Recent weeks have brought rampant speculation that the Big Ten is looking to dissolve its divisions. Rumors reached a new level Monday, when Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller confirmed that changes were afoot — though what changes those are remain a mystery.
Those rumors are not without merit: Last week, the NCAA eliminated its requirement that conferences with 12 or more teams have divisions in order to hold a conference championship game. The Pac-12 was the first of the Power Five to change its tune, immediately eliminating its divisions. The Big Ten, ACC and SEC have all had similar discussions in recent days.
Such a change would bring the first realignment in the Big Ten since 2014 when the conference added Rutgers and Maryland. Those additions — along with Nebraska in 2011 — have proven to be smart moves for the conference overall, namely in expanding to the New York City and Washington D.C. media markets (the ROI on the Lincoln, Nebraska, market remains to be seen, although Nebraska, as a major brand in football, certainly garners more than its share of eyeballs). Additionally, the expansion allowed the Big Ten to match the SEC in size while expanding opportunities for bowl games with more teams.
In fact, one of the few goof ups of the previous realignment was the short-lived “Leaders and Legends” divisions. The non-geographic alignment was confusing. Plus, there was that little piece that Ohio State and Michigan were in different divisions, which meant the possibility (which was never fulfilled) that they might have to face off in both the final week of the regular season and in the Big Ten Championship; The good news was that it only lasted three seasons.
The challenge with divisions is keeping them competitive. The fact is that a Big Ten West team has never won the Big Ten Championship. Of course, Ohio State has won 5-of-8 title games since the aforementioned realignment, so it’s not as though there’s much parity to begin with. However, year in and year out, the perennial balance of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and (on occasion) Michigan State far outweighs Wisconsin and…Iowa? Northwestern?
As a result, eliminating divisions altogether might be just the ticket to an even more streamlined conference.
Moving forward, the idea of a division-less conference would mean the top two teams from the conference overall would face off in the title game — which often means two teams from the former Big Ten East (who would likely have protected rivalries) would be playing one another, given the imbalance we’ve seen in eight seasons of the current structure. Bottom line: How many championship games would feature Ohio State vs. Michigan? Probably not as many as we fear. In fact, such a format would have meant a rematch only in 2018 and 2021.
Frankly, it just isn’t as exciting to have a rematch in the title game — especially if it’s one week later.
Additionally, what would such a change mean for the conference schedule? The Big Ten currently plays an extensive nine-game schedule (which at the time of implementation admittedly felt excessive). It would seem obvious that certain rivalries (i.e., all trophy games, one of the best things about the Big Ten) would be protected, as would Ohio State vs. Michigan. However, the annual showdown between Ohio State and Penn State has become of similar strategic importance in the last decade or so, and it’s unclear if those matchups would be similarly protected.
On the plus side, it might be nice to not have to play Rutgers every year.
Given the additional factor of the alliance with the ACC and Pac-12, the division-less conference would have more flexibility in scheduling marquee out-of-conference matchups given fewer constraints of needing to play everyone in the division. Such an arrangement would serve to aid the collective alliance when it comes to strength of schedule and College Football Playoff contention.
Related, there is also the question of if a rematch in the conference title game would boost the resume of a College Football Playoff contender. Surely beating the same very good team twice bodes well, but is it better to have another team altogether on the schedule?
Looking at the broader picture, of course the shift in alignment would benefit Ohio State. It’s a rare occasion when the Buckeyes are not contenders for the conference title, so simply needing to be one of the top-two teams overall (rather than the top team overall in the highly competitive Big Ten East) feels like an easier feat. In fact, Ohio State would have made every Big Ten Championship game since its inception except 2011 (which we accept), 2012 (which the program was suspended for) and 2015. This assumes that the regular season schedules would have remained the same, of course.
It would also mean a matchup (or, as mentioned above, a rematch) with the next-best team in the conference, which couldn’t hurt playoff contention — though how much it would help remains to be seen.
Most recently, the Buckeyes were shut out of the conference championship this year in a winner-take-all situation against Michigan. Ohio State would have beat out Big Ten West champion Iowa, since it seemed truly until the end like no one actually wanted to win the West. We’ll never know if the Buckeyes would have beat Michigan in round two, or if a win in the title game would have been enough to propel Ohio State to a Playoff berth with two losses.
Of course, any structural changes the Big Ten would implement would serve to make the conference collectively more competitive with the rest of the college football landscape, but also within the conference itself. Perhaps we will start to see a rise from teams like Iowa and Wisconsin when they can more regularly play the likes of Ohio State and Michigan year in and year out.
The chaos of last summer’s realignment left the Big Ten untouched except for their rather ethereal alliance with the Pac-12 and ACC. Now, however, the conference seems poised to enter the foray. And while the Big Ten has generally made smart decisions when it comes to its structure and governance, hopefully any changes to alignment only serve to continue to make the Big Ten even more competitive across the college football world.