ROSEMONT, Ill. — Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour wants a Big Ten football structure that provides more balance than what the East and West divisions can provide.
Ohio State counterpart Gene Smith said, “What we have is pretty good” but would like to see teams play more regularly at every campus. Illinois’ Josh Whitman has no problems with changing divisional alignments but would prefer to do it just once. Iowa’s Gary Barta hopes to preserve his team’s trophy games each year but understands it might not happen.
The NCAA Division I Council meets Wednesday and likely will eliminate the NCAA requirement to play either a round-robin schedule or split into divisions in order to hold a championship game. The ACC appears set to institute a schedule with three permanent annual opponents with a true rotation among the other programs. When the SEC adds Oklahoma and Texas, it could institute pods or another alignment.
For the Big Ten, any formational change is complicated. Some rivalries predate the league’s inception in 1896, while four teams have joined the league in the last 30 years. Some of the league’s highest-profile television matchups feature both old guard and new guard programs. A few of the best games involve teams with little shared history. And there are multiple traveling trophies that near their 100th year in existence.
“We have some really kind of powerful rivalry games that we want to make sure that we figure out how to keep, but also we want to create some new rivalries,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said. “I just want to make sure that we’re thoughtful in our divisional structure, what makes the most sense.”
When the league added Nebraska for the 2011 season, it split into competitively equal divisions based on historical data. Three years later, the Big Ten switched to East-West divisions when it added Maryland and Rutgers. That enabled better rivalry preservation, but it has provided competitive imbalance related to the league championship game. In regular-season play, the East holds a 77-70 regular-season advantage over eight seasons. But the East has won all eight title games.
That’s why Penn State coach James Franklin has spoken multiple times about revamping the divisions.
“I think Penn State has been pretty well aligned from President to AD to football coach as it relates to football and kind of the imbalance and certainly our eight years all together between the East and the West,” said Barbour, who retires next month. “So, how do you do that?
“You look at, for different reasons, what the Big 12 has done, and when they pair 1 vs. 2 at the end, how could we do something like that? What would that look like? And what would the value be to the conference overall? I mean, we’re all going to come to the table with our own institutional view. But at some point, you have to be stewards for the game and stewards for the conference and do what’s right for football in the Big Ten. So, we’re discussing all those aspects.”
There are plenty of options for the Big Ten, and no decision is imminent. It could remain status quo, alter divisions or eliminate divisions altogether with a few protected rivalries. Smith said he hopes the process concludes this summer, but there’s no strict timeline.
If there’s a consensus among Big Ten administrators, it’s that any alignment — with or without divisions — should aid the league’s efforts toward College Football Playoff qualification. The current CFP framework includes four teams, and the Big Ten has not qualified more than one team in any of the eight years. The current iteration expires following the 2025 season, and an expanded CFP could include 12 teams.
Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle said he and his colleagues “have to operate with a sense of urgency” but also want to see how the CFP unfolds before switching formats.
“What I would hate to see is for us to make a series of changes,” Whitman said. “I’m in favor possibly of a single round of changes. But I’d hate for us to make a round of changes now and then the CFP, or whatever succeeds it, makes a change and then we have to make another round of changes. I think our fans, they like tradition, they like predictability. Hopefully, we can get to a point where we can make a decision about whether to make a single round of change and then move forward.”
“We don’t know what the CFP will look like,” Smith said. “Some of us believe there will be expansion. So, what does that mean? The other part of this is we’ve got to be careful because what we’ve built is pretty solid. When you think about the championship game, its attendance and think about our viewership.
“There’s some warts when you have young people who may not have played during their four years in one of the opponents’ stadiums. We’ve got to fix that. I mean, it makes no sense. So non-divisions allow you to maybe address that a little bit better.”
All of the league’s athletics directors can cite a strange scheduling mishap. Iowa and Ohio State have played just once since 2013, which Smith said is “crazy.” Penn State visited Wisconsin last September for the first time in Barbour’s eight years. Illinois and Indiana once were protected annual opponents during the league’s 11-team period, but they haven’t met in Bloomington in nine years. The divisional rotation now includes at least one matchup every three years, but for teams located near the geographic midpoint, there are once-important football series or ones that remain vibrant in other sports that cycle off in relevance.
Then there are the traditional games that vary in importance. Ohio State-Michigan or Indiana-Purdue are considered untouchable, but could historic rivalries like Michigan-Michigan State or Iowa-Minnesota become semi-annual games? If the league opts for a truer rotation, perhaps that means only one protected matchup each year. Penn State didn’t join the Big Ten until 1993 and for Barbour, perhaps no protected rivalries make sense.
“I’m not so concerned about the protected (rivalries) as I am the design of a schedule that helps you rotate through more often,” Barbour said. “It’s a little bit unique for Penn State. Maybe Maryland and Rutgers feel somewhat the same way. I don’t want to speak for them.
“I really don’t think that we could make the argument that we must (protected one or more rivalries). Sure, from a fan standpoint, I bet our fans could come up with a couple. But I think in terms of looking at what we’re trying to achieve from a conference standpoint, I’m not going to pound my fist over anybody in particular.”
It’s the complete opposite for Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Gophers enjoy the most-played rivalry in major college football against the Badgers with 131 games. Iowa and Minnesota have met 115 times. The Hawkeyes and Badgers are located about three hours apart and it was the signature annual series sidelined during the Legends-Leaders divisional alignment. It now is perhaps the most prominent West Division annual series.
(Top photo: Joe Robbins / Getty Images)