With at least two schools (Maryland and Rutgers) joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Big Ten has to take a second look at how the divisions are set up. The "Legends and Leaders" approach tried to split the schools based on football history and rivalries, and was a fairly successful approach for splitting the teams.
The names, however, were not. The Big Ten spent too much time with a communications firm and not enough time with fans. Nobody understood the difference between the Legends and Leaders names: Why are Nebraska and Michigan legends? Why are Indiana and Purdue leaders? People quickly figured out which teams were in there division; they just couldn't remember what it was called.
The Big Ten even ran a contest last fall to help people remember the divisions. The winning entry? "1owa, 2N, 3M; 2P-I, O-W!" Well, I suppose it helps you figure out who is in which division; doesn't help remembering which one is the Legends and which one is the Leaders.
What does work? East/West. Yes, Wisconsin is out of place, but it's a heck of a lot easier to remember that the Badgers are misplaced than trying to remember who's a Legend and who's a Leader. We started using it a year ago, and formally abandoned the Legends/Leaders/Losers/Dungeons/Dragons approach before last season.
And with the need to realign the conference anyway, it was a convenient opportunity to ditch the labels without admitting they failed. Want proof that the Big Ten was trying to avoid admitting the failure of those names? They leaked the story while the nation was mesmerized by the arrest of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect.
Fully realize there's much, much more important (and great) news going on right now in Boston area, but …— Rittenberg/Bennett (@ESPN_BigTen) April 20, 2013
Classic distraction move, much like when Harvey Perlman gave Steve Pederson a contract extension in 2007 while everybody who covered Nebraska football was in San Antonio for Big XII media days.
So who's in the divisions?
East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin
The Huskers lose Michigan and Michigan State as division rivals, but gain Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue. Not a great tradeoff, mind you. But it works in the grand scheme of things, and probably for the best for the conference anyway. Somebody has to play Maryland and Rutgers, and as the geographic footprint of the conference expands, it helps manage travel a lot better.
Not playing Michigan and Michigan State every year might hurt Nebraska's strength of schedule, but not as much as one might think. Every Husker fan knows that Nebraska hasn't won a conference title since 1999. Well, Michigan hasn't won one since 2004, and that title was shared with Iowa. Yes, Iowa. So for now, putting the three-peat Badgers in Nebraska's division could actually strengthen it.
Some will argue that the East Division will be stronger than the West. I'll disagree. Yes, Michigan and Ohio State are clearly the beasts of the East, and Michigan State is rock solid as well. After that, the East falls apart. Penn State has yet to feel the full repercussions of the NCAA sanctions imposed over the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Indiana is, well, Indiana. Maryland has had losing seasons in the ACC three out of the last four years. Rutgers has at least been to bowl games, but that was based on a Big East schedule.
In the West, Northwestern has show themselves to be a scrappy team and Minnesota is up-and-coming. And yes, Iowa shared Michigan's last conference title, while Illinois and Purdue (unlike Iowa) have been to the Rose Bowl this century.
The bigger news is that except for the in-state Purdue/Indiana game, the designated cross-division rivalry game is gone. That makes sense, now that most of the biggest rivalries are inside each division. Nebraska vs. Penn State sounded like a good idea three years ago; it doesn't look so attractive when you consider the impending effects of NCAA sanctions on Penn State.
Starting in 2016, Nebraska will be playing three games each season against East division schools, as the Big Ten is moving to a nine-game conference schedule. I still have misgivings about that, because the non-conference game that will be eliminated each season is probably one you'd like to keep. In 2016, Nebraska already had non-conference games scheduled with Fresno State, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Northern Illinois (in Chicago). Which one is going to be the one dropped? I suspect that it'll probably be the Northern Illinois game, because Nebraska can only afford to leave Lincoln every other year to maintain seven home games each season.
Mark me down as still in favor of leaving the conference games at eight. Nobody likes the 1-AA "body bag" games, and while the Big Ten seems to be moving away from playing those mismatches, the need for home games isn't going away. Not with the income that home game ticket sales generate.
So, should the Big Ten also move the Nebraska/Wisconsin game to Thanksgiving weekend, as Brandon suggests? It's a solid idea that creates a compelling Thanksgiving weekend for TV when paired with the Michigan/Ohio State game. But from a ticket sales perspective, I think it makes more sense to get the championship game participants determined earlier in November. That gives more people the opportunity to set up travel arrangements and request vacation time, lessening the possibility of half-empty stadiums like in 2012. Or play the games on-campus, like the Pac-12 does it.