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Thoughts on the Big Ten Divisions

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I think one of the things that has bothered me in this whole divisional process is that people act like only six teams matter when it comes to the divisions. All the talk was how Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin would be divided. It was as if Purdue, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois, and Indiana were going to be relegated as afterthoughts that had no hope of contending no matter what. It was all about separating the "traditional" powers properly. A few thoughts on that:

1.       Before Kirk Ferentz, Iowa was a middling program for decades, with a few great years under Hayden Fry.

2.       Northwestern has three Big Ten Championships in the past 15 years (1995, 1996, and 2000). That's more than Iowa and Penn State.

3.       Before Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin had done very little for decades. Purdue, Northwestern, and Illinois have also won championships since their last one.

Ultimately though, I think they got it right. Nebraska, Penn State, and Michigan have each had bad periods of late where even making a bowl game didn't happen in some years. Only Ohio State has been continually dominant, and even they missed a bowl in 1999. Bear in mind that these divisions only currently apply to football. Basketball will not have divisional play. If you're going to break the league up as follows, they did it right:

Traditionally Strong:

Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State

Recently strong:

Wisconsin, Iowa

Mid-level teams that occasionally challenge:

Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan State, Minnesota

Traditional bottom feeders:

Illinois, Indiana

The mid-level team category is the most fluid. Northwestern is probably the strongest of those teams with Minnesota being the weakest. There are often a lot of similarities between Purdue and Michigan State, as that game often comes down to bowl positioning between the two. All four have consistently made bowl games over the past 15 years. That is why we have the following divisions:

Woody Division (for lack of a better term):

Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana

Bo Division:

Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota.

What does this mean for Purdue?

Based on current team strengths, I think it helps Purdue. Illinois and Indiana , the historically weakest teams, are in our division. Northwestern (consistently underrated post-1995) is perceived as a weak team, but they are not. Michigan is down right now, but far from out. Minnesota is hovering around mediocrity, while Iowa and Nebraska with a rising Michigan State make for a nasty division.

Our historical record against our new division foes is also good:

Ohio State 13-37-3 (3-5 since 2000)

Penn State 3-10-1

Wisconsin 29-39-8

Illinois 38-41-6 (5-2 since 2000)

Indiana 70-36-6

Though Penn State has been in the conference for awhile, they have gone off the schedule quite a bit. Two of those meetings (A Purdue win and the tie) came back in the 50's long before the Nittany Lions joined the conference. Purdue has a huge lead against Indiana, and the Illinois series is trending toward Purdue. The Wisconsin series does not have a huge edge in favor of the Badgers, and the Ohio State series has been much closer in recent years than over a longer history. Here is how we fare historically with the opposite division:

Nebraska 1-0

Michigan 14-41

Northwestern 49-27-1

Minnesota 30-33-3

Michigan State 28-31-3

Iowa 45-33-3

This makes it a tougher call. Historically, we have done better against the other division, with the all-time Nebraska series being a wash. Most of those series are trending the other way, however. Iowa currently has an edge on us. Michigan State has won three in a row. Northwestern has two in a row, as does Minnesota. Ironically the only one trending in our favor is Michigan. They own the all-time series, but we have won two straight.

So what would you rather have, a division that trends more recently toward us, or one that historically is better in our favor?

Cross-division games:

Ideally, I would love to see a rotation of games where we play three teams in the other division for two years, then switch to the other three. That's not going to happen because Michigan and Ohio State are in opposite divisions. It looks like the Big Ten is hoping for what the ACC was planning by splitting up Florida State and Miami. They wanted the chance of two big-time rivalry games in one season, but it has yet to happen.

Obviously, there will be one protect cross-division rivalry, just like the ACC has. Here are the ones I see:

Michigan-Ohio State (duh!)

Wisconsin-Minnesota (One of the oldest rivalries in college football)

Penn State-Nebraska (Keeps the balance of strength schedule-wise with MIchigan-Ohio State)

I think these are set in stone. That leaves six more teams though, and some are a stretch. Michigan State-Indiana has the Old Brass Spittoon history. Illinois-Northwestern has the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk/Land of Lincoln thing going. Illinois-Indiana could get a nice little border war going like they have in basketball. Iowa doesn't really make any sense with Purdue, Indiana, or Illinois though. In fact, they don't make any sense with anyone in the Woody division except Wisconsin, and I think the Minny-Wisky rivalry is bigger. Either way, Purdue is going to be the odd team out here unless they continue to protect our Northwestern series. 

UPDATE: Looks like we get Iowa as our protected rival, bring the Hawkeyes back on the schedule after they have been off the past two seasons.

2nd Update: The full schedule for the next two seasons is now set. The future home and home with Oklahoma State set for 2016 and 2019 has been canceled. Next year's Notre Dame game is now not the season opener, either. Here is the full schedule:

2011
Sept. 3 - KENT STATE
Sept. 10 - at Rice
Sept. 17 - SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE
Oct. 1 - NOTRE DAME
Oct. 8 - MINNESOTA
Oct. 15 - at Penn State
Oct. 22 - ILLINOIS
Oct. 29 - at Michigan
Nov. 5 - at Wisconsin
Nov. 12 - OHIO STATE
Nov. 19 - IOWA
Nov. 26 - at Indiana

2012
Sept. 1 - EASTERN KENTUCKY
Sept. 8 - at Notre Dame
Sept. 15 - EASTERN MICHIGAN
Sept. 29 - MARSHALL
Oct. 6 - MICHIGAN
Oct. 13 - WISCONSIN
Oct. 20 - at Ohio State
Oct. 27 - at Minnesota
Nov. 3 - PENN STATE
Nov. 10 - at Iowa
Nov. 17 - at Illinois
Nov. 24 - INDIANA

We certainly have no favors here.