Competition, not realignment is the real answer for Big Ten
There has been much talk bandied about in the wake of the Big Ten being left out of the College Football Playoff for the first time this season. Most of that talk has centered around the West division and how Wisconsin’s annual cake walk to the conference championship game is damaging the conference as a whole.
The kneejerk reaction seems to be a call for conference realignment. The rationale is understandable, more balance between the divisions would prevent an untested team from playing in the title game and help the four power teams in the East – Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State – from taking each other out of both the conference and national title pictures.
On the surface, it seems logical. But dig a little deeper and the major flaws are readily apparent.
First, what would realignment look like? Going back to the much maligned Legends and Leaders format would split the conference like this: Legends-Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Rutgers; Leaders – Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. This is the original format with newcomers Rutgers and Maryland added. Another popular option is moving geographically from East/West to North/South. This proposal would split the conference this way: North – Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin; South – Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.
What would either of these proposed alignments actually accomplish? Balance, sure a little. But now instead of boasting arguably the toughest division in all of college football, the strength of schedule for the current East teams would be diminished significantly. Ohio State and Penn State would be trading Michigan and Michigan State for either Wisconsin and Illinois or Nebraska and Iowa. Conversely, Michigan and Michigan State would now match up with either Nebraska and Iowa or Wisconsin and Northwestern. Realignment would bolster Wisconsin, but that’s about it.
What the Big Ten really needs is for those teams in the West not named Wisconsin to stop being complacent with mediocrity. Nebraska was supposed to be the perennial challenger to Wisconsin in the West, but for a myriad of reasons that hasn’t happened. The hiring of Scott Frost this week has the potential to shake up not just the division, but the entire conference. The Big Ten can only hope at this point the success Frost had leading UCF to an undefeated regular season will eventually transfer to the Big Ten, sooner rather than later. Similarly, Minnesota is hoping P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to an undefeated season in 2016, can continue to build on the foundation laid by Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. Pat Fitzgerald seems to have Northwestern on the cusp, going 26-12 (18-8 in the Big Ten) over the last three years, but the Wildcats have seemingly been on the cusp since Fitzgerald arrived in 2006. Illinois and Purdue are both in the midst of yet another rebuild under relatively new coaches.
That leaves Iowa. Kirk Ferentz took over at Iowa in 1999 and had the Hawkeyes atop the conference by 2002. From 2002-2004 Iowa went 31-7 with two Big Ten titles and wins over Florida and LSU in the Outback and Capital One Bowls, respectively. From 2005-2017, the Hawks have won 10 or more games in a season only twice, with no conference championships (though they did win the West in 2015) and only three bowl wins. Granted Iowa has some impressive victories at Kinnick Stadium in that time, notably ending unbeaten seasons for Penn State in 2008 and Michigan in 2016 and a blowout of Ohio State this year. But the conference has a big problem if earning a bowl berth and occasionally upsetting a highly ranked team is considered an acceptable level of play from any team not in clear rebuild mode.
If the Big Ten, and its fans, want to fix the balance issue the solution needs to be better competition, not realignment.