Hot Reads: Two Weeknight Big Ten Games Could Get Interesting
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Big Ten Is Imbalanced in More Than One Way

July 22, 2019

Give it time, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said.

Nearly every Big Ten coach was asked about realigning the divisions, balancing the power, at last week's conference media days in Chicago. Nearly every coach gently worked around the question in one way or another. It's a strong league, one said. Not my decision, said another.

But Fleck? Fleck offered a view on realignment that didn't seem to come from a cautious head coach choosing his words carefully, but one that you might expect to hear from a die-hard football fan.

"All I’ll say, people talk about conference alignment and the East has dominated the West and all that, just give it time," Fleck said in an interview with Chris Schmidt of Hail Varsity Radio. "With the coaches that are now in the West, with all due respect, Scott Frost is a different animal when you’re talking about recruiting and building programs. Jeff Brohm, different animal when you’re talking about recruiting, rebuilding programs. Hopefully we’re a different animal. And now all of the sudden you get this movement in the West and that’s how you could be able to not just flip it, but make it way way different than the way it used to be. 

"That’s what everyone wants. I think they want a little bit of change, but give it a little time because I love how it’s designed. I love where the teams are, I love how the rivalries fit and we could do it with the way we have it."

The Big Ten has played just five seasons since adding Rutgers and Maryland and moving to an East-West split. It is still relatively new, but it's not like we couldn't see, when we looked at that split five years ago, that the East was home to four of the 25 winningest programs of all time while the West was home to just one. In terms of all-time clout, the Big Ten is imbalanced.

But how much sway does history hold over the future? This being college football, the answer is probably "a lot," but it's not so set in stone that Fleck can't make a forward-looking argument. He isn't just aware of the popular view that the West is home to a lot of young coaching talent right now, he seems to share that view.

Things do look promising at Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. Add that to three stalwart coaches of steady winners in the West––Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin––and the outlook for the Big Ten's overlooked division is as bright as its been at any point. Few people seem to disagree with this argument, but only one coach said as much last week––Fleck.

Frost took a slightly different, though still plenty interesting, approach when asked the same question about alignment and division strength.

"If I’m being honest, I think the West hasn't been as good as it should be because I don't think Nebraska has been as good as it should be," he said.

He's right, of course. We knew the East had four of the top programs right from the start, but all four of those programs––Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State––have largely lived up to their historical billin. We knew those were traditionally good programs and they've been traditionally good, with a few hiccups in some cases, since 2014.

Nebraska? It hasn't lived up to its historical standard over the past five seasons. If you bought it with confidence as a slightly devalued blue-chip stock in 2014, you're still waiting for the chance to sell it for a profit. But everyone agrees that such an opportunity is right around the corner. Given the buzz around the Huskers you might be able to break even right now, but we're at a point where simply breaking even would feel a little foolish.

Would Nebraska being Nebraska again help change the perception of imbalance in the Big Ten? Yeah, it would. It would at least get everyone back to where we started in 2014, and Nebraska carries that weight alone. But that still wouldn't balance things up on its own. You'd need Wisconsin to keep being the Wisconsin it has been of the past 25 years. Northwestern and Iowa need to stay where they're at right now. Purdue and Minnesota need to deliver on the unique promise people see with those two programs right now.

When you lay it all out it's easier to see just how hard that might be. Those programs are going to beat one another. How does the West get credit for that? How does it get to be the East, where we don't question the overall quality of it, without the historical clout of the programs in that division?

I honestly don't know. It's hard to do without lofty preseason rankings and lofty preseason rankings tend to be the domain of traditionally strong programs. But credit to Frost for acknowledging Nebraska's unique spot in this entire discussion.

Credit to Fleck, too. It's an interesting time in the Big Ten, something that was underscored for me last week. Most of the personality in the league is in the West right now, at least in terms of coaches.

The East, by comparison, is pretty vanilla. Jim Harbaugh remains a headline-grabber. If Ryan Day coached almost any other program it would be reason for some excitement and optimism, but because he is where he is we only look at the almost impossibly high standard the first-time head coach must uphold. (It was strange last week, coming on the heels of Urban Meyer, to have the Ohio State coach just be a coach talking about football-coach things.) James Franklin is the most likable coach in the East, probably, and Mark Dantonio remains business-like as usual. The remaining coaches in the East exist in the shadows.

The West, however, is an intriguing mix of consistency, personality and promise. Oh, and one great beard. You know which programs belong in which categories.

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