The Big Ten made news a little more than a week ago by announcing its new division alignment for the 2014 season, as well as a move to nine conference games beginning in 2016. We covered all the news here and here and here, but several components of the moves merit further analysis.
We're breaking down the divisions and the new conference schedule model, their impact now and in the future, as the College Football Playoff is just a year away. These aren't exactly Take Twos, but they're similar, as we'll both be sharing our thoughts on these big-ticket items.
Today's topic is: How likely are these divisions to stand the test of time?
The Big Ten sometimes gets criticized for being too stodgy and stubborn, but the fact is the league is undergoing a serious football makeover for the second time since 2010. Yes, expansion played a major role in Legends and Leaders getting (thankfully) cast overboard, but the league didn't have to remake the divisions so drastically just to add Maryland and Rutgers. So no one ought to think that the new East and West formats will last forever, or even a mighty long time.
Yet the conference isn't going to make any quick knee-jerk reactions here, either. You can't properly judge competitive balance on just a few seasons, so I have little doubt that the Big Ten aims to let this play out over a number of years to see how it's working. If you're like me and you think the East has too much power, well, you'll have to wait and find out if that's actually true. A big key to all of this, I believe, is Penn State. As long as the Nittany Lions are on probation and dealing with sanctions, they are somewhat sidelined in the whole balance-of-power argument, even though they are eligible to win a division title. The scholarship reductions could have a major impact on the program beyond 2017. But if Penn State can regain its headliner status quickly, then the Big Ten may well have to re-examine whether it's right to have Michigan, Ohio State and the Nittany Lions all duking it out in the same division.
Of course, whether Michigan State can remain strong is also an issue, as is whether other West teams can consistently challenge Nebraska and Wisconsin for superiority. Again, this is something we're only going to learn over a long period of time, probably a decade or more.
But as we've seen, things can change rapidly. Who's to say there won't be further expansion that causes another reshuffling? Perhaps Michigan or Ohio State will get tired of finishing in the Top 10 nationally but only No. 2 in its own division. Maybe teams in the West will demand more exposure and recruiting opportunities in the East. The future, to quote Don Draper, is something you haven't even thought of yet. At least we know the Big Ten is adaptable.
"We're not foolish enough to think what we did today is what the Big Ten will look like for the next 100 years," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said the day of the division announcement. "We've had a lot of change in the last 24 months. We've proven under commissioner Jim Delany's leadership that we'll adjust and make changes."
In other words, if you don't like the current alignment, just stick around a while.
The Big Ten can't be shuffling the divisions every 2-3 years, unless there's more expansion. But the league also can't bury its head in the sand and let a Big 12 North/South situation take place. The potential for that to happen exists with so much firepower in the East, but I also think the league will let things play out for a while before entertaining serious talk of another shuffle. Keep in mind that the Big Ten's recent expansion and, to a certain extent, its division realignment is about building the brand in a new region. So if there's more attention on the East than the West, at least initially, the league office can live with that.
You bring up some great points about Penn State, and it will be important for Bill O'Brien's team to prevent Ohio State and Michigan from separating themselves in the East (and in the entire league). But I think the key to staying power isn't necessarily the "No. 1 seeds," as league commissioner Jim Delany calls Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State. And while Wisconsin can't match those four programs for historic excellence, the Badgers have been just as good or a little bit better than Penn State since the Lions joined the Big Ten. They've also been a better program than Nebraska in recent seasons. Wisconsin will boost the West division.
The teams to watch here are Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State. The West might not match the East in terms of strength at the very top, but it can match up with overall depth if Northwestern continues on its upward trajectory and Iowa gets back to the success it had in 2009. Northwestern has tremendous momentum right now with improved recruiting and a new facility coming soon. Iowa has shown the ability to rise up repeatedly under Kirk Ferentz. If both of those programs are winning eight, nine or 10 games in many seasons, the West should be fine even if Ohio State and Michigan create a bit of separation. Michigan State's role is to challenge the three traditional powers in the East and create at least some parity in the division. As I wrote last week, Michigan State has a great opportunity in the East division and shouldn't shy away from it. We're going to learn exactly who these Spartans are in the coming seasons.
As you mention, BB, there are a lot of unknowns out there. Ohio State and Michigan appear poised to separate themselves because of their recruiting efforts. But that might not be the case. Ultimately, it's up to teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State -- as well as Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, Rutgers and Maryland -- to create enough depth/parity in both divisions. Otherwise, we'll eventually see another change.
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