When Nebraska first joined the Big Ten, the conference made the decision to split the then-12 schools into two divisions: the Legends and the Leaders. The division names were a nod to the conference’s history and future. It lasted two years.
When the Big Ten later added Maryland and Rutgers to the lineup, division realignment was necessary and new names were too. The conference settled on something a little more simple: East and West.
If you need a quick refresher on who is where in the Big Ten, here’s the rundown:
East: Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Rutgers
West: Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue
Are the two divisions unbalanced? Well, it at least looks that way from a championship game perspective. Since the East and West divisions were formed in 2014, the East has won every Big Ten title game. As a result, the rumor has started circulating that maybe the Big Ten will realign the divisions. Or, maybe the divisions will be eliminated entirely. It’s something the Big Ten really isn’t commenting on right now, but there’s a reason for all of this discussion: the College Football Playoff.
Take last season, for instance. No. 6 Ohio State beat No. 21 Northwestern, 42-24, in the Big Ten title game. But the win wasn’t enough. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Oklahoma were the four teams selected, but it was the team slotted one ahead of the Buckeyes out of that top 4 that really stung: SEC championship runner-up Georgia.
The Buckeyes went 12-1 and won their league championship game. Is that not enough?
"Clearly, Alabama and Clemson have separated themselves, and they have earned everything that they've earned in the last couple years," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at Big Ten Media Days. "But I'm not sure that the strength of schedule or the conference championship has been adequately rewarded."
So, what should the Big Ten do? Media Days brought the discussion of conference expansion and strenght of schedule. But let’s go back to the divisions. Can the Big Ten solve its playoff problems simply by realigning? The Big Ten coaches discussed realignment on Thursday and Friday, offering all kinds of thoughts about the possibility.
Let’s look at some of those responses.
Penn State coach James Franklin
“We look at how the divisions are, how the divisions are broken up right now. I think the East is very strong and has been very strong for a number of years, and I think obviously you can have the argument over history, there's ebb and flow, but if you look at the East it's pretty strong. Probably similar in a lot of ways with the SEC West is like. So I think we've got to at least have a discussion. Not necessarily saying we need to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”
Indiana coach Tom Allen
“Well, you know, bottom line is those are decisions that I have nothing to do with. I've been in multiple conferences when you have cyclical opportunities for teams to rise up and have a certain level of play on the field, and so I think we play in a great league that is highly competitive and we play teams from both divisions. That's a decision that others might make. If it changes, it changes. If it doesn't, it doesn't. But we just play the teams that show up on game day.”
Illinois coach Lovie Smith
“We have the people that have perennially been pretty good, and, of course, we know we have to catch them. But if you look at our conference as a whole, top to bottom, I feel like it's a strong league, and to make it, of course, you have the ones up top. But it's about the middle of the crew. Each week, of course, you have to be ready.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio
“I have not heard about the realignment of the divisions, but I guess change is inevitable, and at some point in time things happen, so I'll just deal with it as it comes.”
Minnesota coach PJ Fleck
“Well, with all due respect, I think the West has gotten a lot better. You look at the coaches who have been hired. I mean, Scott Frost at Nebraska and seeing what they're doing in recruiting right now and the elevation of that program instantly, you can just feel that coming as well as I'm sure a lot of the reporters and you guys have seen. And you look at what Jeff Brohm has done at Purdue and elevating that program on a national stage and the things they were able to do last year. And most all the Big Ten West teams have been able to elevate that. We feel like we're a part of that, as well. And the recruiting success that we've had over the last two years, we feel like we're breaking boundaries and knocking walls down in terms of recruiting to the Twin City area, maybe doing things that haven't been done before. And that's a lifeline of your program is recruiting, so we have to be able to do that. It's a wide open West. There are no easy games. No matter what side of the division you're playing, there are no easy games. One thing I've learned in this conference is there's zero easy games here. They're all hard, no matter who you play, and you have to be at your best every single week.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day
“I haven’t thought about that. I think our side is tough. I think we’ve got our hands full on our side. But the rivalries are awesome. I do think when you have to play Up North, you have to play Penn State, you have to play Michigan State every year, that’s hard. And so we’ve got our hands full that way but I haven’t really thought about that.”
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm
“I don’t have a problem with it. I know there’s a lot of great football teams in the Big Ten and I think the Big Ten West is stronger now than it’s ever been. I’m happy with the way it’s aligned right now."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz
“First of all, we tried that once. And I don’t know what division we were in. I still don’t. I’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting it right, I know that. However, many years we didn’t play Illinois. It was like five years, I think. To me, that’s weird. It’s weird. If I was a fan, I’d think that’s weird, too, I’m guessing. I think geography means a lot. To me, it makes sense. And I would say this: If you track, at least go back six years, five years, four years. Ohio State’s won more games than anybody. That’s not a discussion. No. 2? Anyone want to venture a guess? Wisconsin. That’s not a discussion. And everybody else is chasing those two. So I think perception sometimes, you get all these crazy ideas. It’s tough to win in college football no matter where you are. That’s all I know. Especially when you’re in a tough conference. And the Big Ten is certainly one of the more competitive conferences.”
Nebraska coach Scott Frost
"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. We can do a lot through the work that we’re doing to try and get our program where it belongs to help the West be competitive and just as dominant as any other league in the country.”
What do you think? Is realignment the answer to the Big Ten’s issues? Or, is it something else like strength of schedule, a need for conference expansion or a little bit of all? Let us know in the comments below.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.