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The Myth of “Unbalanced” Divisions in the Big Ten

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Missed call or not, yeah, that happened
Via Francis Gardler, Lincoln Star Journal

When Nebraska joined the B1G in 2011, the conference had 12 teams and split into divisions, primarily because the end result of divisions would be a championship game that would make a lot of money. The divisions, named Leaders and Legends, were considered a flop. The division names were stupid, there was no geographical or historical sense to them and many rivalries were broken up.

In 2013, Rutgers and Maryland joined the conference prompting the B1G wigs to take the opportunity and realign the divisions. In April of that year, the new divisions were unveiled. They went by the much less pretentious names of East and West and seemed to be based more on geography than anything else. Almost all rivalries were preserved and the actual split made sense.

The concern was that it would lead to a Big 12 North/South sort of deal where there were two divisions, one of which was decidedly stronger. Two years have since gone by and according to fans, pundits and every Tom, Dick and Harry, that is exactly what has happened. Just google “Big Ten unbalanced divisions” for approximately 50,700 examples.

But a closer look reveals the divisions have been almost perfectly balanced.

Before getting into the nuts and bolts, I will not attempt to dispute the following:

  1. Ohio State and Michigan State have been the two best B1G teams for the past two years
  2. Historically, the B1G East teams have more impressive resumes
  3. Almost all the B1G East teams, due to natural recruiting advantages, have more potential than most of the West teams

With that said, looking only at the two years that the B1G East and West have been in existence, there has been no imbalance. The issue has instead been the top-heavy nature of the East, which doesn’t affect the West, but leaves the bottom three of the East division in some hard-to-navigate waters.

Firstly, balanced or unbalanced, top-heavy or not, until the B1G West wins a conference championship, all of this is moot. The East has won both championships so far and thus is the triumphant division, but that is less a divisional issue as much as a best-team-in-said-division issue. The bottom five of the East are no better and have no more challenging a schedule just because OSU or MSU won the championship.

The overall regular season record of the Western Division teams over the past two years is 96-72. The overall conference record (not including the championship games) is 56-56. The West’s bowl record is 4-6 with one West team (Iowa) having earned a berth to a major bowl (which it lost handily).

Here is the individual breakdown of the Western teams:

  1. Wisconsin: 19-5 (13-3)/ 2-0
  2. Iowa: 19-5 (12-4)/ 0-2
  3. Northwestern: 15-9 (9-7)/ 0-1
  4. Nebraska: 14-10 (8-8)/ 1-1
  5. Minnesota: 13-11 (7-9)/ 1-1
  6. Illinois: 11-13 (5-11)/ 0-1
  7. Purdue: 5-19 (2-14)
  8. Total: 96-72 (56-56)/ 4-6

The East has an overall regular season record of 101-67. Its conference record is an identical 56-56, and its bowl record is 7-4. Both OSU in 2014 and MSU in 2015 earned bids to the CFP. OSU won the whole thing, MSU lost (handily) in the first round.

Here is the individual breakdown of the Eastern teams:

  1. Ohio State: 22-2 (15-1) 3-0
  2. Michigan State: 21-3 (14-2) 1-1
  3. Michigan: 14-10 (9-7)/ 1-0
  4. Penn State: 13-11 (6-10)/ 1-1
  5. Rutgers: 11-13 (4-12)/ 1-0
  6. Indiana: 10-14 (3-13)/ 0-1
  7. Maryland: 10-14 (5-11)/ 0-1
  8. Total: 101-67 (56-56)/ 7-4

So the East has a better bowl record not to mention two berths in the CFP (and, obviously, two wins in the B1G Championship). It also has a better overall record, but in-conference it’s a dead-heat. Well, how about head-to-head?

The cross-divisional record is a perfect .500: 14-14. In cross-divisional games the West has averaged 26.28 PPG to the East’s 25.43 PPG.

Taking it one step further, the cross-divisional regular season record of the top two out of the West vs. the East’s two best is exactly the same. Iowa and Wisconsin have gone a combined 7-1 against the East while OSU and MSU have gone 7-1 against the West. And no, calling MSU’s loss to Nebraska a “fluke” doesn’t change that.

Iowa and Wisconsin have not played OSU or MSU in the regular season in the past two years. Yes, MSU beat Iowa by two inches in the 2015 championship game while a favored UW got massacred by OSU in 2014. But that speaks to the top two teams, not “heavily unbalanced” divisions.

Certainly, the East has more storied programs in OSU, Michigan and Penn State; conversely, the West only has Nebraska. But what does that mean? You can depend on OSU not only being storied but always remaining at the top, but Michigan and Penn State? Right now, Penn State is and has been meh at best, and Michigan has only been slightly better than that, Jim Harbaugh’s theatrics aside.

Maybe Michigan is back, maybe Penn State is back, but these maybes have been around for almost a decade now.

Michigan State has been dominant and Michigan seems to be on the rise, but can MSU and UM coexist as dominant programs within a state that only produces a moderate number of prospects?

Dantonio and company deserve all the credit in the world for what they’ve accomplished, but there is no precedent for MSU to maintain, and until they do maintain elite-level play over a sustained period of time, it is impossible to give them the benefit of the doubt. In fact, over the past ten years, the second-most successful team in the conference has been Wisconsin with a .73684 winning percentage. OSU, of course, is No. 1 at .83333 and MSU is third at .68939.

Penn State is fourth, Nebraska fifth (though it spent part of that time in the Big 12) and Iowa sixth. Again, OSU being No. 1 in the world aside (actually, No. 2 after Boise State), pretty balanced.

Change it to 20 years and OSU is still No. 1 (in both the B1G and all of college football), but Wisconsin remains at No. 2 (No. 11 among all FBS programs).

Based on all of the evidence, championship game aside, the East has perhaps been slightly better overall, but nothing approaching dominance or lack of balance. There is reputation and history but little more.

The greater truth is the divisions are balanced. The West, however, has parity, while the East has been absurdly top-heavy.

Given the undependability of MSU’s future, the East has Ohio State, the one rock in a conference full of maybes. If the West were to trade OSU for Wisconsin, nobody would call the divisions unbalanced, and all of the other teams in the West would likely complain because they would have to play OSU every season, which is nice for ticket sales but not for the standings.

The current B1G is the story of OSU being consistently better than everybody else in the conference, and thus the division with OSU is and will always be inherently better.

But what do you do? Historically, even before divisions, the balance of the conference has been via OSU and Michigan. The B1G was formerly and affectionately known as the Big Two and the Little Eight for a reason. It was Woody vs. Bo, every year.

Since Bo Schembechler retired, Michigan has had its years here and there, but hasn’t been a true competitor for OSU since the late 90s. And the Spartans, which have been OSU’s greatest rival these past two years, as previously mentioned, have no established history that suggests they will maintain this level of play.

MSU could move to the West, provided the UM rivalry game were preserved, but will they remain as they’ve been? To make such a move would be a huge and myopic gamble.

Alex Kirshner, Matt Brown and Bill Connelly of SBNation proposed the B1G get rid of divisions altogether, but that would never fly in a region that is as steeped in tradition as the Midwest (I expect the eastern shore teams, which are not as tradition-bound, wouldn’t care).

Personally, I like the divisions as they are. Most of the true rivalries are in tact. I would like MSU to be in the West, but that is mostly because Iowa-MSU/ Ferentz-Dantonio games have been terrific games and have typified what a traditional B1G game is supposed to be about.

But unbalanced? Nope, it’s just OSU and everybody else. Which kind of makes it the same as it’s been for the past 15 years.