through this season.

If the Big Ten had this model throughout the entirety of its divisions, some notable changes would have been:

  • 2012: Nebraska vs. Michigan due to States Ohio and Penn being ineligible and we can only hope the Wolverines could have administered a beatdown similar to what Wisconsin doled out
  • 2016: Penn State vs. Ohio State which could have prevented Ohio State from making the College Football Playoff if they lost again to PSU
  • 2021: Michigan vs. Ohio State which would have rendered Jim Harbaugh’s climactic moment meaningless with a rematch the following week

On the whole, there are not all that many changes without diving knee deep into tiebreaker rules and I don’t really have the energy.

Anyways, the discussion in the Big Ten seems to be leaning in some direction of shirking divisions and Scott Dochterman of The Athletic broke down the various factions: some want to protect rivalries at all cost (Iowa & Minnesota), some want nothing to do with rivalries (Penn State), some just want to make whatever change it is once (Illinois), most want to set the conference up for postseason success. Dochterman relented earlier today on his 3 + 5 idea (which is what the ACC voted into) breaking down rivalry games into two groups:

I’ve long been in favor of the 3 + 5 and have my own preference for rivalries but his point above is fair: not everyone has the same number of mouths to feed. Borrowing from his list, most schools have two or more games which warrant protection. This is why I’m offering a 2 + 1 + 5 approach which would create a four-year lifecycle for Big Ten scheduling.

The 2

This is easy: we’re protecting rivalries. These teams are sorted by conference winning percentage since 2017.

Ohio St (93%): Michigan/Penn St
Wisconsin (71%): Minnesota/Nebraska
Michigan (70%): Ohio St/Michigan St
Penn St (62%): Ohio St/Michigan St
Iowa (62%): Minnesota/Nebraska
Michigan St (58%): Michigan/Penn St
Northwestern (52%): Illinois/Rutgers
Minnesota (49%): Wisconsin/Iowa
Purdue (48%): Indiana/Illinois
Indiana (35%): Purdue/Maryland
Nebraska (30%): Iowa/Wisconsin
Illinois (27%): Northwestern/Purdue
Maryland (27%): Rutgers/Indiana
Rutgers (18%): Maryland/Northwestern

There are some doozies (Northwestern/Rutgers) in there, and some left on the cutting room floor (Iowa/Wisconsin) but overall, we’re at an equitable set of permanent rivals. I do this simply because I cannot stomach an asymmetric amount of protected games.

The 1

This one is done by pairing teams who have had an equal amount of relative success. This is done to ensure as well as possible an inventory of exciting games for the regular season. They’d break down as such:

Ohio St-Wisconsin
Michigan-Penn St
Iowa-Michigan St
Northwestern-Purdue
Minnesota-Nebraska
Indiana-Rutgers
Illinois-Maryland

These would recalculate every four years to balance the schedules continuously.

The 5

This is something which has been overlooked in the 3 + 5 construction but I’m here to offer a solution to equitable scheduling. Divide the remaining 10 teams for each school into roughly equal opponent groupings for odd and even years.

For instance: OSU’s even years might be Illinois-Iowa-Minnesota-Purdue-Rutgers, who have a combined 41% winning percentage since 2017. That leaves Indiana-Maryland-Michigan St-Nebraska-Northwestern and their 40% for odd years.

So that’s my idea. The 5 & 5 allow four-year players to play at every venue while maintaining historic and developing competitive rivalries for the fans’ enjoyment. It also frees up an extra game for The Alliance to rear its head and schedule potentially very good non-conference matchups.


So where does this leave the balance of the conference? As far as I’m concerned, there are winners, losers, and those who fall somewhere in between.

Winners

Ohio State: Simply put, the conference’s greatest team is granted additional margin for error in terms of needing two teams to jump them in order to miss out on Indianapolis. It certainly may happen in instances where a Michigan or Penn State beat OSU and someone runs the table while avoiding the Buckeyes but they’re in good shape here.

Michigan & Penn State: These two are traditional powers who had the potential to be frozen out as the second best team in the conference without entry into the title game.

Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers: They’re freed from the shackles of playing OSU, Michigan, & PSU every season.

Losers

Iowa: Nobody has a more cush spot than Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes. Which I have to admit is a sentiment I pulled from the retired-from-the-Internet StoopsMyAss. Kirk has a book written on all his divisional opponents. While some of them (Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin) have equally comprehensive books written on the Hawks, Iowa’s path to the Big Ten Championship game is just ... really easy. Last year, they caught a retrospectively down Penn State team, rebounded from bad losses to the Boilers & Badgers, and saw the division cannibalize itself.

There’s the additional risk of Iowa losing one of their rivalry games, which have granted Kirk significant “fan sentiment” equity as he’s amassed seven-year streaks against Minnesota & Nebraska. While I have those earmarked as protected, that could certainly change.

What Iowa is left with after that is a team who has finished somewhere between tied for third and seventh since 2013 (2015’s T-1 is an outlier) with an unenjoyable style of play. It’s an area I don’t see Iowa elevating from without significant schedule luck which could certainly happen.

But at the end of the day, Iowa’s been to two of 10 conference title games. So what’s the difference in maybe catching it once every seven or eight seasons?

Wisconsin: Would be battling Michigan and Penn State for the second spot instead of shadowboxing themselves whilst getting Fleckened.

Northwestern: They probably catch some luck with permanent rivals and might be able to squeeze a ton of juice from a favorable schedule but they also lose out on the annual grudge match with Iowa.

Somewhere in the middle

Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue: None of these teams have made a conference title game in the Big Ten’s current divisional alignment so nothing can really be said of those chances being affected. I think Illinois is a potential loser because I’m down bad for Bert (TM) and think they can take advantage of the current divisional alignment and Bielema’s treasure trove of grudges.

Michigan State: Is battling OSU, Michigan, and Penn State for one spot better or worse than battling those three plus Wisconsin for two?


So change is very likely coming to Big Ten scheduling. By virtue of folding the weaker West into the whole division, the Hawkeyes, Badgers, and Wildcats figure to be the biggest losers of such a change.