Realigning the Big Ten

Are you ready for some football?  I hope you are, because it’s coming soon.  If you need more assistance in preparation for football, Sport Change is here to help you.  We’re kicking off our week-long “Are You Ready For Some Football?” series with a look at college football; specifically the Big Ten.

Realigning the Big 12. I mean 10.

The Big Ten is probably the most historic and well-loved conference in college football.  So why have league officials insisted on screwing things up for everybody?

Here are what I see as the three biggest outrages in the Big Ten:

1. The BCS.  I loathe the BCS as much as anybody, even with the new pro-style playoffs.  In this context, I miss the way it used to be.  Every year, the Rose Bowl should be a matchup between the best teams in the Big Ten and the former Pac-Ten.  It worked really well.  National Championship be damned.

2. There are twelve teams.  The Big Ten established it’s identity as a league of ten Midwestern teams over 100 years ago.  When Chicago left in the 1940s, Michigan State filled the void.  MSU was a natural fit for the league, and ten is a nice round number.  Then the league screwed up and admitted Penn State in the nineties.  The Big 11 toppled along unsteadily until Nebraska was added last year.  This addition made sense, but there should not have been more than ten teams in the first place.  Some of our realignments in this post will be reversions to the old ten team league.

3. “Legends and Leaders.”  Are you kidding me?  Dividing the conference into two divisions makes good sense, but I can’t imagine a more asinine way of doing that than what the Big Ten did before last season.  For starters, dubbing divisions with non-geographic random terms is something that makes the Indoor Football League (and it’s “Intense Division“) worthy of ridicule.  Additionally, half of the teams in the Big Ten are both Legends and Leaders, as arbitrary as those terms are.  Also, what if a team doesn’t really fall into either category.  The Indiana football program seems to me to be neither a “Legend” nor a “Leader.”  To top things off, the way teams were randomly placed in either division makes zero sense.  Is competitive balance the objective?  That should never be considered when realigning leagues.  Obviously, any program will have peaks and valleys of success throughout it’s history.  Why build a semi-permanent conferencial structure based on the success of programs in the year of 2010.  What. The. Hell.  

Naming a division after a subjective term is IFL territory. Almost as bad as naming a team the Danger. *shudder*

Debunking the competitive balance nonsense

Competitive balance fluctuates so much in any sports league that it is ludicrous to set things up for the long term based on how good the teams are in the present.  Consider this:  A year ago at this time the inaugural season of the L&L Big Ten was set to begin.  The AP’s Top 25 preseason rankings saw four Big Ten teams on list.  At 10 was Nebraska, a Legend.  At 11 was Wisconsin, a Leader.  At 17 was Michigan State, a Legend.  At 18 was Ohio State, a Leader.  Penn State, a Leader, nearly cracked the Top 25, and three Legends (Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern) got a few votes.  That is pretty much a perfect competitive balance between the divisions.  You can bet that Big Ten officials were lighting each other’s cigars and penciling in rounds of golf with each other.  They had done it right.

Now flash forward to a mere year later, and see how things have changed after a year of Legends and Leaders.  In the current AP Top 25, you have Michigan (a Legend) shooting up from the dregs of last year’s voting to 8th overall.  Wisconsin (Leader) is at 12 and MSU (a Legend) is at 13.   A Legend, Nebraska is at 17 and a Leader, OSU is at 18.  The two pairs more or less balance eachother out, but with Michigan riding shotgun, the Legends shoot ahead.  Of the Big Ten teams ranked in the Top 25, the Legends have an average rank of 12.6.  The Leaders have an average of 15.  Preseason rankings are somewhat meaningless, but the Legends already have an advantage.  The cigars have been stubbed out and the golf game has been cancelled.  It’ll be interesting to see how things are in one year, five years, twenty years, or however long they continue this Legends and Leaders nonsense.

Every team in the Big 10 can be considered a Legend in some way.  Leaders change year to year and decade to decade.

Before the 2011 season, the Wolverines were unranked and the Legends balanced the Leaders. Before 2012, Michigan is ranked 8th and the Leaders have fallen behind.


Time for some Sport Change action!  We are going to explore a few realignment scenarios based on the following criteria.

-The League will be divided into two divisions.  There aren’t enough teams to necessitate any more than that.

-The alignments will keep geography in mind.  Rivalry is the goal, but typically rivalry among colleges mirrors rivalry among geographic areas.  Nebraska may have a bit of a rivalry with Penn State, but that doesn’t mean that Nebraskans and Pennsylvanians are natural rivals.

-As many rivalries as possible will be kept intact.  Most rivalries are between geographic neighbors, so this should be much of a problem.  The trophy traditions that may not fall within a division could still be satisfied with inter-divisional rivalry games each year.

Here’s a refresher on how things are now, in 2012.

This is the way the Big 10 is actually divided.


Scenario One: The Simple East/West split.

This is as simple as can be.  The six teams west of the Illinois/Indiana border in the West, and the six teams east in the East.

West: Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois

East: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana

I assume that the reason this wasn’t chosen was because of competitive balance.  That’s BS.  This would’ve been the most fair and objective way to divide the teams, and even the competitive imbalance in 2012 isn’t that extreme.  In the West, Wisconsin and Nebraska are very strong and Iowa, Illinois, and Northwestern could all make a run.  Minnesota sucks, but what else is new?  In the East, Michigan, MSU, and OSU are all ranked in the top 25 and Purdue and Penn State are closer to the fringe.  Indiana sucks, but what else is new?  The balance between East and West is as fair as the balance between Legends and Leaders.


There should never have been 11 teams in the first place. Major fail.

Scenario Two: A Retro Revert to Ten Teams.

The two most recent additions to the Big Ten are on the Western (Nebraska) and Eastern (Penn State) fringes of the geographic region. It makes no sense historically speaking, and it makes no sense geographically speaking.   With the same split at the Illinois/Indiana border, the divisions are the same minus these two outsiders.

West: Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Illinois

East: Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Purdue, and Indiana.

The East is a little stronger in 2012, but as previously repeated:


Will the Real Legends and Leaders Please Stand Up?


What is a legend, anyway?

Those last two scenarios just felt too easy.  I like to sweat a little to put together a post, so I’ve taken up the tedious task of discerning who the real legends and leaders of the Big Ten are.  The terms are somewhat arbitrary and subjective, but I’ve used available data to assist in making the decisions.


What is a legend?  To me, a legend is a tale of success in a bygone era.  In a sports context I would say that Babe Ruth is a legend.  The 1960s Green Bay Packers are a legend.  Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain are legends.  The Famous Chicken is a legend.

My primary criterion for determining legendary teams in the Big Ten was the total number of conference championships from 1896 to 1950.  In my estimation, those are the most legendary years of the Big Ten.  Most of those years saw two or three co-champions, and all were counted as championships in this study.  I think this is a pretty good indicator of the most successful teams during that legendary era:

1. Michigan (20 championships)

2. Minnesota (16)

3. Illinois (9)

4. Ohio State (8)

5. Chicago (7)

T-6. Northwestern (5)

T-6. Purdue (5)

T-6. Wisconsin (5)

9. Iowa (3)

10. Indiana (1)

Chicago certainly belongs in the Legends division. Oh, wait…

Under the guidance of Amos Alonzo Stagg, Chicago University was a powerhouse in the early part of the twentieth century, and is certainly a Big Ten legend.  Since they have not been a member of the conference since the 1940s, they are obviously disregarded in these scenarios.  Michigan State won  a handful of championships in the 50s and 60s, but their roots don’t reach deep enough into the bedrock of legend.  If we were splitting our twelve Big Ten teams into two equal-numbered divisions, the Legends would be Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State, and two of the following three: Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  We can come up with some criteria for tiebreakers if need be, but that may not be necessary.  Our list may get a Big shake-up with our next task.

In the words of Bruce Hornsby: “Sometimes I lead, and sometimes I follow.”


What is a leader?  In this context, I see leaders as being the teams that have led the conference in the present and in recent years.  My primary criterion for selection will simply be conference records over the last ten years of play; from 2002-2011.

A Word About Scandals

Leaders set good examples.  The Big Ten had two noteworthy scandals that occurred within the time in question; one minor and one major.  The Ohio State tattoo scandal is pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and was dealt with appropriately–or even over-appropriately.  OSU vacated all their wins from the 2010 season, and I’ll simply tally that season as 0-1 rather than 7-1.  It really doesn’t matter since OSU is the clear-cut Leader over the last ten years on the gridiron.  In serious matters, the Penn State sex abuse scandal removes any ability of the PSU team to be considered a “Leader,” in two ways.  1. All wins within the time in question have been vacated by the NCAA, resulting in a 0-32 record over that span.  2. Sport Change feels that PSU should not be considered a “Leader” simply because of basic human decency.  Enough said about that.

A Word About Nebraska

I’m only taking their record (5-3) from one year of playing in the Big Ten.  I could dredge up their records in the Big 12 from 2002-2010, but there’s no point.  Nebraska will not be a Big Ten Legend due to their johnny-come-lately status.  Additionally, they will be a Leader, because you know…they’ve been a good football team for a good stretch here.

In the words of Don Henley: “Johnny-come-lately, there’s a new kid in town.”


The Results:

1. Ohio State: 57-15 (.792)

T-2. Iowa: 50-30 (.625)

T-2: Michigan: 50-30 (.625)

T-2. Nebraska: 5-3 (.625)

T-2. Wisconsin: 50-30 (.625)

6. Michigan State: 41-39 (.513)

7. Purdue: 37-43 (.463)

8. Northwestern: 36-44 (.450)

9. Minnesota: 28-52 (.350)

10. Illinois: 23-57 (.288)

11. Indiana: 13-67 (.163)

12. Penn State: 0-32 (.000)

Interesting.  Despite the 2010 victory slate wiped clean, OSU has basically dominated the Big Ten lately.  It’s a wonder what free tattoos can do for a football program.  The four way tie after that will be interesting to sort out.  I knew Indiana has a terrible football program, but…yikes!  Almost each year of the last ten they’ve gone 1-7.

Indiana=Yikes. When will the football program get their Bob Knight?

Time to sort all this out.  Let’s start with the Legends.  Michigan is definitely a towering legend in the Big Ten.  Minnesota and Illinois are easy Legends since they did most of their winning about a hundred years ago.  Time to flip to Leaders for a second.

Michigan State is a semi-legend in the Big Ten, but they certain have a Leader quality to them.  As previously mentioned, Nebraska is easy to pick.  Iowa has been around awhile, but with only three pre-1950 championships and with their recent respectability, they’re a Leader.

We’re halfway there and the easy part is done, so let’s recap.  Definite Legends are Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois.  Definite Leaders are MSU, Nebraska, and Iowa.

Let’s assess the toughies one by one:

Wisconsin won the first two Big Ten championships outright in 1896 and 1897, but only tallied three more over the ensuing 55 years.  I think their recent and current success puts them into the Leader category.

-Purdue also won five championships during the early era and have only won two since.  Though they’ve been just below .500 over the last ten years, they have some respectability.  One of those “two since” was the Drew Brees team of 2000, so let’s call them a Leader.

Remember Darnell Autry? He was the singing cowboy.

-Northwestern was also in that early five championship gridlock, and other than the Darnell Autry era, they haven’t seen much success since.  Their .450 percentage says mediocre more than leader, so let’s honor those five championships and call them a Legend.  That also lets them be in the same division as Illinois.

-Indiana is really hard to gauge since they are pretty terrible in both categories.  It’s impossible for me to call them a leader with a 13-67 record over the last ten years.  They won a Big Ten championship outright in 1945 and shared another in 1967, so let’s call them a Legend.

-Ohio State is tough to gauge for the opposite reason.  They’ve always been good and are somewhat legendary–especially with all their success in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, I can’t ignore the fact that they have actually been the leader of the Big Ten for all but two of the last ten years.  One year was a random 4-4 season in 2004 that was followed by an 8-0 season of 2005.  The other was the vacated win season of 2010 that they actually did lead on the football field.  I guess good leaders don’t get free tattoos, but give the kids a break.  Leader.

-Penn State is painful to consider for either category.  If there was an Embarrassments division, they would lead the way.  They are absolutely not a Leader, so the cold process of elimination comes into play.  What I’m going to do here is look back in time.  Well before Sandusky.  Even before Paterno and his toppled legacy.  Before they joined the Big Ten, Penn State was independent like Notre Dame, so there’s no record of conference history.  In 1912, the Nittany Lions were undefeated and won what we would call a National Championship today.  In 1911, they were also what we would call champs.  Going way back to 1887, they won both of the two games they played that season.  Though their history will always be a tarnished one, I grudgingly call Penn State a Legend.

If you look back far enough, you can find something to respect about Penn State football.


Scenario Three: True Legends and Leaders (if forced to include Penn State)

Here it is, all sorted out:

Legends: Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, and Penn State

Leaders: Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Ohio State.


Let’s do one more.

Scenario Four: The Way it Should Be (if we’re using the Legends and Leaders divisions)

We’ll imagine that Penn State and Nebraska were never allowed in.  We’ll also make a quick swap to facilitate rivalries.  Sorry to pull the Hoosiers out of Legendary status, but we’re going with the Battle of Paul Bunyan’s Ax.

Legends: Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, and Wisconsin

Leaders: Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue, Ohio State, and Indiana.

Yep.  Indiana is a Leader.  God Bless America.

And God Bless You for sticking with this post.  More “Are You Ready For Some Football” action coming soon!  It’ll be the NFL next.  I promise.




1 comment
  1. Greg said:

    Don Henley keeps finding his way into these posts

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