Big Ten Realignment Upsets Competitive Balance

The Big Ten is realigning again. The motivation is understandable. The plan is crazy.

ESPN (“Sources: Big Ten to realign divisions“):

The Big Ten will replace Legends and Leaders with East and West when Maryland and Rutgers join the league in 2014, league sources told ESPN.

So far, so good. Legends and Leaders was lame. And expansion is as good a reason as any for realignment.

The proposed Big Ten West includes the six teams located in the Central time zone — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin — plus Purdue, sources said.

The proposed Big Ten East includes Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.

“Just take a ruler and a map [and split the 14 teams],” a source said.

Well, that’s logical enough. Except for one wee little thing: This creates an incredibly lopsided competitive balance.

Football is the king of college sports. It’s the reason Maryland and Rutgers, neither of which is exactly a traditional powerhouse, was added. Gaining a foothold in the DC and New York television markets is huge. But the proposed Big Ten West contains only two schools that are typically good in football: Nebraska and Wisconsin. And, frankly, it’s been a while on Nebraska. The proposed Big Ten East, meanwhile, contains three traditional football powers–Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State—and another very solid football school in Michigan State.

The same holds true for men’s basketball, the other major revenue sport, only moreso. Wisconsin is a decent basketball school. But Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State are regular contenders for the Final Four. Maryland has won a national championship in the past decade.

If the “just take a rule and a map” approach is going to be taken, perhaps they should consider holding the ruler horizontally and going with North and South. While still not perfect, it would put Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin in the North and Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, and Indiana in the South. That would be much more competitive in both football and basketball.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    The BigTen has said the conference will expand in a couple of years, at which time they will likely go to four divisions anyway. But I think a lot of the alignments were school-driven, particularly the incessant need to make sure that Michigan and Ohio St play once a year, and all the other guarantee games typically with border teams.

  2. @PD Shaw:

    They were able to keep the Ohio State-Michigan game going when the teams were in different divisions. That wasn’t the only traditional rivalry they tried to preserve, but it’s the one that makes the most money for what are basically the two biggest programs in the conference. It’s not going away.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Just for kicks, number of (shares) Big Ten Championships over last 20 years:

    East (16):
    Ohio State (9)
    Michigan (5)
    Penn State (1*)
    Michigan State (1)

    West (13)
    Wisconsin (6)
    Northwestern (3)
    Iowa (2)
    Illinois (1)
    Purdue (1)
    Nebraska (0**)

    * Penn State lost two to the sanctions
    ** Nebraska joined in 2011; before that had 3 national championships during same period,

  4. PD Shaw says:

    @Doug Mataconis: True, but guaranteeing a crossover gets more difficult with expansion.

  5. Brad Warbiany says:

    2 things

    1) Purdue is a pretty damn good basketball team too.

    2) Even so, basketball isn’t as affected by divisions in the first place because you have more games in-conference (ie you can play everyone every year) and you have a full tournament at the end of conference season. So for travel purposes you might play your own division twice and the other division only one each season, it’s still not a hindrance to competitive balance in basketball.

  6. PD Shaw says:

    @Brad, good point; basketball doesn’t really factor in here.

    @Doug, the idea is that each team will play every team in its division once and play every team in the other division at least once every two years. Adding two teams to the conference with nine conference games a season actually makes that impossible. I expect that the conference moves to a ten game schedule but that upsets some teams that have specific designs on their non-conference schedules. Also, part of the ambition for “the Game” is that it should be played late in the season, which is probably easier to do in-division.

  7. Trumwill Mobile says:

    The east has better teams, but seems to be rife with NCAA sanctions. So it sort of evens out.

  8. @Doug Mataconis:

    They were able to keep the Ohio State-Michigan game going when the teams were in different divisions.

    At the risk of turning the championship into a farce where it was replaying a game that had just occurred the week before.

  9. Franklin says:

    For the last couple decades, Michigan wasn’t a threat to appear at the Final Four in basketball. Obviously they made it this year, but with the exodus of Burke and Hardaway, Jr., it remains to be seen if they can get anywhere close again soon.

  10. superdestroyer says:

    I doubt if the big 10 (really big 14) schools will be willing to play 9 conference games. Schools like Penn State want the option of playing four non-conference home games in some years much like Ohio State did this year. That means that Penn State or Ohio State will be playing in Lincoln Nebraska once every six years.