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November 22, 2012

Time to drop Legends & Leaders

When the Big Ten decided to add Maryland and Rutgers, they certainly caught the college football world off guard. We'd been hearing for months that the Big Ten was content at 12 members, even as college football's tectonic plates were shifting underneath it. But it seems like the Pac-12's decision to back out of their scheduling agreement with the Big Ten and Notre Dame's new contract with the ACC forced commissioner Jim Delany to rethink where his conference was heading.

Adding Maryland and Rutgers is definitely a risk. Delany and the Big Ten are gambling that the possibility of increased television revenue outweighs the risk of diluting the Big Ten's brand. Adding Nebraska and Penn State were no-brainers- the moves made sense from a revenue standpoint, and the Big Ten added two of college football's premier programs. But in the march to 16-team super conferences, there just aren't any more misplaced programs left that are yearning to breathe free and rake in piles of cash.

Delany did what he thought was best for the Big Ten's long term future, and the conference will have to live with the results. But bringing in Maryland and Rutgers poses a more immediate problem: how will they fit into the division structure? There's a variety of ways it could work without too much fuss, like sticking Rutgers in the Leaders division and Maryland in the Legends.

But the big rumor that was floating around in the aftermath of the announcements had both Maryland and Rutgers in the Leaders division, with Illinois jumping ship and becoming a Legend instead of a Leader. Delany has since denied that rumor, saying that the conference hasn't figured out how their newest members will fit in yet.

That's good, because the Big Ten needs to do some serious thinking about mixing up their current division split. "Legends" and "Leaders" were created to try and balance the divisions by splitting up historic super powers like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. Some element of geography was used as well, but the split meant that traditional rivalries like Wisconsin-Iowa were left dormant, all for the sake of a potential Ohio State-Michigan championship game.

I have to admit, I wasn't a fan at first. I felt that the divisions would be pretty well balanced with an East-West split at the Illinois-Indiana border, but apart the Big Ten's poor choice in division names everything seemed to work out; at least it did for a year. The 2012 season has demonstrated why it's almost impossible to hit the right note on an arbitrary division split. We had 33 percent of the Leaders division ineligible for the Big Ten Championship this season, while Nebraska and Michigan are clearly the best two eligible teams. The point is that "competitive balance" might work in the short term, there are too many ups and downs in college football programs to make it a long-term solution.

Who could have predicted at the outset of the "Big Ten 2.0" that Penn State would get rocked with the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and face a four-year bowl ban? Or that Iowa would take a spectacular nosedive toward the Legends division cellar? Or that Wisconsin would struggle so mightily following two back-to-back Rose Bowl trips?

The Big Ten has given itself a chance at a do-over. They'll get one more shot after this round of expansion, but who knows which schools they'll bring in to get to 16 teams? Competitive balance is nice in theory, but a geographic split will work better in practice going forward. Splitting the league up by geography will also help preserve old rivalries like the Wisconsin-Iowa series, and hopefully will allow new ones to grow between Nebraska, Maryland, Rutgers, and their nearest neighbors.

I propose the following split: put Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, and Michigan State into the new "Big Ten West." The remaining schools will fall into the "Big Ten East:" Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.

The best thing about that division lineup is that only the Michigan-Michigan State series will have to cross the division line. That's a fairly easy problem to solve, since Michigan and Michigan State will become permanent cross-division rivals. The series won't miss a beat, and other pre-existing rivalries will go untouched.

Oddly enough, it might be the Badgers who have the biggest problem with this lineup. The Badgers originally drew the short end of the stick when the first lineup was announced, since they weren't placed with Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. But head coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers seem to have grown accustomed to their division- Bielema has said in the past that he likes the idea of getting to play Ohio State and Penn State every year, and playing regular games against Rutgers and Maryland could boost their recruiting efforts on the east coast- especially in New Jersey.

Even still, there are ways around that problem. If the Big Ten decides to go in this direction, the Badgers could lobby to have Ohio State, Maryland or Rutgers as their permanent cross division rival. The Badgers said they have to beat the best in the Big Ten if they want to keep winning it, and a permanent game with Ohio State would provide a great way to do it.

But in the end, it probably wouldn't even matter which teams get paired up for a regular series, except for Michigan-Michigan State and Penn State-Nebraska. A geographic split would preserve and promote so many rivalries that I doubt Minnesota, Iowa, or Illinois would mind getting matched up with Maryland or Rutgers. Someone's going to have to bite the bullet and make those trips, but they could pay recruiting dividends down the line if they're lucky.

In a way, it's a lot like adding the Terrapins and the Scarlet Knights in the first place. The Big Ten would be taking a risk by mixing up their divisions two years into their new format, but the rivalries they'd preserve and create by keeping teams together could end up making their brand even stronger down the line.

College football has already lost so much tradition- it's time to make sure some of what makes the Big Ten so special stays around for years to come.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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