Now that the dust has settled from realignment, the Big Ten's future has finally come into focus — and this future contains no Legends, nor Leaders.
ESPN reported Friday night that the Big Ten will go to East/West divisions starting in 2014 when Rutgers and Maryland join the league. This isn't much of a surprise, as ESPN's Adam Rittenberg reported in March that the decision was down to where Indiana and Purdue would end up, but now a proposal is on the table, and it will become official when the league's school presidents vote on it in May. The breakdown goes as follows:
East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin
A couple considerations:
1. This time around, geography played much more of a role than anything else, and that makes the most sense. The Legends and Leaders setup focused mostly on competitive balance, splitting up Ohio State and Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State, and Iowa and Wisconsin, then piecing the rest of the teams in. Even with the protected crossovers, that got rid of the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry — a border rivalry that's tied 42-42-2 all-time — and a potential rivalry in Nebraska-Wisconsin.
This layout still maintains competitive balance. People will call the East Division loaded because of Ohio State and Michigan, but it's important to note that in the West, Iowa and Wisconsin have both been to BCS bowls in the past four years (Wisconsin has three), Nebraska is always a threat, Northwestern is improving and Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota have been competitive at times this decade.
2. The only schools that will have a protected divisional crossover game are Indiana and Purdue. Since the new setup takes geography into account, it maintains most natural rivalries.
3. This tweet from Scott Dochterman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette was interesting, showing the frequency in which cross-divisional games will take place.
The crossover math (1 protected rivalry) for B1G: over 12 years, 6 games vs. two teams; 5 games vs. four teams; 4 games vs. Indiana/Purdue.
— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) April 20, 2013
One of the drawbacks of having bigger conferences is this was bound to happen. Teams won't see nearly as much of their cross-division foes as it would have under the 12-team format. However, because of the geographic consideration of the divisions, teams will play their rivals every year. Given the circumstances, this is the best possible scenario.
So what does this mean for Northwestern? Well, all things considered, it's about the best the Wildcats could have hoped for. A report in January said the Big Ten was considering moving NU to the East Division. However, the West Division makes a lot more sense for the program. First off, it keeps teams on the schedule that have a history with NU. It maintains the Wildcats' natural rivalry with Illinois and keeps Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska — all teams with rivalry, or at least bad blood potential — on the schedule.
The geographic-centric divisions will help fans, as well. Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin are all within two-and-a-half hour drives of Evanston, and Iowa is less than a four-hour drive. The only real hikes will be Nebraska and Minnesota. West Division schools are an average of 267 miles from Evanston, with three of them 155 miles away or less. East Division schools are an average of 463 miles from Evanston. Considering travel and opponents, this alignment turned out just about as well as NU could have hoped for.
Nine-Game Conference Schedule
The Big Ten has been discussing moving to a nine-or-10-game conference schedule for awhile, but the vast majority of people figured it out move to nine games. On Friday, CBS Sports confirmed from Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez that the Big Ten will, indeed, be adopting a nine-game conference schedule starting in 2016.
This was bound to happen, as more and more conference move toward having more conference games. It's especially important now that conferences are expanding, since it ensures teams don't go too long without seeing their cross-division foes. Of course, it means we'll see Big Ten teams scheduling fewer marquee non-conference games, but it also ensures Big Ten teams have an extra quality game on their schedule, rather than scheduling Montana State Tech A&M of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
For Northwestern, the nine-game schedule could result in current scheduling conflicts. NU already has four non-conference games scheduled in 2016 — Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke and at Stanford — so one of those will have to go for sure. The Big Ten is making an effort to not schedule FCS teams anymore, so Illinois State will likely be the one to go.
But there's a chance this could also affect some current series with BCS conference teams. In every two-year rotation of the nine-game schedule, NU will have one year of four home games and one year of five home games. Since most schools like to have seven home games a year, that means in the future, Big Ten teams will schedule the home games of their home-and-home series on years when they have just four conference home games. It will be hard to accommodate everyone in that regard in the first schedule, so you could see some teams drop, or reschedule, some reries.
In NU's case, the Wildcats are scheduled to go to Stanford in 2016 and Duke in 2017, so if that stands, they'll have only six home games one of those years. NU has been more willing to play six home games than others — it did in 2011 — but seven is still the optimal number. It will be interesting to see if NU honors the future schedule agreements and just takes a loss for a couple years, if it tries to reschedule some series or if it ends up having to cancel some games.