The four neighbors share borders, values, rivalries and would seem to make perfect division mates. Nebraska is the fourth winningest college football program of all time, while Wisconsin and the dirty Hawkeyes have strong programs who in the last 20 years have won a Big Ten title, played in the Rose Bowl, and seem to make regular trips to New Year's Day Bowls. Iowa and Wisconsin have a strong rivalry building, as the two have met 85 times, the first in 1894. The Huskers and Hawkeyes are neighboring farming states who absolutely, positively eat, sleep and breathe Nebraska and Iowa football, and despite the two border states having played so little over the years, there's still a healthy rivalry brewing between the fan bases. Wisconsin and Nebraska have almost no history, but considering they share the same colors, and their fans share many of the same values and passions, them meeting annually would be a most natural fit.
Minnesota? Um yeah we were good like 50 years ago, and our sucktitude of late, especially in games against the three schools, have us bordering on irrelevance in the minds of their fans. But, the one trump card we have to play is that the Gophers have more history with these three programs than any other school in the country:
- The Gophs and Badgers have Division 1's oldest rivalry, as they've met 119 times, the first in 1890. They've played for Paul Bunyan's Axe- THE best rivalry trophy in sports- since 1948.
- The Gophs are Iowa's oldest rival, as the two first met in 1891, and have played for the Floyd of Rosedale trophy every year since 1935
- Minnesota has played Nebraska 51 times, more than any other Big Ten school, and lead the series 29-20-2. Of course, the Huskers have won the past 14 straight meetings, which includes the Gophs worst lost ever when Nebraska thumped them 84-13, so you can't really call this a rivalry.
Still, if you're going to split the Big Ten into two divisions, these four schools clearly belong together. Add the two neighboring schools Illinois and Northwestern from The Land of Lincoln and it would create two perfect divisions from the standpoint of competitiveness, geography, and maintain rivalries. Honestly, not one fanbase in the Big Ten would be upset if the divisions were split with a simple East/West geographic split. Everyone wins right?
Wrong. The only people who don't like this idea are the ones who drive the bus when it comes to college football- the Almighty Dollar. Yes television execs would not be thrilled to have three of the four highest profile Big Ten schools- Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State- in the same division. For television it'd be fantastic when Nebraska represents the West and would play any of the Big Three east schools. But what happens in the years Nebraska doesn't make it? The TV folks like the odds of splitting these four teams to better ensure they meet in conference championship games more often.
The problem here, besides the obvious fact that what's good for the fans is not being judged as good for the conference, is that this reasoning is flawed. I haven't seen anyone questioning the Big Ten's reasoning for NOT wanting to split the divisions by geography. Hear me out on this one, if you will...
With the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten now has four strong, nationally recognized college football powers, which includes Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. All four of those schools "move the needle" nationally when they're on TV, which is why the conference obviously would like two of those four to meet in their new conference championship game as much as possible.
I totally get that. I would not argue that those four schools are the four most popular, and that even though Wisconsin and Iowa have excellent programs, they still aren't in that class of the other four for national followin. I also understand that the Buckeyes, Wolverines, and Nittany Lions have won or shared the past eight straight Big Ten titles, and have been extremely successful over the years.
SI.com's Stewart Mandel gave his opinion on what Big Ten realignment should look like, and was the first to use actual records to back up the claim that the Big Three shouldn't be in the same division. Mandel looked at the records of the 11 current Big Ten schools since the conference added Penn State in 1993, and looked at the Husker's record since the Big 12 was formed in 1996. Here's the chart he came up with:
1. Ohio State 106-29-1 (.779)
2. Michigan 94-42 (.691)
3. Nebraska 75-37 (.669)
4. Penn State 86-50 (.632)
5. Wisconsin 79-54-3 (.581)
6. Iowa 71-64-1 (.522)
7. Purdue 63-70-3 (.463)
8. Michigan State 63-72-1 (.463)
9. Northwestern 59-77 (.434)
10. Illinois 45-90-1 (.331)
11. Minnesota 44-92 (.324)
12. Indiana 33-103 (.243)
That right there is some good information. Despite Michigan's recent struggles, as well as the recent strong play of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska (all three schools should start 2010 ranked nationally in the top 10), it shows over two decades how good the "Big Three" and Nebraska have been.
Now I could argue that there's no guarantee Michigan will return to its Lloyd Carr glory days (how ironic- and TRUE- is that statement for Michigan fans?), but Mandel gives a pretty clear view of exactly what conference Commish Jim Delany and company will be looking at: that based on these stats the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Nittany Lions, and Huskers have been, and will continue to be, the four flagship programs for the conference.
Fine. So just to be clear, maximizing TV dollars for your title game is the ultimate goal for the Big Ten, right? They are hoping to get the biggest ratings year and year out for the next decade for that game, and the best way to ensure that happens to have as few championship games as possible that DON'T include at least one of the Big Four, and hoping to have as many as possible that would include at least two of those four?
So if that's the case, I have one simple question: wouldn't splitting these four up actually HURT your chances of doing that?
Splitting them two-and-two just means a BETTER chance of not having any of them in the conference title game and giving you worse ratings. While it seems like Ohio State would win any division every year for eternity based on the way they've played under Jim Tressell, they did have some "struggles" under previous head coach John Cooper (I use finger quotes around the word "struggles" because it was a span that 95% of college football fanbases, including Minnesota, would kill for) where they played in the Rose Bowl just once between 1986-1998, when the BCS was then created.
As mentioned earlier Michigan is down now and there are zero guarantees Rich Rod, or the next coach, quickly get them back to an elite program. Penn State is great now but from 2000-2004 were just 26-33. Nebraska, once the most dominant program in the country, are still awaiting their return to glory since legendary coach Tom Osborne retired after winning a share of the 1997 national championship. Frank Solich took over, and in hind sight had a good run going 58-13 from 1998-2003, but because he didn't win the Huskers national titles and ONLY averaged nine wins a season, he was run out of Lincoln on a rail. The next four years under Bill Callahan from 2004-2007 were the definition of average with a record of 27-22. Bo Pellini looks to be getting things back to a championship level with a 10 win season in 2009 and the school's first national ranking since 2005, but again, all of the recent history for our Big Four schools show dominance is never permanent. So to split these four two-and-two almost guarantees less meetings between them in a conference title game.
Having Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the same division means you're almost guaranteed to have one of those three in your conference title game every year- and just having one of those three automatically means bigger ratings because of their national following. Sure playing the Huskers would give you a ratings bonanza, but even against Iowa or Wisconsin the numbers would be very strong because of the success of those programs. And when Northwestern or Illinois has a sneaky season and represents the West, you still have a much better chance of getting good TV numbers because you'd have a much better chance of one of the Big Three representing the East to offset a less "popular" program being in the title game.
By my count, a simple geographic split of the Big Ten would keep All of the key rivalries intact, current and new ones would be strengthened, the divisions would be very competitive AND TV execs would have a much better chance of maximizing revenues for the Big Ten championship game by keeping Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the same division. Sounds like a real win-win for everyone. Now if only I could convince the Big Ten of this.