Commentary: Big Ten Divisions and Northwestern's 2011-2012 Conference Schedules
by Jonathan Hodges

Yesterday, the Big Ten made its divisional alignment, for 2011 and beyond, official as well as releasing the conference schedule for the 2011-2012 seasons.  There's a lot to get to and a lot to analyze from Northwestern's perspective, so let's jump right in:

Big Ten Divisions

Here are the two divisions that are as yet unnamed.  On the Big Ten Network special yesterday, conference commissioner Jim Delany gave a 90 day timetable for the Big Ten's rebranding which will include names for each division as well as, potentially, names for each division trophy as well as the conference trophy.  The Big Ten Conference will, of course, retain its name, although will get a new logo that will be unveiled alongside the division/trophy names sometime during the fall.  The Division "X" and "O" names are placeholders that the BTN used which will allow some distinction besides calling them "the Ohio State division" and "the Michigan division," which everyone knows is pretty much the case.

Division "X": Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana

Division "O": Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern

Protected Intra-Division Rivalries (will play every year):
Ohio State - Michigan
Penn State - Nebraska
Wisconsin - Minnesota
Purdue - Iowa
Illinois - Northwestern
Indiana - Michigan State

For the time being (at least until 2015) there will still be eight conference games, four at home and four on the road, with the current scheduling rules being maintained (no more than two consecutive conference games on the road or at home, and there must be two home games and two road games for each team in both the first and second halves of the conference slate).  Also, the conference will still use a two year scheduling cycle where the opponents will remain the same for back-to-back seasons, rotating home and away games (although, like in the current scheduling system, when the conference moves into a new cycle the home/away rotation may not be maintained, e.g. Northwestern played at Iowa in both 2008 and 2009).

This means that each season teams will play two other "rotating" teams from the other division and will not play three teams from the other division in any given year.  More on how that breaks down for the 2011-2012 cycle in a moment.  This, of course, means that teams won't see one cross-division opponent for four consecutive years, meaning undergrads may go through college without seeing their team play one conference opponent (unless they meet in the conference title game).

Divisional Details

First off, it's clear that competitive balance was the ultimate driver in how the Big Ten split the divisions.  As Lindsey Willhite from the Daily Herald pointed out yesterday, the divisions have exactly the same 0.580 overall winning percentages over the evaluation span of 1993-2009.  Also, each division possesses two marquee programs that rank among the top six in NCAA Div. I FBS in all-time wins: Ohio State and Penn State in Division "X" and Michigan and Nebraska in Division "Y."

Second, it's clear that rivalries are important and this divisional structure maintains the majority of those rivalries and builds potential new ones.  10 of the league's 13 trophy games (that includes the Ohio State-Michigan game, which doesn't actually have a trophy) are maintained as annual contests in the new setup, losing only the Heartland Trophy (Wisconsin - Iowa, which has only been a trophy game since 2004), the Governor's Victory Bell (Minnesota - Penn State, which originated in 1993 and hasn't been played annually anyway), and the Land Grant Trophy (Michigan State - Penn State, also originating in 1993).

Although two current annual trophied contests are lost (Wisconsin - Iowa and Michigan State - Penn State), three trophy games that currently rotate off the schedule will now become annual contests: the Illibuck (Illinois - Ohio State), the Old Brass Spittoon (Michigan State - Indiana), and the Little Brown Jug (Michigan - Minnesota).  Plus, Nebraska will have an opportunity to foster rivalries with nearby Minnesota and Iowa as well as Penn State, its cross-division protected opponent.

Plus, playing six conference rivals annually that never rotate off the schedule will foster additional rivalries that are not really possible in the current system where each team only faces two protected opponents each season.

Finally, geography did play a bit of a factor, with the conference essentially drawing a diagonal line dividing the conference into northwest and southeast and then trading Wisconsin and Illinois to meet competitive requirements.  And with cross-divisional games taking place as it is, it's not like any team would have it that easy in terms of travel (although Northwestern, being relatively centrally located, has it a lot easier than teams at the extremes, like Penn State and Nebraska, who are separated by 1,088 driving miles).

Football Only

In the BTN unveiling show, Delany made it clear that these divisions were put in place for football only.  Although rumors initially swirled that the Big Ten would adopt divisions and a basketball scheduling model similar to the SEC and current Big XII, Delany insisted that was not the case and that basketball would essentially chart its own course when it comes to scheduling.  Reading between the lines, that likely means more conference games for basketball and a scheduling set up similar to now where schools play most others twice (home/away) and a handful just once on a rotating basis.

Northwestern Breakdown

From the perspective of the Wildcats, these divisions turned out rather well.  First, here are Northwestern's post-1993 records against their division (and Illinois, their annual cross-division opponent) versus the other five members of the other division.

NU vs. Division "O" + Illinois: 34-37 (0.479)

NU vs. Division "X" - Illinois: 25-41 (0.379)

That should make it pretty clear that the Wildcats benefit from avoiding the likes of Penn State and Ohio State annually.  Speaking of that fact, here are the only post-1993 Big Ten conference champions who did not play both Ohio State and Michigan, and who they missed in that season:

2002 Iowa (OSU)
2000 Northwestern (OSU)
1998 Wisconsin (OSU)
1996 Northwestern (OSU)
1995 Northwestern (OSU)

Which makes it even more clear that it is beneficial to miss Ohio State, since we all know the on-field success they have had during this era (OSU has won nine outright or shared titles over this 17 year span).  This dovetails nicely into the next point, the 2011-2012 Northwestern schedule

Northwestern's 2011-2012 Big Ten Schedules

The conference schedules for the next two years were also unveiled, which are prominently displayed elsewhere on HailToPurple.  But, here is who Northwestern does not play in each of the next two seasons.

Northwestern Does Not Play in 2011-2012: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue

This will mark a FOUR year span in which the 'Cats won't play OSU in the regular season, with the last matchup being the 45-10 loss to the Buckeyes in Evanston in 2008 (of course, it is possible that NU could face OSU in a conference title game in either 2011 or 2012).  Wisconsin will also quickly rotate back off the schedule as they were most recently off NU's schedule for 2007-2008.  This will also mark the first year in which the 'Cats won't face Purdue since 1994, at which point the Boilermakers became one of Northwestern's two "protected rivals."

Also, here are NU's home/away breakdowns for each season.

2011 away: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska

2012 away: Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State

This is a rather beneficial breakdown as NU splits up the four toughest anticipated opponents in terms of home/away games for the next two seasons (Michigan and Penn State together, Nebraska and Iowa together).  Also, while the schedule does have some tough stretches (at Iowa and vs. Penn State in back-to-back weeks in October 2011, and vs. Nebraska and vs. Iowa in October 2012), NU does get an early November "bye" both seasons to split up the schedule pretty well and also doesn't have to face three of the expected difficult matchups consecutively.

From an attendance standpoint, neither season is that bad as Michigan and Nebraska should help promote huge jumps in attendance for those games (if not easy sellouts), and cross-division games should also bring additional interest given that teams won't play as often.

Note that from Northwestern's non-conference schedule, which had been announced through 2012, a game versus Rice in Evanston on November 26, 2011 will now have to move as the 'Cats will face MSU at home that day.  NU's current open dates for the 2011 season are September 24 and November 12.  It's also possible that the game could be moved to another season, leaving NU scrambling to find another opponent for next year (especially since the 'Cats already have an FCS opponent, Eastern Illinois, lined up).

Other Big Ten Schedules

Here are the teams that the following schools do NOT play in the 2011-2012 cycle (note that Northwestern's list is above):

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

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

Nebraska: "Welcome to the Big Ten."  They will face a formidable schedule their first two seasons in the league that will feature all of the traditional powers from their opposite division.  Needless to say, every Big Ten game they play will draw huge interest, starting off next season when they visit Wisconsin to kick off Big Ten play and then host Ohio State the following week.

Tiebreakers for Conference Championship Game

The BTN special provided limited clarification of tiebreakers for determining the participants in the conference championship game in cases of a tie within the division, although there are some details that have not yet been worked out.  This is of particular concern given the mess that occurred in the Big XII South just a couple of seasons ago (2008) where Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech tied and had beaten each other, leaving the tiebreaker up to the BCS standings at the end of the season, which, of course, favored the team that most recently had won (Oklahoma over Texas Tech) in spite of its earlier loss to Texas.

The participant will be determined by best conference record (including both inter and intra division games):

Two-Team Tie:
- Head-to-head

Three or More Team Tie:
- Head-to-head
- Division record
- "BCS component"

One interesting note is that the overall record does not appear on the list of tiebreakers, except as part of the "BCS component" (since overall record does play a part in the BCS through the computer rankings and the voters' minds in the polls).  Also, it's clear that the Big Ten hasn't made up its mind relative to how to use the BCS since it didn't straight-up reference the ranking itself.  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out and what the final tiebreaking criteria are, especially since it's quite possible for upsets to occur and teams to beat up each other within the division.

Winners, Losers, and More

First, let me say that in Big Ten divisional alignment, not everyone would be made happy.  Not all rivalries/trophy games could be maintained and with competitive balance being the primary concern, it was clear that things would not necessarily make sense geographically.  Things were definitely going to change and it's clear that the Big Ten tried to maintain tradition while incorporating the necessary change, and they also listened to fans during the process, more on that below.

Winner: Northwestern.  Honestly, the 'Cats avoid having to play Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin annually and get a protected rivalry game against Illinois, maintaining the one rivalry game of which NU is a part.  Northwestern also gets to maintain its budding rivalry with Iowa and also gets to face newcomer Nebraska annually.  Also, NU will get to face four of the six teams against whom the 'Cats have had the most success in the post-1993 era (while avoiding annual matchups versus the two against whom NU has had the least success).

Loser: Wisconsin.  The Badgers lose their annual bout with Iowa, which has been a hotly contested battle over the last decade and a half or so and is an important rivalry game with a trophy.  They do preserve their battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe with Minnesota, the longest-running rivalry in college football.  But they also don't get a potential new rivalry with Nebraska, which Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez stumped for following the announcement that his alma mater would be joining the conference.  They're also stuck in probably the worst position geographically relative to the other members of their division.

Another Winner: Ohio State - Michigan.  The annual game will be maintained and will be played during the last weekend of Big Ten conference play each season, despite the fact that they were placed in opposite divisions.  After comments from the OSU and Michigan ADs during the BTN special, it's clear that there were discussions about moving the date earlier in the year, but that was quickly quashed thanks to a large fan uprising (and not just from OSU and Michigan fans).  Although this sets up a potential rematch in the conference championship, it was important that the two winningest programs in the "old" Big Ten be split up in order to maintain balance in the new conference, and it was obviously also important to keep the game during the last week of the regular season.

More Changes?

Nine Game Conference Schedule

That's right, we may not be done yet.  As has been discussed previously and Delany confirmed during the BTN special, a nine game conference schedule is quite possible beginning in 2015, although that has not yet been agreed upon by conference athletic directors and presidents (a decision they'll make unanimously, like they did when Nebraska was invited to join and like the division and scheduling decisions announced yesterday).  This will potentially allow another rotating opponent from the other division, which will eliminate situations where a Big Ten opponent drops off the schedule for four consecutive years.

A nine game conference slate would also mean unbalanced home/away Big Ten games, which will be interesting, but it's not unprecedented as the current Pac-10 plays a nine game conference slate in order to play all other teams within the conference.

The biggest impact this will have is in non-conference scheduling, as teams will be hard pressed to play home games, especially if they have five conference away games in a given year.  This means teams will likely only be able to schedule a BCS-conference non-conference opponent once in a given season, since such opponents typically demand home-and-home agreements.  The remaining two non-conference games will likely be filled with one mid-major home game and one FCS home game.

This realistically won't be that big of a deal from a strength of scheduling standpoint since the additional conference game and the addition of traditional power Nebraska to the Big Ten will add enough beef to the schedule to more than make up for that.  And all teams will have the potential to play in the conference title game, which will add a big time opponent to the resume at the latest possible point in the season.

It sounds like athletic directors are working on their non-conference scheduling contracts, many of which are already signed with dates through this decade, so we'll see if and when the nine game conference slate gets approved and when it rolls out.

Division Changes

Delany clearly left open the option of changes to the current divisional structure based on the success both on and off the field over the next two or more seasons.  I don't expect to see major changes really soon, although it is encouraging that the door was left open for change if necessary down the road.  This is obviously to avoid a Big XII type situation where one division (South) clearly became the more powerful one and eventually led to the erosion of their conference. 

Future Expansion

And all of that doesn't even consider the potential for future expansion, which Delany confirmed on the BTN special as well.  The Big Ten presidents will convene in December to discuss the status of expansion as the originally announced 12-18 month window arrives, and at that point they may either decide to continue expansion or put the topic to bed (at least for the next decade or so).  All bets are off if the expansion effort continues, but with Nebraska in the fold starting next year, the Big Ten will be in relatively good shape and is clearly one of the top two conferences nationally (along with the SEC).  I'll refrain from further comment and/or speculation since not only do I not believe it has a high likelihood of occurring, but the Big Ten has also been plenty busy bringing in Nebraska, leaving precious little time for further expansion investigations right now.


I, for one, am glad that the Big Ten divisions are settled and announced alongside the conference schedule for the next two seasons.  It is a time of change within the conference and nationally and it will be a fun ride once the games are played.

It has been quite a bit of information to digest just before the 2010 season kicks off; at least Northwestern doesn't play a Thursday night game like Ohio State, Indiana, and Minnesota, which gives those fanbases less than 24 hours to digest this news which has been building during the entire offseason.

Northwestern definitely ended up in a good place with its divisional assignment and schedule for the 2011-2012 seasons, and 'Cats fans can look forward to some entertaining games (annual matchups with Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska) and a shot to go to the Big Ten title game as well.

Go 'Cats!!!

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.