Commentary: Potential Big Ten Divisional Alignments
by Jonathan Hodges

The Big Ten has now officially expanded to 12 teams, and in the press conference announcing the addition of Nebraska, Big Ten commissioner Delany essentially confirmed that a conference championship game for football will be coming.  And, it will be coming soon, with Nebraska poised to officially join the conference beginning with the 2011 season.

Now comes the interesting task of dividing the conference into divisions of some sort in order to facilitate that conference championship game while keeping in mind things like geography and rivalries.  Delany made it clear that potential divisions would have to keep in mind the following items, in order of importance:

1. Competitive Balance.
2. Rivalries, noting that some are more important than others.
3. Geography.

Noting those, let's move into the most established criteria, rivalries.  One major assumption is that Big Ten expansion is complete, which Delany indicated it is for now, although that could very well change tomorrow.


Given the comment that some rivalries are more important than others, the "rivalries" within the Big Ten have been broken into three tiers, and I only expect that the first tier will be respected in divisional alignment to ensure that the teams play each year.  Note that for some of the rivalries listed, the teams may not even play every year under the current format, since each team currently has only two "protected rivals" that they play every season.

Tier I (must-have, 7): Michigan - Ohio State (no explanation needed), Michigan - Michigan State (Paul Bunyan Trophy), Indiana - Purdue (Old Oaken Bucket), Illinois - Northwestern (Land of Lincoln Trophy), Iowa - Minnesota (Floyd of Rosedale), Iowa - Wisconsin (Heartland Trophy), Minnesota - Wisconsin (Paul Bunyan's Axe).

Tier II (consideration given, 7): Michigan State - Penn State (Land Grant Trophy), Illinois - Ohio State (Illibuck), Michigan - Minnesota (Little Brown Jug), Indiana - Michigan State (Old Brass Spittoon), Illinois - Purdue (Purdue Cannon), Minnesota - Penn State (Governor's Victory Bell), Ohio State - Penn State (current protected rivalry).

Tier III (current protected rivalries not likely to be considered, 2): Northwestern - Purdue, Illinois - Indiana.

Also, it's important to consider potential rivalries for the newest addition, Nebraska.

Potential Nebraska Rivals (3): Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin.

It's clear that not all rivalries can be allowed to continue annually, but the must-haves as well as at least one new rivalry game for Nebraska should be able to be accommodated.  The rest will continue, but not on an annual basis, like Michigan - Minnesota or Indiana - Michigan State are currently.


If geography were the only factor, an East-West split would be the most logical, with the conference spread out wider (1,088 mi from Nebraska to Penn State) than it is tall (640 mi from Minnesota to Indiana).  And it would "just make sense" to group schools together geographically, right?  The Big XII and SEC do it now (North-South and East-West, respectively).

Realistically, though, a purely geographic split doesn't make that much a difference for the schools travel-wise, since divisions are largely a football-only construct.  In other sports (including basketball), teams typically will play everyone at least once (in basketball, they may play everyone in their division twice while playing the others only once), so it won't make that big of a difference.  Note that the ACC, also with 12 teams and a championship game, does not have a purely geographic split (instead calling their divisions Atlantic and Coastal).

Also note that when creating divisions, each team may have a protected "rival" in the other division that they play every year, which is something currently done in the ACC and previously done in the SEC.

Competitive Balance

This area was noted by Delany to be the most important, and logically so since it was one reason for the downfall of the Big XII.  In recent years, it seemed as though all of the on-field success was focused on the Big XII South (Texas and Oklahoma), with the championship game essentially being just a roadblock on their quest for a BCS game and/or national championship.

It is clear that the Big Ten would like to maintain balance so that a championship game will usually be evenly matched and will help truly crown a conference champion.  There will always be trouble with such a format, but the conference would like to minimize the issues as much as possible.

For this purpose, I've ranked the teams from highest to lowest total winning percentage over the last 10 years (2000 through 2009 seasons), and also listed the Big Ten winning percentage over the last 10 years with rank (excluding Nebaska), the all-time total winning percentage with rank, and the all-time Big Ten winning percentage with rank.

1. Ohio State (0.803), L10 conf = 0.800 (1st), all-time = 0.694 (2nd), all-time conf = 0.696 (2nd)
2. Wisconsin (0.667), L10 conf = 0.550 (5th), all-time = 0.542 (7th), all-time conf = 0.475 (8th)
3. Nebraska (0.656), L10 conf = 0.833 (*), all-time = 0.687 (3rd), all-time conf = 0.535 (4th*)
4. Michigan (0.653), L10 conf = 0.663 (2nd), all-time = 0.719 (1st), all-time conf = 0.722 (1st)
5. Iowa (0.640), L10 conf = 0.613 (3rd), all-time = 0.513 (9th), all-time conf = 0.457 (10th)
6. Penn State (0.626), L10 conf = 0.563 (4th), all-time = 0.673 (4th), all-time conf = 0.602 (3rd)
7. Purdue (0.540), L10 conf = 0.513 (6th), all-time = 0.515 (8th), all-time conf = 0.493 (6th)
8. Northwestern (0.500)**, L10 conf = 0.475 (7th), all-time = 0.418 (11th), all-time conf = 0.365 (11th)
9. Minnesota (0.500)**, L10 conf = 0.375 (9th), all-time = 0.558 (6th), all-time conf = 0.479 (7th)
10. Michigan State (0.496), L10 conf = 0.400 (8th), all-time = 0.566 (5th), all-time conf = 0.510 (5th)
11. Illinois (0.381), L10 conf = 0.325 (10th), all-time = 0.496 (10th), all-time conf = 0.461 (9th)
12. Indiana (0.333), L10 conf = 0.225 (11th), all-time = 0.402 (12th), all-time conf = 0.318 (12th)

*Nebraska has not played any intra-conference games as a member of the Big Ten and has faced just six Big Ten teams from 2000-2009.
**Northwestern and Minnesota tied for overall winning percentage over the past 10 seasons, but Northwestern was given the tiebreaker due to a better conference winning percentage over the same time period.

Also, since 2000, the Big Ten Championships break down as follows (counting co-Championships):
Ohio State (6)
Michigan (3)
Penn State (2)
Iowa (2)
Illinois (1)
Northwestern (1)
Purdue (1)

Purely Geographic Proposal:

East: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana
West: Northwestern, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

This proposal makes the most geographic sense and protects all seven "Tier I" rivalries (as well as three of seven "Tier II" rivalries).  In terms of competitive balance, when looking at the past 10 seasons, the winning percentage averages are as follows (note that these are not precisely weighted, but give one a good idea):

East: 0.575 overall, 0.527 conference, 12 titles
West: 0.557 overall, 0.468 conference (not counting Nebraska), 4 titles

While the overall winning percentages were fairly close, the conference records and titles are skewed to the East, as one would expect with Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan all on that side.  While Wisconsin and Iowa have held their own over this period and Northwestern has been consistently decent, it is not enough to overcome the top-heavy East.

Although this division makes the most sense, it will likely be nixed due to competitive balance.

Charter-Expansion Proposal

Charter: Michigan, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Expansion: Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State

Geographically, it's a mish-mash, but if one wants to account for competitive balance, that will likely have to go out the window anyways.

In terms of rivalries, on its face it only keeps two "Tier I" and five "Tier II" rivalries.  But if one permits one "protected inter-division rivalry" for each team, that number can increase to five "Tier I," although the "triangle rivalry" between Iowa-Minnesota-Wisconsin would have to be broken up, and, most importantly, this would create significant problems for Michigan as it must play Ohio State and Michigan State each season.

Charter: 0.540 overall, 0.484 conference, 6 titles
Expansion: 0.592 overall, 0.520 conference, 10 titles

Finally, the winning percentages are still skewed, in favor of the expansion schools, even if it is relatively close.  Due to this as well as the rivalry issue, this proposal definitely won't work.

"Separate the Powers" Proposal

"Old" Powers: Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois
"New" Powers: Nebraska, Penn State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern

Geographically, it works out pretty well except for Penn State being with all of the teams in the west.  Again, if one wants competitive balance, geography will have to be the first to go.

For rivalries, the only "Tier I" that is split up is Northwestern-Illinois, which can be a designated annual "protected" game.  There are other rivalries also available to designate as such, and maybe some new ones that can be created.

"Old": 0.534 overall, 0.488 conference, 11 titles
"New": 0.598 overall, 0.515 conference, 5 titles

Although this division seems to be a little more equal between divisions, one could argue it's not as equal within divisions, particularly in the "Old" Power, where the bottom-feeders of the past decade all fall (MSU, Illinois, and Indiana).

Pods Proposal

Pod A (Northeast): Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State (0.651 overall, 0.621 conference, 9 titles)
Pod B (Southeast): Penn State, Purdue, Indiana (0.500 overall, 0.434 conference, 3 titles)
Pod C (Northwest): Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa (0.602 overall, 0.513 conference, 2 titles)
Pod D (Southwest): Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois (0.512 overall, 0.400 conference, 2 titles)

Geographically, these are fair groupings.  They also keep all seven "Tier I" rivalries intact and have a chance to foster some new ones.  And competitively, they are relatively fair (trying to keep Ohio State and Michigan together will always create problems).  This would separate most of the top traditional powers (OSU, PSU, Michigan, Nebraska), and the one pod without a traditional power has Wisconsin and Iowa, two teams with a lot of recent success.

How would the pods work?  Each team plays the others within its pod every season, and each pod will play two other pods every year.  Prior to every season the pods would have to be grouped together (the pods grouped together must play each other) to create quasi-divisions for the purpose of sending champions to the title game.

The nice thing about this proposal is it would create flexibility with divisions, allowing them to be rotated every season.  Pod membership could even be shuffled on a periodic basis for the purpose of competitive balance (albeit one would have to respect the rivalry games).

Unfortunately, random chance has a significant factor in this setup, as getting to the conference championship game would have a lot to do with which pods each team faces as well as which pods are grouped together to form quasi-divisions.


In my opinion, I believe we'll see something very similar to the Purely Geographic Proposal, since it just makes sense.  The question will be if the competitive balance is acceptable or if it requires some shuffling (see "Separate the Powers" Proposal).  I doubt that we'll see something more exotic ("Pods" Proposal), but given the large number of requirements, it may take something like that to make this all work.  In any case, we'll find out in less than a year, with all of this going into effect for the 2011 season (meaning the schedule will have to be announced well in advance).

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.