The wait is over.
Many of you -- hundreds? thousands? -- have asked me to review your proposals for Big Ten divisions and to offer my own. It's truly amazing how much interest this part of expansion garners. Even before Dec. 15, I received hundreds of e-mails not only proposing new members to the Big Ten, but outlining how the divisions would set up. It must be the fantasy sports aspect in all of this.
OK, let's get started.
Note: This is all based on the Big Ten remaining a 12-team league with Nebraska as the only new addition. These divisions apply to football only, so don't start crying about basketball or other sports. There's no need for divisions when you have conference tournaments.
There's no perfect model to divisions, and someone is going to be upset no matter what. But it's important to identify some criteria.
Competitive balance. I can't stress this enough, but as commissioner Jim Delany said Friday in Lincoln, competitive balance is the top priority in determining divisions. There are lessons to be learned from the Big 12, which shifted its power to the South division and made the league championship game weaker. The Big Ten wants its title game to mean something. Recent history certainly matters when evaluating programs, but so does long-term history.
Rivalries (old and new). The Big Ten is nothing without its rivalries, but not every rivalry will be saved unless the league goes to an 11-game round robin schedule (not happenin'). It's also important to be forward thinking and project new rivalries that not only appeal to the two fan bases, but to casual fans and to national audiences.
National appeal. You've seen me write a lot about teams that "move the needle." Certain teams have national appeal, and certain teams don't. That's just the way it is. A league needs to address this in divisions and ensure it has as many opportunities as possible to showcase its product nationally. You want to get the ABC Saturday night game as often as possible. Fans probably don't place as much weight on this element, but the Big Ten certainly does, and I'm following suit.
(Division names can be decided later. For now, I'll use the many spellings of the commissioner's last name)
Like the SEC, the new Big Ten will have one protected crossover for each team ...
Penn State-Ohio State
If the Big Ten maintains its eight-game conference schedule, each team would play five division games, one permanent crossover game and two rotating cross-division games, with three no-plays. If the league goes to a nine-game schedule, each team would play five division games, one permanent crossover game and three rotating cross-division games, with two no-plays.
Remember what I said about teams that move the needle nationally? In the new Big Ten, you have four of them: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Don't like it? Tough tacos. They are the league's most historically successful programs, and they appeal nationally more than any other programs. By putting three in the same division, you have the potential to consolidate too much power, maybe not in the next year or two, but quite possibly at some point in the future. You also want to feature these teams in as many matchups as possible. In my format, you get four potential blockbuster matchups (Penn State-Michigan and Nebraska-Ohio State are the only misses, and I can live with that).
The big question for Big Ten division designers rests with Michigan and Ohio State. Should they be split up? It could happen, but I don't like the potential for the same teams to meet in consecutive weeks. The Ohio State-Michigan game always will be one of the Big Ten's featured attractions, and it always will be played on the final week of the regular season, where it belongs. The potential for a rematch in the Big Ten championship the next week would take something away from the annual on-campus matchup. People don't like reruns in college football.
A lot of folks want to split this thing geographically and have Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska as the "powers" in the West. My concern is that neither Iowa nor Wisconsin has beaten Ohio State in the Buckeyes' best seasons under head coach Jim Tressel. Wisconsin's 2003 win against Ohio State is the only one that stands out. Penn State, meanwhile, has won two Big Ten titles in the past five seasons and has beaten Ohio State twice during that span. Now things could change and a geographically split league might work great, but I'd rather cover my bases and have Penn State in the other division.
There were three other rivalries I wanted to keep within divisions: Indiana-Purdue, Michigan-Michigan State and Wisconsin-Minnesota. Those rivalries work well within a division. The divisions also preserve some trophy games like Michigan-Minnesota (Little Brown Jug) and Illinois-Ohio State (Illibuck).
I'm able to preserve other rivalries with protected crossovers: Ohio State-Penn State, Iowa-Minnesota, Indiana-Illinois. I toyed with the idea of preserving the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry, but I think Illinois fans would prefer to have Indiana on the slate and I know Northwestern fans would be excited to have Wisconsin as a protected crossover every year.
This format also preserves some recent, budding rivalries like Penn State-Iowa, Northwestern-Iowa and Ohio State-Michigan State (Tressel and former assistant Mark Dantonio).
Quite a few teams want a piece of Nebraska, but what's best for both the Huskers and the rest of the Big Ten? Remember that the league needs to sell its product both regionally and nationally. The Iowa-Nebraska game (Farmageddon) has the potential to be huge. Penn State-Nebraska looks like a total winner to me, and Nebraska-Michigan also should be a major success. I realize Wisconsin wants Nebraska as an end-of-year rival, but the Iowa-Nebraska game seems to have a bit more juice to me. Plus, Wisconsin would get annual matchups with both Michigan and Ohio State, and those games have some national appeal. And count me among those who wouldn't mind Wisconsin and Minnesota moving the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe back to the final week of the regular season. Iowa fans certainly seem open to playing someone else (Penn State? Nebraska) on the final Saturday of November.
I realize some annual rivalries would be lost with my format, namely Wisconsin-Iowa, Northwestern-Illinois and Penn State-Michigan. I also know I put Wisconsin-Iowa in the "Hands Off!" category earlier this week, but you have to make tough decisions here, and not everything can be saved.
I'm open to shaking up the protected crossover games in a few years, but I'm sticking with these for now.
Again, there's not a perfect formula to splitting a conference and keeping everyone happy, but I like my plan, and I'm interested to hear your thoughts.