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Lessons From the Past: Why Big Ten Divisional Alignment Has Only One Solution

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With Big Ten expansion looming, some want to consider "competitive balance" when creating divisions for football, while ignoring geography. Map owners and students of Big Ten history know: fighting geography is a mistake.

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Dateline: 1913. Subject: Big Ten Expansion.

"I believe that, should the conference split into divisions for football as has been proposed, we must consider the relative strength of the programs. We do not wish to have one division laden with powerhouses and the other stocked with the weaker teams of the conference.

"Therefore, as we add Ohio State to the conference, we must take care that powerhouses Chicago and Minnesota are in separate divisions. As you know, Minnesota has been champions seven times over the past dozen years, with Chicago in first or second virtually every year over that same period. Though geography would suggest that the two play in the same division, it would be foolish to force the West Division to pick between the two."

Dateline: 1953. Subject: Big Ten Expansion.

"We have considered splitting the conference into divisions for football, and we believe that we must consider competitive balance for the two proposed divisions. We do not want to have one powerhouse division and one poorhouse division.

"Since Michigan State is the current national champions, and has lost but one game in the past three years, it would be silly to put them in a division with Michigan, which annually competes for -- and often wins -- the Big Ten title. Let them go into a division with lesser powers, like Minnesota (which hasn't won a title since the war) and Ohio State. Then, we may have a competitive championship game each year."

Do you see my point?

I'd be happy to write a fake memo from Penn State's addition in 1993 that ridicules Northwestern as a team that would never win the conference, or a memo from the late 1990s that refers to Notre Dame as a potential Big Ten member that will yearly be a national power.

What they're all saying

As Nebraska joins the Big Ten in 2011, it seems likely that the conference will split itself into divisions for football, thereby creating a chance for a conference championship game. And so, everyone (B. Ciskie at FanHouse, S. Mandel at Sports Illustrated, and M. Miller at NBC Sports, just to name three) is taking his stab at creating divisions for the conference. While Ciskie just presents options, Miller wants to split the conference based on North vs. South (silly, if you've looked at a map), and Mandel wants to put Penn State in the West Division, which is bordering on ridiculous, even for a conference named the Big Ten with twelve teams. (On the other side, SB Nation Michigan State blog The Only Colors supports a straight divisional split.)

Here's what seems ludicrous to me: The Only Colors looks at results over the past decade. Mandel goes back to 1993, when Penn State joined the conference. Ciskie spends time talking about the league's "signature" programs. But, in a league that traces its origins to the nineteenth century, all of these "competitive balance"-based assessments only consider recent history.

Times change and teams change, but geography remains.

There were references to the Big Ten as the "Big Two and Little Eight" for decades preceding Penn State joining the conference. Penn State was supposed to create a "Big Three and Little Eight" scenario, but for all that talk, they've won just three titles (two as ties) in football since they joined. Northwestern and Wisconsin have three in that span as well, and Iowa has two, yet I've yet to hear much talk about the Big Six and Little Five.

Conference commissioner Jim Delaney has said that geography and rivalry games are second place to competitive fairness when creating divisions. I think he's got that exactly backwards. When Michigan State won the Big Ten their first year in 1953, having not lost a game in 1951 or 1952, no one would have predicted they'd win only five more Big Ten titles in the next sixty years. Wisconsin won the conference in 1993, the year Penn State joined; they hadn't had a winning record in the conference prior to 1993 since 1984. Northwestern won the title in 1995 and 1996; they hadn't had a winning record in the conference since 1971.

Predicting the future with divisional alignment is a fool's errand. Yes, right now, a division with both Penn State and Ohio State would be loaded. But who's to say that Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa can't challenge the Eastern champion? That Michigan State won't rise up and take Michigan's place as a powerhouse? That Northwestern won't undergo another renaissance?

There's really no telling. But forty years on, Illinois and Northwestern will still be in the same state. Happy Valley will be closest to Columbus and Ann Arbor and East Lansing. Minnesota and Michigan will still play for the Little Brown Jug, and Indiana and Purdue will play for the Old Oaken Bucket, and Iowa and Nebraska will still share a border.

Split the conference into East and West. Let the competitive balance take care of itself. Fighting geography will only result in poor predictions of future success.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.