Big Ten Realignment
East & the West
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By the time everyone finally figures out who's in the Leaders and who's in the Legends, it's all going to change.
The Big Ten announced that it's going to a nine-game conference schedule starting in 2016, but more importantly, the divisions are changing.
What used to be the Leaders – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin – and the Legends – Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska and Northwestern – will change in 2014 thanks to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers.
In two years the new East will be Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers, and the new West will be Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin.
So how does this all affect the Big Ten and the rest of the conference football world? Who wins and who loses with all the big changes?
Winner - Michigan vs. Ohio State
It hadn't happened in the first two years of Big Ten division play, but it was coming. It would've been bad for college football, the Big Ten, and one of the biggest rivalries in sports if Michigan played Ohio State in the last game of the regular season and then had a rematch in the Big Ten championship game. It could still happen this season, but starting in 2014 – when the tremendous Buckeye and Wolverine recruiting classes kick in full-force – now the game will really, really mean something.
There are the Michigan and Ohio State recruiting classes, and there's the rest of the Big Ten. The Big Two are bringing in talent, speed and athleticism at a whole other level, and they should be the league's dominant forces over the next several seasons. With the two in the same division, now the Big Ten will have a showcase regular-season game that should be front and center on the national map, and it'll also have a Big Ten championship game to promote.
Loser - The rest of the East
It's not like Wisconsin was chopped cheese, but with what Brady Hoke is putting together, Michigan is an upgrade in the divisional swap. Michigan State is better than anyone in the current Leaders except for Ohio State and Wisconsin, and it'll only make the tougher of the two divisions even harder to get through. Thanks for playing, Indiana, Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers. It's been a slice.
Winner - Nebraska vs. Wisconsin
The two major "recruit to a type" Big Ten powers now don't have to beat Michigan or Ohio State to win a division. Not having to fight through Michigan State isn't a bad deal, either. Iowa is slipping, Illinois is a non-factor – until it hires Bobby Petrino – Minnesota is Minnesota, Northwestern is Northwestern, and Purdue won't ever get the big-time talent to be a regular force. The Badgers and Huskers caught a gigantic break.
Loser - The new guys
Welcome to your new conference, Maryland and Rutgers. There's Ohio State. And over there is Michigan. That's Michigan State … and over here is Clayton, Sidney, Jugdish, Mohammet, Lonny. Grab a seat and make yourselves at home. Don't be shy about helping yourselves to punch and cookies.
The newest Big Ten members aren't getting any sort of a break, being thrown in with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State to deal with on a yearly basis. It'll be great for attendance at both schools, but it'll be a dogfight just to keep their heads above the bowl water.
Winner - The new playoff system
Jim Delany is Jim Delany for a reason. In the new world of the four-team college football playoff kicking off in 2014, now there's an honest shot that a monster Michigan team will play a monster Ohio State team in the last game of the regular season, the winner will go on to win the Big Ten championship, and the 11-1/10-2 loser will still be in the picture for one of the four spots. If the Michigan-Ohio State winner goes 13-0/12-1 with a Big Ten championship, there's an honest shot of the conference getting two teams in. Even better for the conference would be if a dominant Nebraska or Wisconsin rolled through the West to add more teams to the mix, even with the interdivisional games to deal with.
Loser - The non-SEC conferences
Play this out. Let's say Michigan and Ohio State own the Big Ten and are both 11-0 going into their titanic matchup. Or even if one has a loss, there's still a great chance of a playoff committee deciding that these might be two of the best teams in college football. It'll be tough to sell the world that an 11-2 ACC champion is better than an 11-1 Michigan with a loss to OSU, and it'll be impossible to argue that a 10-3 Pac-12 champ should get in over an 11-1 Ohio State with a loss to the Wolverines.
Winner - Geography
Americans might be geographically challenged, but it's not hard to figure out that Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State are on one side of the country and Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota aren't.
Loser - Dopey division names
Every year at the Big Ten media days I joke around with a few of the players and coaches asking if they can name all the teams in their division, and no one gets it right without going through a major brain strain. Now, all you need to know is that Ohio State and Michigan are in the same division with Indiana and all the schools on the East side, and everyone else is in the other division.
Winner - Rivalry games
The rivalry games were kept intact in the Leaders-Legends format, but it isn't fair that Michigan and Ohio State have to play each other and Wisconsin gets Minnesota. In 2014, the Paul Bunyan Axe game between the Gophers and Badgers is in the West, Michigan has its rivalry dates with Michigan State and Ohio State in the East, the Floyd of Rosedale border war between Iowa and Minnesota stays intact, Nebraska can grow its natural geographic rivalries with Iowa and Minnesota, and Northwestern and Illinois has its game in the West.
Loser - Indiana vs. Purdue
Apparently the Old Oaken Bucket battle between Indiana and Purdue just doesn't matter so much to the Big Ten big-wigs. The Little Brown Jug game between Michigan and Minnesota will be messed around with, too. These rivalries can still be played out, but they'll be interdivisional battles.
Winner - Fans who like to travel
It's 628 miles from Lincoln, Neb., to West Lafayette, Ind., but for the most part, fans of teams in the West don't have to travel all that far if they want to see a big divisional matchup. It's eight hours from Ann Arbor, Mich., to College Park, Md., and 12 hours from Bloomington, Ind., to Piscataway, N.J., but again, for the most part, it's not going to be a major effort for fans to travel to see key battles.
Loser - Non-conference games
There are some big Big Ten non-conference games coming in the near future with Ohio State doing a home-and-home set with Oklahoma in 2016-2017, Wisconsin facing Alabama in 2016 and Michigan and Michigan State always have their dates with Notre Dame, but for the most part, the non-conference games are likely to showcase a boatload of cream-puffs, considering the new nine-game conference schedule. If you're a mid-range Big Ten program who has to deal with the big boys in the division, you have to build up a base of wins to get to bowl eligibility.
Overall, the divisional name changes, putting Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, and the realignment to make geographic sense should go over well. And then will come the next wave of conference expansion to put everything back to Square One.