Discussion of potential Big Ten divisional realignment felt like an urban legend told around the campfire. Is it real? Of course not. But what if it is?
Even as the conference’s 14 football coaches took turns talking about their teams at Big Ten media days in Chicago last week, an undercurrent of speculation flowed through the two-day event.
Is the Big Ten moving toward altering the makeup of the East and West divisions?
Many in the media pegged realignment talk as pot-stirring hot air, but the topic picked up steam when Penn State coach James Franklin addressed it.
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“Obviously, when you’re left out of the playoffs for two years in a row, I think there needs to be discussions, and there’s discussions that are going on, and I think we’ve got to look at it all,” Franklin said. “We look at how the divisions are broken up right now. I think the East is very strong and has been very strong for a number of years, and … I’m not necessarily saying we need to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”
Let’s discuss. At first glance, talk of realignment seems premature. The East is better at the moment, with Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan coming in as more powerful than Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska. But divisional strength tends to be cyclical.
As Rutgers coach Chris Ash explained it, “There was a time when the league went to the different divisions, that some of the traditional blue-blood programs weren’t as strong at that time, and I don’t think you're going to be able to realign the conference to make everybody happy.”
Ash’s comments might have quieted the speculation, except that Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck ramped things back up with the revelation that realignment was discussed this spring during conference meetings in Arizona.
“I don’t think it will stay the same,” Fleck said of the current divisional arrangement. “Change is coming somehow, some way.”
If true, why?
In a word — money. Competitive balance and fairness are nice concepts, but the No. 1 reason would be to improve the conference’s chances of getting one and possibly two teams into the four-team College Football Playoff, thereby increasing brand awareness and ultimately making the product more profitable.
Viewed that way, it makes sense the Big Ten would do more than realign divisions. It could possibly kill them off, combining the two into one and featuring the top two teams in a conference championship game that typically would strengthen the winner’s chances of making the playoff.
Retiring Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany did not address realignment directly last week during his “send-off” address, but he did bemoan how the conference has been left out of the playoff the past two seasons.
“I’m not sure the strength of schedule or the conference championship has been adequately rewarded,” Delany said, questioning the playoff selection process.
The Big Ten has no real control over either of those concerns; the playoff selection committee is all-powerful and fluid, meaning the rules seem to change on a yearly basis. But the conference can help its cause by offering a Big Ten champion that packs as much punch as possible.
What if instead of 11-1 Ohio State playing 8-4 Northwestern in last season’s championship game, the Buckeyes had played the team with the second-best conference record instead of the Wildcats, winners of the West? (That's how the Big 12 does it.)
Well, that team would have been 10-2 Michigan, which lost to the Buckeyes one week prior. Not only would interest have waned for The Game II, but how would beating UM back-to-back have helped Ohio State’s playoff cause?
A Buckeyes-Wolverines championship game would not happen every year, but often enough to dull excitement over the team’s initial meeting.
Which brings it back to this: Maintain the status quo. Just don’t lose by double digits to Iowa and Purdue.