The potential demise of Legends and Leaders set off quite the reaction earlier this week, but a much bigger issue than reworking the Big Ten division names is reworking the Big Ten divisions themselves.
The divisions will have a new look for the 2014 season as new Big Ten members Maryland and Rutgers enter the league. Barring additional expansion, the Big Ten will have two 7-team divisions. The Big Ten office, in conjunction with the league's athletic directors and presidents, is in the process of sorting out the divisions and hopes to announced the alignment by the end of the spring.
Everyone has an opinion on what the divisions should look like, and it's time to throw in our two cents. Here are our proposals with explanations for why we went with certain teams.
ADAM RITTENBERG'S PROPOSAL
East division: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland
West division: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue
Rationale: I might be in the minority, but I liked the Big Ten original division alignment, which was based primarily on competitive balance and branding rather than geography. The league split its four traditional mega brands -- Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska -- and put two in each division (Ohio State and Penn State in Leaders; Michigan and Nebraska in Legends). Wisconsin, which had emerged as a recent Big Ten power, went to the Ohio State-Penn State side, while improving programs like Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern remained on the Michigan-Nebraska side.
This time, I'm more open to a true geographical split. Rutgers and Maryland could eventually become solid Big Ten programs, but I think they'll both struggle at first. After talking about "building a bridge" to the East Coast, the Big Ten has to put both Rutgers and Maryland in the same division with Penn State. Although Penn State certainly could stay afloat and even thrive during its stretch under severe NCAA sanctions, the league must consider the possibility of the Penn State program (and brand) taking a step back. If Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland are all down, the division needs some muscle. It gets plenty with Ohio State and Michigan, two programs many believe are distancing themselves from the rest of the conference, along with a Michigan State program that has won 51 games the past six seasons under coach Mark Dantonio. The Big Ten newbies get annual games with three traditional powers, and the Big Ten gets to showcase its two most visible teams -- Michigan and Ohio State -- in new markets as it tries to become a bi-regional conference (Midwest and East Coast). It's a win-win.
The West division has enough power and should command enough interest with Nebraska and Wisconsin, which moves back to the West. As I wrote in June 2010, there's a conundrum with Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, three regional rivals who want to play one another every year. Wisconsin's move to the Leaders Division -- with only one protected crossover against Minnesota -- has suspended its series against Iowa. Moving Wisconsin back to the same division not only eliminates this issue, but it adds more power to the division and helps foster the growing rivalry between Wisconsin and Nebraska. Northwestern's program undoubtedly is on the rise, and Minnesota showed promise in Year 2 under Jerry Kill. While Iowa is down right now, the Hawkeyes aren't too far removed from being one of the league's best programs.
The tricky thing with going geographic is splitting the teams located in the middle of the Big Ten footprint. Indiana and Purdue go together. So do Northwestern and Illinois, and Michigan and Michigan State. Northwestern seems more entwined with teams on the Western side of the Big Ten. Purdue and Indiana really are tied primarily to one another and could go to either division. Illinois is the wild card as the Illini have rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan, and also with Iowa and Northwestern. Ultimately, I like keeping Illinois with Iowa and Northwestern. I can split Purdue and Indiana and maintain the annual Bucket game through a protected crossover.
Other than Indiana-Purdue and Minnesota-Michigan (Little Brown Jug series), my proposal places less emphasis on protected crossovers than the original division alignment. I don't like how so many of the Big Ten's late-season games right now are crossover games rather than division games. That said, I'll keep one protected crossover in my proposal ...
Crossovers: Purdue-Indiana, Wisconsin-Michigan State, Nebraska-Penn State, Illinois-Ohio State, Minnesota-Michigan, Northwestern-Rutgers, Iowa-Maryland
There's no perfect division alignment, but my proposal maintains competitive balance, places more emphasis on geography and maintaining rivalries and helps grow the Big Ten brand.
BRIAN BENNETT'S PROPOSAL
East: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue, Indiana
West: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern
Rationale: I agree with a lot of what Adam writes but have a few key differences of opinion.
I think his proposal of placing Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State in one division tips the balance of power too much, assuming that the Spartans can maintain a high level of play and that the Nittany Lions can emerge from their sanctions as an annual Big Ten championship contender. Instead, I'd move Michigan State to the West to give that division three very strong programs -- at least of late -- along with Nebraska and Wisconsin. That East Lansing is farther east than Purdue and Indiana doesn't bother me, because as I wrote, strict geographical assignments are not all that important.
My proposed alignment accomplishes many other things. It puts Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, which is crucial in avoiding a rematch of The Game in the Big Ten title contest. It puts Penn State with the new Eastern members. Rivalries like Purdue-Indiana, Wisconsin-Minnesota and Illinois-Northwestern are preserved as division matchups, while Iowa-Wisconsin and Iowa-Illinois can resume their series without interruption. Nebraska-Wisconsin should grow into a rivalry, and Wisconsin-Michigan State -- a great recent series that is now unfortunately going away for awhile -- becomes a yearly treat.
The biggest problem is that Michigan and Michigan State are not in the same division, though that can be salvaged with a protected crossover. You probably can't have that and the Minnesota-Michigan series every year, but let's face it: the Jug game hasn't really been competitive over the years, with the Gophers winning only three times since 1967. The world won't spin off its axis if that becomes more of an occasional rivalry. There is no perfect way to protect every traditional series.
The possibility of Penn State taking a step back because of sanctions could make the East a little top heavy unless Maryland, Rutgers, Purdue or Indiana makes a leap forward. But Bill O'Brien will keep the Nittany Lions respectable at the very least, and the Michigan-Ohio State race will be fascinating to watch every year. The other programs will have no choice but to improve, and playing either the Wolverines or Buckeyes at home every year should help bring big crowds to those teams' stadiums.
Other than Michigan-Michigan State, there is no real need for protected crossovers. You could make the Illibuck game between Ohio State and Illinois if you so desired. There has been some talk about a Wisconsin-Penn State trophy game. Otherwise, the goal should be to rotate opponents so teams like Northwestern and Nebraska gain some potentially valuable exposure on the East Coast.
My plan preserves most of the traditional rivalries, makes it easy to remember which team is in which division and strikes a chord between competitive balance and geography.