Contrary to our conference’s numerical reference (which is so passe – see Pac-10, Big 12), Nebraska is the 12th team to join the Big Ten, which cleans up nicely to give us a much-sought-after even split of 6 teams apiece for – wait for it – conference divisions! Score!
Jim Delany (hereafter: the Commish) broke out his three primary considerations for divisional alignment: 1. competitive fairness, 2. rivalries, 3. geography. Cue Dr. Saturday, who interprets comments from the Commish as such:
1. Splitting up Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the three programs responsible for eight straight conference championships/automatic BCS berths and four of seven at-large BCS bids since 2002; and
2. Preserving the prominence of the Ohio State-Michigan game in the regular-season finale.
If we split just based on geography, you’d get a nice, clean dividing line down the Illinois-Indiana border. Breakout would be as such:
- East division: Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State
- West division: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Minnesota
Why not just base it on geography? Because apparently there’s a lesson here from the Big 12, which has been divisionally split primarily by geography, and has crowned a football champion from the South division 8 times in the last 10 years. And as Doc Saturday points out above, most of the recent success has come from three teams that would fit cleanly (by geography) into an eastern division.
When we look at the rivalries, we again come across some logical groupings (that, too, have a geographic bent to them). Let’s take this from west to east. You have one grouping that includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, with Nebraska being the fourth logical addition to this group. Next up you have Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue. And finally you have Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Based on our geographic split from above, the vast majority of the major rivalries would be maintained.
Under all three measures of average ranking, the 12 teams can be cleanly grouped into four tiers:
- Ohio State, by itself.
- Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin
- Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue
- Illinois, Indiana
As KJ explains:
A simple East-West alignment splits the six teams in the first two tiers into two groups of three and splits each of the other two tiers neatly in half, as well. Tough to beat that. … Anything you do [sic] place more emphasis on competitive fairness leads to a marginal improvement, while creating significant disruptions in the other two categories of consideration.
So there you have it. MSU ends up in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – three teams that have the dominant programs in the conference in the last decade. I’m not sure this alignment does much for MSU’s NCAA football odds for winning a conference championship, but I take the Tom Izzo approach here. If you’re not willing to take on the best and use those programs as a measuring stick, then maybe you need to reassess your priorities.