Exploring Protected Rivalries for the Expanded Big Ten

If you read the blogosphere or live in the twitterverse, you'd probably get the impression that conferences are weighing the pros and cons of (1) continuing to use divisions which continue to grow as conferences grow, (2) switching to the pods that Twitter has been consumed with, and (3) scrapping divisions totally and only protecting rivalry games. The reality is most conferences have decided that going without divisions is their best bet.

I'm not going to do a deep-dive into that debate other than to say that the real end-game here is flexibility. This model gives the conference better flexibility to protect the overlapping rivalries that happen naturally in a conference. It also gives them the flexibility to play every conference opponent on a regular basis -- hopefully as often as every two years. For those yelling into your monitor that imbalanced schedules will result, recognize that imbalanced schedules will result from all of these models. Imbalanced schedules are the reality whenever you can't play everyone in every season.

So, let's dive in. I'm going to start by listing the rivalries that should be protected no matter what. Then, I'll list out the ones that are probably nice to have. Last, we'll just have to fill in the gaps as best we can.

Require Protection

  • Michigan - Ohio State Buckeyes: Duh
  • Illinois - Northwestern, Indiana - Purdue, Michigan - Michigan State, USC - UCLA. In-state rivalries might be the best part of college sports.
  • Iowa - Minnesota - Nebraska - Wisconsin: The Quadrangle of Hate. Yes, this looks just like a pod. If the full conference shook out this way, we could just use pods. I'm not against breaking one or two of these should something else come up, but I doubt that even happens.
  • Penn State - Maryland, Penn State - Rutgers, Maryland - Rutgers: These are probably the weakest rivalries in this category, but it's worth trying to develop these more. Maryland and Rutgers probably provide the most value they can by developing a real rivalry with Penn State, and each other.
  • Ohio State - Penn State: Not to be lost in the shuffle here, these are quality programs in bordering states with a long history.

Nice to Have

Here, the list will start to lose some significance. I'm using this Wikipedia list as my starting point and sorting them by the number of times they've played. Some won't seem to fit at all. Others will bring some meaningful value. For any pairing that either doesn't make the cut or doesn't even make the list, just remember that they'll still play every other year and visit each campus every fourth year.

  • Michigan - Minnesota: The Little Brown Jug might just be the best rivalry game that remains. It's at very least the most played rivalry over 104 meetings going back to 1892. But, are we really going to break into the western quadrangle of hate for this? I gut says no, though perhaps the Minnesota - Nebraska game could be demoted to every other year instead.
  • Illinois - Ohio State: This is another long-standing matchup with a similar history to The Little Brown Jug, but maybe it's best to stick with one of the bordering Indiana schools.
  • Illinois - Purdue: And there it is. Separated by 90 miles and the option of neutral site games in Indianapolis. They've played 95 times going back to 1890.
  • Michigan - Northwestern: Another trophy game that easy to forget it's a trophy game. It might just make the list, though.
  • Indiana - Michigan State: This trophy game isn't as easy to forget but that's because the trophy is a spittoon.
  • Ohio State - Purdue: This one is a good fit on paper. It's a long rivalry going back a long time in bordering states. But maybe we should leave room for something else every year.
  • Michigan State - Penn State: Home to the ugliest trophy in all of sports, it is technically a rivalry game. Technically. Nothing against my Penn State friends, but this one is only really on the list because the conference was trying to fill the rivalry week gap when the rest of the 12-member conference was laid out perfectly with rivalry week pairings.
  • Minnesota - Penn State: Yes, there's a trophy here but that feels like another forced rivalry that didn't really materialize.
  • Michigan State - Northwestern: I'm adding this one to the list because MSU administrators will fight for this matchup to engage with alumni in Chicago. They've wanted it for a long time. As much as Northwestern fans hate to see so many visiting fans at all the games, it brings in money for the athletic department in general.
  • Illinois - Indiana: It's not listed as a rivalry per se and there's no trophy that I can find for it. But, at 140 miles apart and Indianapolis right in the middle, let's just add it to the list anyway.

Integrating USC and UCLA

The other big question before we just fill in the gaps is how to use protected rivalries to integrate the newest members into the conference. The most exciting thing to do might be to protect games for them against the biggest brands in the conference. That starts with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. You could also put Nebraska and Wisconsin on that list, but do you really want to break the pairings with Maryland and Rutgers causing the conference to find yet another rivalry matchup for them?

  • Ohio State - USC: This is the matchup everyone thought of when the news broke. Let's just go ahead and make it happen every year. Now, this does fill up Ohio State's allotment of protected games, but I think it's worth it. Plus, not for nothing, there's an airport right in Columbus for the chartered flights.
  • Michigan - UCLA: With Ohio State full, this one makes way too much sense. Bigtime names on bigtime stages -- the Big House and the Rose Bowl.
  • Michigan State - USC: I'm throwing this one on the table too. Spartans will never forget one of it's few trips to the Rose Bowl including a great win over USC, though Trojan fans might have to dig through the deep memory bank of Rose Bowl experiences to find it. Still, the Spartan - Trojan matchup is an opportunity for a killer trophy.

The Result

Team Best Rivals Worthy Just Filling the Gaps
Rutgers Maryland, Penn State - Indiana
Maryland Rutgers, Penn State - Purdue
Penn State Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers - -
Ohio State Michigan, Penn State - USC
Michigan Ohio State, Michigan State - UCLA
Michigan State Michigan Northwestern USC
Indiana Purdue Illinois Rutgers
Purdue Indiana Illinois Maryland
Northwestern Illinois Michigan State UCLA
Illinois Northwestern Purdue, Indiana -
Wisconsin Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska - -
Iowa Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin - -
Minnesota Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska - -
Nebraska Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin - -
USC UCLA - Ohio State, Michigan State
UCLA USC - Michigan, Northwestern

So here's how I filled the gaps. And if you can't tell, it was soft logic or even random at the end.

  • UCLA gets Michigan: We can start to fill in with two huge names in high profile stadiums.
  • USC gets Ohio State and Michigan State: The first one is obvious. The second, not so much.
  • Northwestern - UCLA: I have to think the LA schools are more likely to have alumni in Chicago than anywhere else. I could have connected them to Rutgers in a coast-to-coast LA vs NYC matchup, but does Rutgers really say NYC?
  • Indiana - Rutgers, Purdue - Maryland: If you aren't playing noon games in central Indiana just about every year, are you even in the Big Ten?

Quick Look at Further Expansion

While we're here, let's take a quick look at what would happen if there's another expansion in the works. Notre Dame would most likely lead that pairing, if it happens at all. While there's a really big debate to be had about which school would come with them, I'm going to encourage dear readers to take that debate to other posts where it's already happening with gusto. For now, I'm just going to point out that fans will scream "OREGON" like William Wallace attacking the King's army while university president's would probably calmly state "no... Stanford". I'm going to use Stanford because (1) my gut says that's what would end up happening and (2) the rivalries line up in an interesting way.

First, some notes:

  • Notre Dame - USC, Notre Dame - Stanford: These are the annual games that entice the Irish to join to begin with. I'm going to add Notre Dame - Purdue to that list, reminding everyone else that the Irish would play you every other year regardless.
  • UCLA - Stanford, USC - Stanford: These get added to the top level rivalries that shouldn't be broken.
Team Best Rivals Worthy Just Filling the Gaps
Rutgers Maryland, Penn State - Indiana
Maryland Rutgers, Penn State - Northwestern
Penn State Ohio State, Maryland, Rutgers - -
Ohio State Michigan, Penn State - Michigan State
Michigan Ohio State, Michigan State - UCLA
Michigan State Michigan Northwestern Ohio State
Indiana Purdue Illinois Rutgers
Purdue Indiana, Notre Dame Illinois -
Northwestern Illinois Michigan State Maryland
Illinois Northwestern Purdue, Indiana -
Wisconsin Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska - -
Iowa Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin - -
Minnesota Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska - -
Nebraska Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin - -
USC UCLA, Stanford, Notre Dame - -
UCLA USC, Stanford - Michigan
Stanford USC, UCLA, Notre Dame - -
Notre Dame USC, Stanford Purdue -

Here's how we fill in the gaps now:

  • Ohio State - Michigan State: Probably a rivalry game that a fair number of people thought would be there from the start anyway.
  • Michigan - UCLA: Still survives the new additions
  • Indiana - Rutgers, Maryland - Northwestern: Does it really matter at this point? Swap them if you like - I probably wouldn't even notice. (Though Maryland - Rutgers is already protected and we're not going to have them play twice. Or are we? No, we're not.)

Some Postscripts

Thanks to everyone who has commented on my posts. Due to an issue with my SB Nation account, I'm unable to reply to comments on any posts at the moment. I'll comment here instead:

  • One quirk I realized after the fact: The Big Ten has made a real effort in the last decade or so to schedule the biggest rivals -- typically the in-state rivals -- for the last game of the season. That's a great tradition and it should continue. There's one issue, though. The conference breaks down perfectly for this with exception: Michigan State and the eastern trio of Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers. If the conference wants to schedule one pairing on consecutive seasons, MSU would only be able to play the team not included (or perhaps a non-conference game) that last weekend, meaning shuffling the protected rivalries to support that. It's not a big deal, though.
  • NE1963 -- The Penn State / Michigan State rivalry pairing was a manufactured rivalry in the hopes of addressing this dynamic in the time period before Maryland and Rutgers joined. Since then, the league has wanted to see if there's a rivalry to be developed between either of those two programs and Penn State, so they've been cycling pairs of these four teams through end-of-season games.
  • andpurdruew -- Yeah, everyone in the conference would rather see X annually instead of Maryland and/or Rutgers. Adding them to the conference was always going to water down some of the long-standing Big Ten pairings over the years. I'm sure we could easily shuffle Purdue and another B1G school to see Maryland instead, but my guess is that would interrupt one of *their* long-standing Big Ten pairings. That's probably not a crazy tweak, obviously, but someone needs to absorb the protected games with those two schools.
  • D-NUice, NE1963, AZBadger03 -- I am 99% sure the Quadrangle of Hate term was coined on this here site, though I could be wrong. I certainly agree that not all of these pairings are critical to protect, while many are. Any time an alternative arose, I didn't find it strong enough to break up one of pairings in that group. Bear in mind that part of this is due to Nebraska not having a long history with most Big Ten programs. If those annual pairings live on, that same kind of history could develop though.
  • BoilerUp89 -- In the ND-Stanford scenario, I probably missed the trophy pairings that you spotted. To be completely honest, I was kind of running out of steam as I was finishing that up. Perhaps I'll take a second look and tweak it.
  • To Provelt's point, it isn't required that all teams have 3 protected rivals. In some cases, schedulers list fewer rivals per team and then state that those schools would see other conference mates more often. What typically happens behind the scenes is that third rival gets cycled around in two year cycles. From a fan's perspective, we just know we'll see some opponents more than every other year. In the nuts and bolts, pairings cycle between playing every other year and being a protected rival in two year increments. I decided to gloss over this point because I didn't want to give anyone a headache, including myself!