Jim Delany could have decided the Big Ten's new divisions by pulling names out of a hat and we would still have at least some cause for celebration. The Leaders and Legends are finally dead, relegated to the scrap heap of terrible ideas, like the Hula Burger, or New Coke. Someday, we'll all look back on this and laugh, and by someday, I mean right now.
Certainly, the new geographically based lineups make more sense on paper. Nobody needs to think of any complicated schemes to remember who is in what division. The problem isn't with ridiculous marketing schemes this time; the problem is that there is potential for these divisions to become seriously unbalanced competitively.
For a quick refresher, here is the expected new divisional breakdown:
Big Ten West
Big Ten East
Now for fun, let's take a look at the records for every team in the Big Ten over the last ten years. Teams in the B1G East are in bold:
Ohio State 117-24
Penn State 91-47 (whatever, NCAA)
Michigan State 77-62
If you go by this measure, the divisions actually seem pretty even. If we made this five years (which granted is an even more dubious sample size), Northwestern and Rutgers look better, and Iowa and Minnesota look even worse. Three of these teams either just joined in the Big Ten or haven't joined yet, so their schedules aren't easily compared. The remaining teams also had wildly divergent out of conference scheduling philosophies. Wisconsin's 10 year run, for example, should be recognized for its impressive consistency, but that eye popping 102 win number is no doubt helped by a decade of playing nothing but Little Sisters of the Poor in out of conference play. If we removed FCS wins, Illinois and Indiana would probably look even worse.
The biggest reason that drawing conclusions from pure wins and losses over a 10 year span can be tricky is coaching. Virtually every team in the league underwent coaching changes over the span, often multiple coaching changes. Michigan's 10 year run may not look as Michgan-y as they'd like, but Rich Rod has long been banished to the desert. Michigan State had several years of mediocrity over the last ten years before Dantonio, but that's because John L. Smith was involved. Is it fair to judge them for that hire now?
A lot of that coaching turnover has been quite recent, especially in the West division. Wisconsin and Purdue are breaking in brand new coaches this year. Illinois has a coach on year two, and if this season is an embarrassment like last year's, he might not get to year three. Minnesota's Coach Kill is on year three, and given his health concerns, may not be a safe bet to stay for the long haul. Nebraska's Bo Pelini may have been around a few years, but his seat is hardly bulletproof, and should be find himself buried by a tough schedule, a porous defense and a cascade of Taylor Martinez arm punts en route to a 5-6 loss campaign, it wouldn't be a shock to hear some murmurs about a change.
Only Northwestern and Iowa have coaches that can safely be counted on to stay for the foreseeable future. For Northwestern, it's because their coach has been relatively extremely successful, is an alum, and would probably only ever leave if the Chicago Bears called. For Iowa, it's because they can only fire Kirk Ferenz if they give him a buyout of roughly the GNP of Belgium.
It's true that the other side of the Big Ten has dealt with a lot of coaching changes as well, but those moves don't have nearly the same air of uncertainty that the West has. Sure, Brady Hoke is fairly new at Michigan, and the jury is still out if he's an elite coach, but he's been successful his first two seasons and is crushing everybody in the league not named Ohio State in recruiting. Indiana's Kevin Wilson is new, but has already established an explosive offensive attack in Bloomington and has the program at least expecting a bowl bid this year. Bill O'Brien is new but won COY last season and should he continue to ignore NFL overtures, will always keep Penn State at least competitive despite tough sanctions. Kyle Flood at Rutgers is new-ish, but so far he's been able to continue the winning traditions of Greg Schiano, which turned the smoldering crater that was Rutgers into a perennial fringe top 25 team. Randy Edsall at Maryland probably sucks, but to be fair, his second squad was hit harder by injuries and misfortune than just about anyone in the country. Still, being Randy Edsall doesn't ensure anything.
If you asked somebody who the top four teams are in the Big Ten right now, virtually everybody would tell you it's Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin (although maybe not in that order). The divisions look to be decently matched on that front. Of the next best three (Michigan State, Northwestern and Penn State), two are in the east. The next best team? That's probably Rutgers, also in the East. Then you're left with a batch of pretty bad football teams, and you could certainly argue that the other two eastern teams, Indiana and Maryland, have brighter futures than Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa or Purdue.
Over the next five years, which group do you think is most likely to improve: Illinois, Purdue, Iowa or Minnesota – schools without much in state talent, proven coaching staffs or recruiting prowess – or Rutgers/Maryland (two schools with some recent football success that are about to be flush with cash), Penn State (after sanctions) or Michigan State? If you want to buy low on a football Big Ten property, the most promising investments are all in the East.
Luckily, this probably isn't a permanent arrangement. The smart money is on the Big Ten expanding to 16 teams at some point, and virtually all of the programs floated for possible membership would be in the East, geographically, requiring somebody to shuffle around. Failing that, should any of the West divisions hires not turn out well, and Penn State finds itself closer to their historical norm, the league may have to shuffle a team around to keep balance.
It may not be a perfect solution, but hey, at least the names aren't stupid.