After months of anticipation, the Big Ten divisions are official for 2011 and beyond. As colleague Andy Katz reported earlier on ESPN.com, the breakdown goes like this:
Division 1: Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota
Division 2: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois
Each team will have one protected crossover rival in the opposite division, which it will play every year. The Big Ten will continue to play an eight-game conference schedule through at least the 2014 season.
Protected crossovers: Michigan-Ohio State, Penn State-Nebraska, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Purdue-Iowa, Michigan State-Indiana.
(Moment of silence for the impending interruption of the Land Grant Trophy series ... thank you.)
The Big Ten likely will go to nine conference games beginning in 2015, at which time it could add a second protected crossover game and preserve more rivalries. But league commissioner Jim Delany gave no indication on the Big Ten Network that a second protected crossover is coming.
The other big news tonight is that the Ohio State-Michigan game will continue to be played on the final Saturday of the regular season. There had been major outcry on both sides of the rivalry about the possibility of The Game being played earlier in the season, but it's not going anywhere. You spoke, and the Big Ten listened.
Other games on the final regular-season Saturday in 2011 include: Indiana-Purdue, Iowa-Nebraska, Michigan State-Northwestern, Penn State-Wisconsin and Minnesota-Illinois. So Minnesota-Illinois is the only other cross-division game on the final Saturday of the regular season.
Thoughts? I have plenty.
Delany might have had to enter the Witness Protection Program had The Game been moved from its spot on the final regular-season Saturday. Athletic directors Gene Smith (Ohio State) and Dave Brandon (Michigan) might have had to join him, too.
The Ohio State-Michigan game belongs in late November, period. There's too much tradition there, and both programs consider The Game to be a portion of their schedule, much like the nonconference and the Big Ten slate. Delany talked to me last week about a schedule needing "build," or momentum. Taking Ohio State-Michigan off of the last weekend would have removed the momentum from the schedule. So it's good to see The Game staying put.
That said, there are some potential problems of having a cross-division game on the final regular-season Saturday. What if both Ohio State and Michigan have the division titles wrapped up before The Game? Will The Game lose significance if a rematch in the league championship is possible the very next week? And what about the division races as a whole? Ideally, these two races could be decided within the division on the final Saturday of November.
I wouldn't have split Ohio State and Michigan, but I understand why the Big Ten did it. This league is in the championship-game business now, competing on the same day with the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Pac-10. You put Ohio State and Michigan on the championship stage together, and you gain a large part of the national spotlight, regardless of what's happening elsewhere. It's a pretty attractive possibility, although as the ACC has shown, dream championship matchups are often just that, pipe dreams.
Will there be outcry? Sure. But not as much as there would have been had The Game moved.
Top to bottom, Division 1 looks a bit stronger, but for the most part, the league achieved its primary objective of competitive balance. The Big Ten evaluated its current 11 members plus Nebraska based on their performances since 1993. Looking at the records, it's pretty easy to see that six teams separated themselves: Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa.
A 3-3 split seemed very likely, and that's what we see here. The Big Ten could have done things geographically and put Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin in one division opposite Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. But as I've been telling you for months, consolidating the three most popular programs into one division is a major mistake. If Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State all reached the top 10 in the same season, no one would care about the other division. Tough tacos, that's just the way it is.
I would have put Penn State with Nebraska and Iowa, but this setup preserves at least one regional rivalry for the Lions in Ohio State.
My main concern with this setup is what happens when Michigan gets back to being Michigan. You've got three potential powers in Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa, alongside two programs in Northwestern and Michigan State that are finding consistency under relatively new coaches. Minnesota needs to step up its game in a hurry. At least the Little Brown Jug rivalry is an annual event again.
Division 2 would benefit from Purdue getting back to the level it was for most of Joe Tiller's tenure. If not, there could be a sizable gap between the top three teams (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin) and the bottom three.
Remember my post about this conundrum back in June. I didn't think the Big Ten would be able to preserve all the annual rivalries between these teams and bring Nebraska into the mix.
All three teams want to play each other every year. All three also want to build rivalries with Nebraska. The problem for the Big Ten is none of those games really move the needle nationally like, say, Penn State-Nebraska or Michigan-Nebraska.
If any team has a legitimate gripe about the divisions, it's Wisconsin. The Badgers lose their annual rivalry against Iowa, and despite coach Bret Bielema's Twitter efforts, Wisconsin won't face Nebraska every year, either. Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, a Nebraska alum, is out of town today and unavailable for comment, but I'm interested to see what he thinks of the setup.
If anything, Wisconsin is a victim of its own recent success. The Badgers earned the right to be placed with heavyweights Ohio State and Penn State, and they can elevate their national profile by beating those teams on a consistent basis. But I'm sure this is a blow to fans who love the Iowa rivalry and had high hopes for a Nebraska rivalry. Things will get better when the league goes to nine conference games.
Nebraska has to be pleased with its position. The Huskers get a border rivalry against Iowa that will be huge (Farmageddon, baby), and they renew a regional rivalry with Minnesota. They also face Penn State every year, renewing a great series. Plus, Michigan will be on the schedule each season. The only downside is that Nebraska could go several years without facing Ohio State. Nebraska closes the 2011 season with games at Penn State, at Michigan and against Iowa in Lincoln. Welcome to the Big Ten, Big Red.
I doubt Iowa, Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana are thrilled with their protected crossover games, but not everyone comes out of this satisfied. For Iowa fans, you get Nebraska every year and the Floyd of Rosedale game. Michigan State still gets to play archrival Michigan every year, plus a marquee game against Nebraska. Purdue and Indiana have the Bucket game protected through the division. Purdue maintains a trophy game with Illinois, and Indiana still faces the Illini every year in a good regional matchup.
I'm a little surprised that the Big Ten didn't go with Penn State-Nebraska ahead of Iowa-Nebraska on the final regular-season Saturday. It speaks to how big the league thinks the Nebraska-Iowa rivalry will be.
Given the fervor among the two fan bases on this blog, I wanted to see Iowa and Penn State continue to play every year. But the series lacked an extensive history, so I can see why it was expendable.
Here are the trophy games that no longer will be played every year: Iowa-Wisconsin, Minnesota-Penn State and Penn State-Michigan State. You can't save 'em all.