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.
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):
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:
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.
This analysis will be much shorter, which will invariably elicit cries of East Coast bias from my readers on the Left Coast, but actually it's due to the conference's geographic simplicity. Also, competitive balance is not as big of an issue in the Pac-10, where USC is the lone program that's sustained any long run of dominance over the past 20 years (and even the Trojans had their down period in the late '90s) and the two schools currently struggling the most (Washington and Washington State) combined for three Rose Bowl appearances from 1997 to 2002. It's a naturally cyclical league.
With Colorado and Utah, the Pac-10 has added yet another sensible geographic pairing to go with existing partners USC/UCLA, Cal/Stanford, Arizona/Arizona State, Washington/Washington State and Oregon/Oregon State. Essentially, we will be splitting each division into three pairings rather than six teams, and for the most part the league falls into a logical North-South split.
The North division will presumably include the Oregon and Washington schools.
The South division will include the Southern California and Arizona schools.
Then it becomes a matter of choosing whether Colorado/Utah go to the North or South -- and that could provide the prime source of closed-door bickering. Colorado AD Mike Bohn initially indicated that the school had been promised a slot in the South due to its large Southern California alumni base, but Scott quickly refuted Bohin's comments. The truth is, everyone wants to be in USC/UCLA's division because of the assured annual road trip to the conference's recruiting gold mine (something every school enjoys now with the round-robin schedule).
Despite the fact that coaches Chip Kelly (Oregon), Steve Sarkisian (Washington) and Paul Wulff (Washington State) have all gone on the record that losing the SoCal trip isn't that big a deal to them, other accounts suggest the Northwest schools aren't pleased about the possibility, with Washington AD Scott Woodwardtelling a Seattle radio station: "I will be at the table, fists pounding, representing the University of Washington's interests.''
Unfortunately, there's no getting around the fact that somebody's got to play in the North, and, whether you use an eight- or nine-game conference schedule, there's no way to promise an annual L.A. trip to six cross-division schools (unless the league is willing to let USC and UCLA both play more home games than road games). Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has proposed a "zipper plan," in which the league would split each of the six natural rivals into opposite divisions but still guarantee a crossover game between them. It's a sensible idea, and it would solve the Northwest/L.A. dilemma, but it would create what I consider a more problematic consequence: None of the existing natural rivalries (the Apple Cup, the Civil War, the Big Game, et al.) could be played at the end of the season, because theoretically any of those teams could wind up facing each other again the next week in a championship game.
Therefore, the North-South model seems inevitable. And it should be noted that the Northwest schools all recruit heavily in Northern California as well, so as long as you split Cal and Stanford from USC and UCLA, everyone still gets to go to The Golden State at least once, if not twice a year. The schedule-makers could also find a way to make sure every North teams at least plays either USC or UCLA, whether home or away, every year. Therefore, your divisions are:
As for the championship game, most followers logically assume it will be played at the Rose Bowl, since Los Angeles is the league's unofficial epicenter, and the Rose Bowl its jewel, but I wouldn't be so sure. For one thing, the teams would (in most years) be playing for the chance to return to Pasadena a month later. But more pressingly, the Pac-10 could be faced with much the same dilemma that's plagued the ACC's championship game in recent years. Absent an L.A. school, there could be a whole lot of empty seats. Pac-10 schools aren't exactly known for their traveling fan hordes.
Don't be surprised, therefore, if Scott pushes for an idea he quietly floated a few month back: Playing the title game at a participant's home stadium. It's not unprecedented (Conference USA does it), though it would certainly be controversial.
Or, the game could rotate to sites like Seattle (Qwest Field) and Glendale, Ariz. (University of Phoenix Stadium). Like the divisional alignments, nothing's yet been decided in either conference.
But it sure is fun to try and guess.