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ESPN Report says Northwestern to the West: Good for Big Ten, NU

For awhile now, we've been getting closer and closer to getting a glimpse of what the Big Ten football divisions will look like in 2014. At first, it looked like things were all but set, aside from Michigan State, Purdue and Indiana, but now it looks like it's just down to the Boilermakers and the Hoosiers.

According to an ESPN report, the divisions will look like this:

East: Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Purdue or Indiana

West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue or Indiana

The report says that Indiana-Purdue will be the only protected crossover game, in order to maintain cross-division scheduling flexibility. That makes sense, because with the new, geographically-driven divisions, most rivalries will be protected anyways. It also said a 9-game conference schedule is likely to take place starting in 2016. That will give teams the ability to play three cross-division teams every year, rather than just the two that an eight-game slate would allow. There are plenty more details in the post, so check it out in the link above.

So, how did this work out? Obviously you can't get everything perfect, but the preservation of traditional rivalries, alone, makes this a big step up over the Legends and Leaders setup. The biggest complain in the previous setup, from a rivalry standpoint, was that Iowa wouldn't continue its rivalry with Wisconsin (tied 42-42-2 all-time) and that Nebraska couldn't start a rivalry with the Badgers. Now, both will be possible.

Likely the biggest gripe with the new setup will be the perceived strength of the East Division, but in reality, the conference achieved most of its objectives. Originally, the Big Ten's goal was to separate its six strongest teams, historically — Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa — into separate divisions. It did that here, and it also split its two "rising powers," Michigan State and Northwestern. Some people will argue that Michigan State deserves that last "top six" spot from Iowa, but the Hawkeyes have had more success historically, and despite a bad 2012 season, have still finished in the top 8 of the final AP Poll four times since 2002. This move wasn't made only with last season in mind.

The East Division looks more top-heavy, with Michigan and Ohio State standing on top the two powers and Penn State and Michigan State rotating as the No. 3 team, especially as Penn State deals with its NCAA sanctions. In the West Division, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin have all either won a conference title, won a division title or been to a BCS bowl in the past five years, and they'll also be pushed by Northwestern. The East Division might produce the conference champion more often, but the West Division should be more competitive.

The biggest negative from all of this is that MSU might fit better in the West, despite traditional rivals Michigan and, to an extent, Penn State being in the East. The Spartans may not have full-blown rivalries with anyone in the West, but they've had some great series with Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern that could eventually turn into rivalries. However, although MSU athletic director Mark Hollis has made it no secret that he wants a presence in Chicago — the West Division could help with that — he also wants to be tied to Michigan and the East Coast. So of all all the divisional arrangements, this one looks like the best.

Now, how did Northwestern fair in all of this? Ultimately, it worked out pretty well for the Wildcats. There were early reports that NU could end up in the East Division, but it's much better suited for the West Division. The Wildcats will maintain their traditional rivalry with Illinois, but can also continue what have become good series with Iowa, Wisconsin and, potentially, Nebraska.

If Purdue goes West in the new alignment, as NU Highlights points out, there will be three teams — Purdue, Wisconsin and Illinois — within about two-and-a-half hours' driving distance from Evanston. Add in Iowa, which is just a four-hour drive from Evanston, and four of NU's six divisional opponents will be within drivable distance from the school. The only hikes will be Nebraska (8 hours) and Minnesota (6 hours).

NU also should be competitive in this division. It's probably been the fourth-most successful program in the West this decade, behind Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska, but the Wildcats have certainly proven that they're capable of beating all three, especially Iowa. If NU's upward trend continues, it should certainly be able to hold its own in the West.

There are still moving pieces, and nothing is finalized, but if things go as expected, the Big Ten looks like it will end up with a very solid divisional setup — one that NU can benefit from, too.