The Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota conundrum

Thanks for all the responses to my Big Ten divisions proposal.

Quite a few of you liked my lineup, and quite a few of you didn't. It's what makes the issue fun. Lots to debate.

I wanted to spotlight a quandary I encountered while putting together my divisions. It's something that could give the Big Ten big wigs headaches when they ultimately decide who goes where.

What to do with Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota? Keep them together or split 'em up?

The current Big Ten schedule setup works well for the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Gophers. They're guaranteed to face each other every year, continuing their long-standing rivalries (see below).


First meeting: 1890 (longest rivalry in FBS)

Total meetings: 119

Series: Minnesota leads 59-52-8

Trophy: Paul Bunyan's Axe


First meeting: 1891

Total meetings: 103

Series: Minnesota leads 59-42-2

Trophy: Floyd of Rosedale


First meeting: 1894

Total meetings: 85

Series: Iowa leads 42-41-2

Trophy: Heartland Trophy

These games might not rival Ohio State-Michigan on the national stage, but they mean a lot to these fan bases.

The new element in all this is Nebraska. All three of these teams see rivalry potential with the Cornhuskers. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema already has gone public, telling the Big Ten that he'd like to have an annual series with Nebraska on the final Saturday of the regular season. Iowa would love a border battle with the Huskers, and Minnesota has more history with Nebraska than any Big Ten team (51 total meetings).

The easy way to preserve the current rivalries and ensure some new ones with Nebraska is to put all four teams in the same division. I get that, and you guys remind me of it over and over.

Here's my concern: Those teams likely would be cut off from the three-headed monster -- Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State -- that ensures the Big Ten always will be nationally relevant.

Let's learn from the Big 12. In recent years, people forgot that the North division existed. From a national standpoint, the Big 12 went from Norman to Austin.

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, the Big Ten must maximize its national appeal when determining divisions. You want to keep as many eyeballs on as many games in your league as possible. This is the main reason why I don't want to determine divisions by simple geography.

My fear in putting Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska in the same division is that we could see a Big 12 North redux in the Big Ten West or whatever you want to call it. Don't get me wrong: I'm not concerned at all about the level of play. But will this division garner enough interest outside the region, even when the teams are playing well? Maybe, but I have my doubts.

If Ohio State continues to surge, Michigan returns to form and Penn State keeps winning 10 or more games, all the attention will be on their division. That's just how it works. Those teams have the strongest national pull in the Big Ten, even when they're struggling (ahem, Michigan).

I understand fans' desire to maintain rivalries and as many short drives to road games as possible. But it doesn't help your program to distance yourself from Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Playing those teams and beating those teams puts a program in the national spotlight and can boost recruiting efforts.

There's also Nebraska, the new arrival to the Big Ten. The league benefits more from Nebraska facing Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State as often as possible (eyeballs, eyeballs). My model ensures that the Huskers face Penn State (same division) and Michigan (protected crossover) every season.

So there's the quandary.

Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota all benefit from facing each other. But all three teams also have great opportunities against Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, and, beginning in 2011, Nebraska.

My model sacrifices the Wisconsin-Iowa rivalry, and I realize that's a big deal. But it also provides Wisconsin annual matchups with Michigan and Ohio State and preserves the Minnesota series. Iowa gets annual matchups with Penn State, Nebraska and Minnesota. Minnesota keeps its rivalries with both Wisconsin and Iowa -- and faces Ohio State and Michigan (Little Brown Jug) in the division -- but loses out on playing Nebraska every year.

If you think a geographical breakdown works best, that's fine. But take a moment, think beyond short driving trips and rivalry trophies and ask yourself: What's best for my team and the league?