Stewart Mandel of SI.com’s Big Ten proposal is below. It makes a lot of sense – while I would prefer to have Penn State within the same division as Ohio State, I would rather ensure Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division, so as to avoid any possibility of a rematch for The Big Ten championship game. This would ensure THE GAME would remain the last game of the regular season.
With the Big Ten and Pac-10 going to 12 teams as soon as 2011 and, in all likelihood, adding a conference championship game, I've spent more time lately than I care to admit trying to figure out how the respective leagues will split themselves into divisions. It's a somewhat tedious exercise, yet undeniably fun. And this budding hobby isn't limited to fans and media. I spoke to one coach last week who said he and his athletic director had spent that morning sketching out various scenarios on a board.
Anyway, I'm fairly certain I've got it all figured out. Jim Delany and Larry Scott: Feel free to take my ideas.
The Big Ten
At the press conference announcing Nebraska's addition, Delany clearly spelled out the priorities by which the Big Ten will decide its divisions. Most important will be ensuring competitive fairness. Second will be preserving rivalries (a particularly daunting task in the league of Paul Bunyan's Axe and the Little Brown Jug). Third will be geography.
One thing I've noticed during the realignment craze is that many fans have too short a memory when it comes to the first consideration. College programs go through up and down cycles. You can't get caught up in Michigan's past two dismal seasons or Iowa's recent Orange Bowl win. You have to consider a team's performance over a longer time period when defining its "typical" competitive level.
With the Big Ten, we have a convenient starting point of 1993, the year Penn State joined the conference. That gives us 17 seasons worth of data and encompasses high and low points for nearly every program. It gets a little trickier when incorporating Nebraska, which not only played in a different conference, but which was still a member of the much-weaker Big 8 in '93. In the Huskers' case, I used only their records since 1996, when they joined the Big 12.
Here are the standings from that time span (conference records only):
Recent Conference Records of Big Ten Teams and Nebraska
This list shows that the teams fall into four general tiers: The "elite" (Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State), the "contenders" (Wisconsin and Iowa), the "middlings" (Purdue, Michigan State and Northwestern) and the "also-rans" (Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana). To achieve true competitive fairness, both divisions would contain roughly equal numbers from all groups. But that might not be possible due to the second consideration: rivalries.
The Big Ten takes its annual rivalry games very seriously -- there are no fewer than 12 traveling trophies (do you know who plays for the Governor's Victory Bell?) -- but as Delany himself said, "Not all rivalries are equal." In other words, the most important of them will be protected, but some will unavoidably be disrupted (certainly one of Minnesota's four).
Which games fall into which category?
• Must be preserved at all costs: Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, Indiana-Purdue (Old Oaken Bucket), Iowa-Minnesota (Floyd of Rosedale) and Wisconsin-Minnesota (Paul Bunyan's Ax).
• We're sure as heck going to try: Michigan-Minnesota (Little Brown Jug), Illinois-Northwestern (Land of Lincoln), Wisconsin-Iowa (Heartland Trophy) and Ohio State-Penn State.
• They'll barely notice it's gone: Penn State-Michigan State (Land Grant Trophy), Indiana-Michigan State (Old Brass Spittoon), Illinois-Ohio State (Illibuck), Purdue-Illinois (Purdue Cannon) and Penn State-Minnesota (Governor's Victory Bell).
As we get set to form our divisions, we do so with the following understandings:
1. Ohio State and Michigan MUST be in the same division. There's no way either the conference or the schools wants to touch the tradition of these teams' season-ending showdown, and you certainly don't want the possibility of them meeting again a week later in a title game.
2. Penn State is going to be a geographic outlier. There are only three schools within a reasonable drive of Happy Valley (Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State), and it's nearly impossible to achieve the first two goals without separating the Nittany Lions from that group. That doesn't mean they can't still play them regularly.
3. Nebraska has several logical new rivals, most notably Iowa and any or all of Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State, while Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is lobbying hard for an annual season-ending game with the Huskers. These are considerations as well.
So here's what I did. Treating the teams' above standings as "seeds," I tinkered around with a bunch of different combinations with the goal of achieving a combined seeding that's equal in both divisions, while also maintaining the most important rivalries. I now present the result:
The 12-Team Big Ten
In addition to its divisional slate, each team would have an annual crossover game, just as in the SEC. They would be Ohio State-Penn State, Michigan-Nebraska, Purdue-Iowa, Michigan State-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois and Indiana-Minnesota.
If you add up the seeds listed in parentheses next to each team, you'll find that in both divisions they come to 39 -- perfect balance. All six crossover games involve teams within one tier of each other. And of the 14 rivalry games mentioned earlier, 10 will still be played annually, including all but one in the top two groupings. (The exception: Michigan-Minnesota. We'll miss the Little Brown Jug, but it had already fallen off the Big Ten's annual schedule, including this season.)
All that's left is picking the championship site.