Geography Drives Division Alignment
The Big Ten conference is set to address a number of critical issues this off season. One of the most obvious is the need to realign their divisions with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the conference lineup in 2014. Unlike the first time the B1G created divisions, geography appears to be the driving force in potential new alignments. Of course, competitive balance (which was the driving factor last time) and historical rivalries will still also be a part of the conversation. But, the conference appears to embracing its geographical reality and destiny. What does that mean for Nebraska?
Most all of the current conversation among coaches and administrators involves aligning the divisions based on their east-west geography. As the ESPN Big Ten blog put it - it boils down to time zones as a relatively even split. Eight schools are in the eastern zone and six are in the central. So, just one would need to move over from the east. My vote would be for Michigan State.
So, how does that look? In the East you have newcomers Maryland and Rutgers grouped with Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and the two schools in Indiana - Indiana and Purdue.
In the Central - Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota grouped with Michigan State (from the Eastern time zone) and the two schools from Illinois - Illinois and Northwestern.
Gosh that almost makes too much sense, doesn't it?
At its core, college football is still a regional sport. The schools and fans from a region need to compete with each other. And, there is nothing regionally similar about Nebraska and New Jersey. There is a lot regionally similar about Nebraska and Wisconsin. Will central schools play eastern schools? Of course. But, should divisional dominance be driven by the need to beat nearby schools?
For the league members, grouping my geography means much more manageable travel expenses and logistics. Yes, we live in an era of private planes. But a flight from Omaha to Newark is very different than one from Omaha to Chicago or Minneapolis. Ground transportation for support staff and equipment is critical too.
And, lets not forget the fans. It's great to travel to road games. Nebraska fans are arguably the best at the country in migrating to other stadiums to see their team. But, if the attendance trends for league title games and bowl games have told the college football world anything, its that there is a limit on how much people will travel for a game. It's an era of amazing views provided by 60 inch televisions and comfort provided by man caves. Any disincentive to go to a game - and long, expensive travel is clearly a disincentive - will hurt attendance.
In new geographically minded divisions, nearly every division game would be driving distance for fans. For Husker backers, easy and plentiful flights to Chicago and Minneapolis make for fun trips too.
Much of the disagreement with divisions determined by geography is based on the idea of competitive balance. It is what drove us to the Legends-and-Leaders reality the B1G faces today. Would the "east" be stronger than the "central" division? Those who believe so are caught up in the brand appeal of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Consider:
- Wisconsin has been to three straight Rose Bowls and won more games than Michigan over the last 15 years.
- Nebraska is one of only a dozen teams to start and finish the season ranked in the AP Poll in each of the last four years. And, the Huskers have won 10 games in three of the five seasons under Bo Pelini.
- Michigan State beat Michigan four straight times under Mark Dantonio. They also put together back-to-back 11 win seasons.
- Yes, Penn State beat Northwestern head to head in 2012. But who looks better right now today - a 10-win Northwestern team fresh off a bowl win or an 8-4 Penn State team? And, who is better for the next 5-10 years, as Penn State faces massive scholarship limits?
Give me a division that includes Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern and I would say it is competitively balanced with one that includes Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. That's true both of the immediate future and the next decade.
Make no mistake, there will be years when one division is stronger than the other. That's been the case in every conference that uses divisional alignments, regardless of how they are decided. The great equalizer is the title game. At the end of the journey, a team from a "weaker" division will still have to go and beat a very good or great team to win a conference title. Hardly an easy road, folks.
What About Rivalry Games?
The final notion about re-drawn divisions is protecting conference rivalries. With the exception of the Michigan-Ohio State series, the B1G has done a pretty poor job when it comes to creating or protecting rivalries. Prior to Nebraska joining, they tried to pit Michigan State and Penn State against each other. After re-alignment last time, the conference interrupted the series between Iowa and Wisconsin, a game which had a lot of history and created some bad feelings. They didn't protect the series between Iowa and Illinois either. On the plus side for Nebraska fans, the idea of squaring off with Penn State each year was pretty well received. An annual battle with Iowa is something both Husker and Hawkeye fans craved. Of course, they had to dress it up with corporate ties and a fancy name, the Heroes game.
So, what about the new division alignments driven by geography. For NU fans, it would mean that the burgeoning rivalry with Wisconsin would escalate. It may have to be the psychological replacement to playing Penn State every year. The Iowa game would remain as well. The divisional match up against Michigan could be lost, which is a shame. Maybe Michigan State fills that void. Maybe not. So, its a mixed bag for Husker fans.
The rivalry in the Big Ten is Michigan vs Ohio State. I don't have a horse in that particular race. But, Husker fans have a unique perspective on whether or not to keep big time rivals in the same division. If the Big 12 folly taught us anything, it's this: you keep special things together. The separation of Nebraska and Oklahoma was a shame, and everyone on both sides missed it. In the current division format, the Michigan-Ohio State game is a "protected" game, so it won't be lost. But, putting the teams in the same division won't hurt it. It will help it.
Practically, the conference immediately would prevent the potential for a Buckeyes vs. Wolverines rematch in the title game immediately following their first game. That would be a let down for the teams and the conference. Also, look at the SEC as an example. Have the Auburn-Alabama and Georgia-Florida rivalries been hurt because they are playing in the same divisions as each other? No. As a fan of a team that has lived with and lost an amazing rivalry, believe me Big Ten brethren - it's better to keep them in the same division than run the risk of losing it because of some external factors.
Clearly the B1G is heading for a divisional shake up. The alternative to the current Legends-Leaders nonsense is very attractive for many reasons. Remember, the conference is likely not done expanding either. So, the decisions made this year may need to be revisited in just 12-18 months. Hopefully, things can be straightened out and remain that way.