Should the Big Ten Eliminate Divisions?

Hello, Big Ten Football fans!

It's the offseason and we're about three months from the start of the 2022 Big Ten Conference football season.

There was a somewhat big news announcement out of the NCAA office last week.

"Additionally, Football Bowl Subdivision conferences will no longer have requirements to annually exempt their conference championship game from the maximum number of games a team is allowed in a season."

In the old days, conferences had to have full round robin play to have a conference championship game. In most conferences, it is two divisions (for the Big Ten, it is the East and West divisions). The Big 12 doesn't need divisions but satisfies the round robin rule because it has only ten members and everyone plays everyone. The American Athletic Conference had been operating with a waiver recently. With the SEC grabbing Oklahoma and Texas, the Big 12 grabbing Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida, and BYU, and more juggling, the NCAA decided to just eliminate the "division" rule.

Almost immediately, two conferences, the Pac-12 and the MWC (Mountain West Conference), have decided to eliminate divisions as a criterion for both the conference championship game and for future scheduling. The Pac-12 will keep the schedules for 2022 but will have the "top two teams" meet in the championship game and will decide later on future schedules. The MWC will still keep the divisional format in 2022 but will get rid of it in 2023.

So far, the Big Ten has not made any announcement on changes to the Big Ten Championship Game for 2022 or for future seasons. There are two issues when it comes to whether the Big Ten should keep the same format that has been in place since they went to East and West Divisions or change it. Wisconsin's blog "Bucky's 5th Quarter" discusses whether or not to do so.

The first is whether to have the East Division and West Division champions in the championship game or the two "best" teams. There may be times the two best teams are in the same division. In 2021, if we go only by Big Ten Conference records, Michigan and Ohio State both finished with one loss and West Division champion Northwestern had two losses. So MIchigan and Ohio State were the two best Big Ten teams last season. Another example was 2016 when East Division champion Penn State and Ohio State both had one Big Ten loss while the West was won by two loss Wisconsin. Now best Big Ten record might not necessarily be the best criteria because the schedules aren't always the same. Another reason to believe that the championship game hasn't always featured the "best two" teams is that since the Big Ten moved to East and West Divisions, the East Division is 8-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game (although five of the eight years Ohio State won so it could just be that Ohio State is better than everyone else).

The second issue is scheduling. In the current divisional format, teams must play all other teams in their division every year. This limits the number of times teams can play teams in the opposite division. In the current format, divisional games account for six of each school's nine conference games, leaving three non divisional opponents a year. In addition, Indiana and Purdue must play every year despite being in opposite divisions. Illinois and Ohio State have a trophy called "Illibuck" but haven't played since 2017 and won't play again this season. If you eliminate divisions, teams overall could play each other more often if they don't play every season. Technically the Big Ten could just keep the "divisions" for scheduling purposes and still have the "top two" teams play in the championship game although my guess is that will not be the case.

Previously, Banner Society introduced the concept of "permanent rivals" for each Big Ten team (along with other conferences). The list of rivals includes some obvious ones such as Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan-Michigan State, and Indiana-Purdue. Each Big Ten team was given three permanent rivals so some were "stuck" with "undesirable" opponents. You can decide what is meant by undesirable. On one hand, a bad opponent like Rutgers is an easy win while a top team like Ohio State is usually a sure loss. However, schools do tend to sell more tickets and get more television viewers when playing the "better" schools like Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State (the TV money is split but more viewership could lead to more interest in the school for a school like Illinois or Indiana). Geography is an issue, schools may not want to travel to the furthest east or furthest west schools as often, depending on where they are located.

Purdue's SB Nation Blog, Hammer and Rails, also came up with a permanent rival list, and suggested a 3-5-5 scheduling pattern where Big Ten teams play 3 teams every year and rotate the other ten Big 10 teams in two groups of five. The issue is that is only eight Big Ten games a year rather than the current nine games.

Keeping with the "every other year" rule from Hammer and Rails, Big Ten teams can play up to five Big Ten schools every season and then play every other team "every other year". My proposal would be to give each Big Ten team five permanent rivals and rotate the other eight teams on the schedule but rather every other year, two in four years (back to back, home and away). So let's take Ohio State and map their 2023-2026 schedules. I'll give them five permanent rivals: Michigan, Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. They then play four of the eight in 2023/2024 and the other four in 2025/2026.

So here comes the biggest debate of this FanPost, who should the five permanent rivals for each team be, assuming we go this route? Well here's my list.

Illinois Fighting Illini: Northwestern, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin

Indiana Hoosiers: Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State

Iowa Hawkeyes: Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Rutgers

Maryland Terrapins: Penn State, Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota

Michigan Wolverines: Ohio State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Maryland

Michigan State Spartans: Michigan, Indiana, Penn State, Purdue, Iowa

Minnesota Golden Gophers: Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Maryland

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota

Northwestern Wildcats: Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Rutgers, Nebraska

Ohio State Buckeyes: Michigan, Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana

Penn State Nittany Lions: Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan State, Nebraska

Purdue Boilermakers: Indiana, Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan State, Rutgers

Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Penn State, Maryland. Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa

Wisconsin Badgers: Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Illinois

So should the Big Ten keep or get rid of their divisions?

In terms of the championship game argument,

The Rutgers's and Illinois's of the conference (perennial bad teams) are probably miles away from the Big Ten Championship Game no matter what the format is.

The better West Division schools (Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa are the three teams that have won the West Division in the eight years of the current format) will now have to compete with the top teams in the East for two spots rather than have one guaranteed spot among the seven of them without having to worry about Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State, so it will certainly be harder for them to make it.

How about the top East teams? It is possible and in fact probable that two "East" teams could meet in the Championship game. Michigan and Ohio State or Penn State and Ohio State could meet, for example. On one hand, either Michigan or Penn State could lose to Ohio State and still get a second chance at them (and on a neutral field if the first game was in Columbus). On the other hand, either could beat the Buckeyes and then have to beat them again (if 2016 and 2021 played out using their schedules, both 2016 Penn State and 2021 Michigan would have had a rematch with Ohio State after having beaten them). Ohio State could also have the tables turned on them. So the possibility of a "rematch" could be both a blessing and a curse.

As for scheduling, a school like Penn State might prefer to keep divisions to limit its travel miles. They now play six divisional opponents, all in the Eastern Time Zone. If the opponents are random, they will almost certainly have to play more games vs. Central Time Zone teams, possibly teams West of the Mississippi River (Iowa and Nebraska). Nebraska, on the other hand, could get more games vs. Penn State (and Maryland and Rutgers, who are even further away) if divisions go away. A school like Illinois, on the other hand, doesn't lose much playing "East Division" teams vs. West Division teams (Indiana is in a neighboring state and playing Ohio State and Michigan in Champaign more often would help with ticket sales). So getting rid of divisions benefits some schools and keeping them will benefit others.

In the end, I believe the Big Ten will get rid of the East and West Divisions like the Pac-12 and MWC. I actually thought the Pac-12 was the conference most likely to keep their divisions because the Pac-12 had the most chances to play teams outside of the division because of the smallest conference size (the ACC and SEC have a further problem in that they currently only play eight conference games) and they decided to dump divisions. I think it's a virtual given the ACC will get rid of divisions. Unless you are a fan of the ACC, you don't even know who is in which division.

The SEC will eventually have 16 teams and at the time of this writing still only play eight conference games. In addition, each team has a "permanent rival". If the SEC keeps divisions, an eight game conference schedule, and permanent rivals, teams would NEVER play opponents in the opposite division that aren't their permanent non divisional rival. If the SEC gets rid of permanent rivals, teams would only play non divisional opponents an average of once every eight years. Getting rid of divisions makes a ton of sense for them in that case, could you imagine schools like Alabama and LSU meeting an average of once every eight years? In the Big Ten, it wouldn't be as extreme as that so maybe there wouldn't be as big a need to get rid of divisions. But if the Pac-12 got rid of divisions, I'm guessing the Big 10 will as well.

Also, the Big Ten is expected to renegotiate their television/media deals. Their current deals expire at the end of this upcoming school year (2022-23). It would certainly be better for TV if Ohio State and Michigan played more games vs. say Wisconsin than say Rutgers. Of course, there has to be some competitive balance as well in conference football schedules.

So should the Big Ten eliminate divisions in terms of the Big Ten Championship Game and in terms of scheduling? How do you feel about my "permanent rivals"? Is there a "rivalry" you want that didn't make my list? Comment below!

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