The New Big Ten division alignments and solving the Ohio State-Michigan Problem

Everyone’s doing it.  After months of discussing every possible conference realignment option, and even getting some things right, the college landscape saw four programs switch conferences:  Nebraska joined the Big 10, Colorado and Utah joined the Pacific Ten, and Boise State joined the Mountain West.   As discussed ad nauseum in other articles, the impetus for this expansion is increased television revenue and the ability for a conference to play a lucrative conference championship game (CCG hereafter).  With every pundit and his brother writing an article on how the Big 10 will split their twelve teams into two divisions of six, I felt compelled to throw my hat into ring.  If you are peering through the green tinted looking glass Mr. Delaney, I believe I have developed the best model to satisfy your most pressing concern.

According to published reports, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney has said that his priorities for splitting up the teams are in this order:  1) competitive balance; 2) maintaining the most important rivalries; and 3) geographical concerns.   With all due respect to a man recognized for his business genius, I believe that the three goals above are code for “what will be the most lucrative” for the conference visa-via television revenue, the reason the conference expanded in the first place.

First, I reject a couple of common misconceptions.  One is that the conference will give any serious consideration to geography.  Despite what Delaney has said, most people believe geography will be a factor, because it appeals to our inherent sense of an ordered universe.  Trust me, for a conference that was poised to add Texas or schools in the Atlantic northeast, geography will be fairly irrelevant.  The reality is that travel costs in this generation are but the proverbial drop in the bucket when considered against the backdrop of  television revenue.  It will matter little that Penn State has to fly a few hundred extra miles to Lincoln Nebraska when ABC is showing this game in prime time to two of the largest national fan bases in all of college football.

The other notion that I immediately reject is that Ohio State and Michigan must be in the same division.  So many pundits simply accept this as a given that they have completely missed the point of conference expansion in the first place.  Many believe these historic rivals will be placed in the same division because it is assumed that these two teams will continue to play annually during the season (and they will), setting up the possibility of a rematch in the CCG, and that such a result is unacceptable.  What’s better than historically the best rivalry in college football being played once a year?  The answer, of course, is playing that game twice a year.  Does this destroy tradition?  Sure it does, but so does putting Nebraska in the Big 10 in the first place.  And so does the idea of the Big Ten hosting a conference championship game.   In other words, the progressive thinking Delaney has proven that he’s willing to trade some traditions for wheelbarrows full of cash.  In fact, the possibility of selling this match-up to a network twice a season is so lucrative, I am absolutely convinced that the Big 10 will never consider putting these two teams in the same division just for this reason.

The other reason I think that the Big 10 needs to do this is because historically Michigan and Ohio State are the two best programs in the conference.  Any result that forces one of these teams to play a pretender runs the risk of turning the CCG game into the Big 12 farce of the last decade, one of several reasons Nebraska bailed on the failed Big 12 experiment.  It is precisely because the SEC has split their two best teams, Florida and Alabama, that the SEC CCG is the lucrative event that it is.  Would the Big Ten really want to watch and undefeated Ohio State and Michigan meet in week 12 only to hold a scrimmage a week later under the guise of a championship game?  While the rest of the college football world grimaced at the notion of an Ohio State-Michigan rematch for the national championship game in 2007, ratings for such a rematch in the Midwest would have rivaled any sporting event not named the Super Bowl.

The possibility of Ohio State and Michigan not playing the last game of the season might have been just fine with these two if it meant that they could actually play each other twice most seasons.

One legitimate concern is having the two teams play in the last week and then a week or two later for the CCG.  While my forthcoming suggestion might initially seem like blasphemy, I think “the Game” could be moved to say the ninth week of the season where it could be featured as the Big Ten marquee event.  The last week of the season, ala the SEC, would be the Conference’s rivarly week, with could feature games like Ohio State playing Penn State, Michigan playing Michigan State, Nebraska playing Iowa, Purdue playing Indiana, etc.  While this would take some time for OSU and UM fans to get used to, a season ending battle between Ohio State and Penn State, which will often be for the right to play in the CCG, and a matchup of the Michigan schools, is a nice consolation prize, especially with the possibility of a second Ohio State-Michigan game looming on the horizon in some of those seasons.  And a full week of rivalries, similiar to what the SEC does it’s last week, will be a better ratings draw for the Big Ten as a whole.

With these two caveats in mind, I begin the process of creating the two new divisions in the new Big 10.  The first order of business is to protect competitive balance.  I believe doing so is key to not only protect the integrity of the CCG, but also to ensure its long term economic viability.  With a little help from Stuart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, the chart below ranks the the 12 Big Ten teams by winning percentage for the last 17 seasons, a sample size sufficient to draw long term conclusions:

Recent Conference Records of Big Ten Teams and Nebraska

1. Ohio State 106-29-1 (.779) 7. Purdue 63-70-3 (.463)
2. Michigan 94-42 (.691) 8. Michigan State 63-72-1 (.463)
3. Nebraska 75-37 (.669) 9. Northwestern 59-77 (.434)
4. Penn State 86-50 (.632) 10. Illinois 45-90-1 (.331)
5. Wisconsin 79-54-3 (.581) 11. Minnesota 44-92 (.324)
6. Iowa 71-64-1 (.522) 12. Indiana 33-103 (.243)

I can’t emphasize enough the cyclical nature of college football.  While Michigan has struggled the last few years, it would be foolish to ignore a legacy that has stood the test of time.  Thus, when deciding which divisions to put teams into, I will assume that in the foreseeable future Michigan football will once again return to prominence.  Also, Delaney has openly stated that preserving rivalries will be a key, while noting that not all rivalries are created equal.  I have identified 16 Big 10 rivalries based on tradition, television appeal, or both.   The existing rivalries, roughly in order of importance, are as follows:

1)  Ohio State v. Michigan; 2) Michigan v. Michigan State; 3) Indiana v. Purdue; 4) Iowa v. Minnesota; 5)  Wisconsin v. Minnesota; 6) Michigan v. Minnesota; 7) Illinois v. Northwestern; 8) Wisconsin v. Iowa; 9) Ohio State v. Penn State; 10) Nebraska v. Iowa; 11) Penn State v. Michigan State; 12) Indiana v. Michigan State; 13) Illinois v. Ohio State; 14) Ohio State v. Wisconsin; 15) Purdue v. Illinois; and 16) Penn State v. Minnesota.

Now, a few observations here.  I didn’t spend too much time deciding whether Indiana v. Michigan State is a bigger game than Illinois v. Ohio State.  The point is that the list above attempts to roughly approximate the relative values of conference rivalries going forward, in terms of preserving tradition and television revenue.  Also, keeping with the money theme discussed above, while historically Wisconsin v. Minnesota may be considered a bigger rivalry than Ohio State v. Penn State, the latter clearly has more marketing appeal than the former.    Thus, when deciding which rivalries to preserve, I may allow some higher on the list to fall by the wayside as a compromise solution.

If fans are willing to watch 19 Yankee-Red Sox games, then why exactly are two Ohio State-Michigan games too many?

Here are a few more rules that may be obvious to the ardent college football fan.  NCAA rules mandate that each subdivision has at least six teams, meaning that the Big 10 will have exactly two divisions of six teams.   I will assume in my model that the Conference will play 9 in conference games and 3 out of conference games, which represents an increase of one confernce game.  While I have seen some suggest that the Big 10 will consider playing 10 conference games, I do not believe they will do this.  A team needs to win at least six games to be bowl eligible, making an extra out of conference match-up against a weaker opponent an optimum way to maximize bowl eligibility.  Many college analysts have concluded that while the Pac Ten’s round robin tournament may have been the best way to determine a conference champion, the extra game against a strong BCS opponent may have been one of the reasons the conference has been unable to secure a second BCS bid regularly.  Given the money such a bid generates for the conference, rest assured the Big Ten will not make this mistake.

My model will have each team playing all five opponents in their sub division, 4 teams in the other subdivision with one protected cross-over game each year, plus the three out of conference games for a total of twelve.  With this explanation as a back drop, and without further ado, my proposed divisions:

East: (1) Ohio State; (4) Penn State; (5) Wisconsin; (7) Purdue; (10) Illinois; (12) Indiana

West: (2) Michigan; (3) Nebraska; (6) Iowa; (8) Michigan State; (9) Northwestern; (11) Minnesota

The numbers in parenthesis above reflect each team’s rank by winning percentage in the chart reprinted above.  The result of the breakdown is that the total for each subdivision rankings is exactly 39, meaning that when considering the relative winning percentages of each team by subdivision for the last 17 years, we have achieved an identical numerical balance.  As I have said above, I do believe that success in college football needs to be gauged on the long term merits of each school, rejecting the notion of short term trends.   Also notice that my model puts two schools with 800 total lifetime victories in each division; Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State, the likely prohibitive favorites to compete for a conference championship each season.

Notice immediately what the divisions do when considering that each team will play every team in their subdivision annually.  Immediately protected are Ohio State v. Penn State, Indiana v. Purdue, Wisconsin v. Ohio State, Michigan v. Michigan State, Nebraska v. Iowa, Iowa v. Minnesota, Michigan v. Minnesota, and several other of the lesser rivalries on my list above.

In addition, each team will have one designated cross over game each year.  The ones I have picked are as follows: Ohio State v. Michigan; Penn State v. Nebraska;  Wisconsin v. Iowa; Illinois v. Northwestern; Indiana v. Michigan State; and Purdue v. Minnesota.  I will admit that some of these cross over games will strike some readers as a bit curious, as my decision was based on a compromise of protecting key rivalries while also attempting to protect competitive balance.  Obviously protecting the Ohio State-Michigan game needs no further comment.   My decision to match Penn State with Nebraska and Iowa with Wisconsin was both an acknowledgment that these games may evolve into good rivalries while also pairing schools historically with similar winning percentages, games that will not only be meaningful more often than not, but games that have more network appeal for advertisers.  Furthermore, having as many of the traditionally good programs square off against each other regularly reduces the possibility that the conference will be decided in part because such teams avoided each other during the regular season.

With the cross over games added in, it means that I was able to preserve 13 of the 16 rivalries listed above.  Eight of the top ten rivalries identified above will be played annually, with only arguably Wisconsin v. Minnesota and Penn State v. Michigan State left out of the mix, two games that quite frankly are not games that would draw large television audiences.  The remaining two cross conference games would be rotated evenly among the remaining five teams in the other sub division, meaning that for the most part you would play every team at least once every other year.

I know that some will be troubled by the prospect of a possible Ohio State-Michigan rematch.  As my readers know, I was dragged into the era of conference expansion, kicking and screaming, concerned that the Big Ten’s CCG might mirror the failed Big 12 experiment in the last decade.  I am now convinced that a model that brings us “The Game” occasionally twice a year, protects the integrity of the game by allowing historically the two best teams to play for the title, and a model that increases revenue for the conference as a whole, is the only way to go.

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8 replies

  1. Michael, you must have been a math whiz because your calculations stretched my skills. That said, I am withholding my usual paean to tradition and will consider what you propose. And since, in the late 1800’s when Fielding Yost coached Ohio Wesleyan, that little school played both Ohio State and Michigan, I do realize that competitions change over time. Maybe it’s the fact that I am a huge Michigan fan and that Ohio State has clobbered us recently that I find the chance to play them a second time not offensive, but an appealing chance for redemption. Reserving judgment, I see that you have more fairly distributed strong teams and fan bases, which seems wholly equitable and profitable. This column is a terrific way to enjoy my cup of coffee. I always look forward to it and appreciate your dedication, intelligence, and skill.

  2. As I read your column all clad in scarlet and gray. I found it very exciting and hope that those in command read it carefully. I have also sent this link to my Purdue family, didn’t bother with the
    Go Bucks

    • Douglas, I’ve discussed this column with others elsewhere and the only negative feedback I’ve gotten from a particular fan base is from Wisconsin fans, who a) want a rivalry with Nebraska; and b) don’t want to lose the Minnesota game. Unfortunately, it will be impossible to accomodate everyone or maintain every rivalry. Some have objected to the idea of Ohio State and Michigan possibly playing twice. I simply think protecting the integrity of the CCG is more important than maintaining a tradition of playing one time a year the last week of the season, as important as that tradition may be. Thanks for reading my article, taking the time to write a comment, and forwarding it to friends and family. Hope you enjoyed it.

  3. Mike, good story, the only problem with the rankings by winning percentages is that the SI guy throws out Nebraska’s stretch from 1993-1995. They were 36-1 over that 3 yr period and dominated college football with 2 titles and with “instant replay” another title in 1993 over Florida State. So to say they didn’t play a strong schedule is absurd. Michigan St hosted them in 1995 and got blown out 50-10 (Nick Saban). This addition of 3 years moves Nebraska above Ohio State in Winning percentage. So the breakdown should be like this:

    1. Nebraska 2. Ohio State
    4. Penn State 3. Michigan
    5. Wisconsin 6. Iowa
    8. Michigan St. 7. Purdue
    10. Illinois 9. Northwestern
    12. Indiana 10. Minnesota

    This makes the conference much more aligned by power. As you said travel shouldn’t be an issue…its a drop in the well. Barry Alvarez (Wisc) ex Nebraskan loves this idea.

    • Mike, I wasn’t looking for exact numbers, but rough parity. I am a big fan of looking at broad history, but I do wonder if the glory days for Nebraska might be a thing of the past anyway. Don’t get me wrong, Pelini has the program back on track and I have identified Nebraska as one of the elite Big 10 teams (with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State the other three), but their days of going 36-1 over a stretch are probably over (the Big 10 as a whole will be more competitive than the old Big 12 in my opinion). And even though I am a huge Ohio State fan, with the addition of Nebraska, my guess is that the Buckeyes may come back to the pack at least a bit in the Big 10 (I don’t think, unfortunately, one conference title after another is in the future cards for the Scarlet and Gray, though who knows). The point of using the winning percentages was to try and get rough parity between the two divisions, and if I am right about Nebraska’s days of dominance being a thing of the past, including those numbers would have skewed the results a bit (though I don’t have a problem with you including them and bumping them up over Ohio State, as it really doesn’t change my overall structure anyway since I did identify Nebraska as one of the four elite and split them 2-2).

      Thanks for the post!

  4. Did you even pay attention to what you wrote? In the “Rivalry Week” games you put Wisconsin vs. Minnesota (which is not a problem when you recognize they have the longest running rivalry in FBS with 119 meetings since 1890, the only missed game happened when Teddy Roosevelt suspended the game in the early 1900s for some “danger” reason). The problem occurs because you then don’t protect the game via being in the same division or protected cross-over game. You can’t have a rivalry week game that isn’t going to be played 2 out of every 5 years. I guess the years they don’t play each other those two teams get a bye that week. Take another stab at it, you’ve got the right idea. Personally I think you need to take 2 teams from each quartet: East (Michigan,MSU, OSU, PSU); Central(Indiana, Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois); West(Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska) into each division. Then ideally the cross-over games match you up with one of the 2 teams from your same region that are in the opposite division. The problem there is you wouldn’t be able to protect the PSU-Nebraska game which could be one hell of a show. Still it protects rivalries better, which is one of the more important things to the presidents who have to approve the divisions.

  5. Brian, you are absolutely correct. i spent about 4 hours reviewing the matchups and charting this out, and I still missed one. Thanks for calling this to my attention; as you can see, I revised the article to corect this error.

    As this highlights, regardless of how the teams will be divided, it will present a huge challenge for the schedule maker. Since writing this article, and after having several conversations with fellow Big 10 fans, I have further become convinced that the Big 10 will in all likelihood not group a large number of their rivalries in the final week, as I have suggested. This is because it will probably be better from a marketing perspective to spread out your most valuable commodities rather than try and cram them all into one day’s tv schedule.

    Thanks for reading my post and for your thoughtful feedback. Despite the glaring error, I hope you enjoyed the rest of the article.


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