With the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Big Ten Conference has gotten rid of the competitive-balance based (and much-maligned) Leaders and Legends divisions in favor of a more traditional geographical format.
But now the conference is fighting a perception nationally that the East Division has it all and the West Division is a veritable cakewalk by comparison.
The East does have name-brand recognition, with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. Throw defending Big Ten champion Michigan State into the mix and it looks fairly imposing.
The national perception of the West, however, is that it’s Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and the four dwarves (Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue).
At Big Ten football media days in Chicago this week, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen took issue with that perception.
“There’s no easy Big Ten games,” Andersen said. “Anybody who thinks there is is sadly mistaken and I’ll debate that with you as much as you want to debate it because you better strap it on and be ready every week in the Big Ten. So as far as the schedule goes, I disagree that it’s an easier schedule. That’s my opinion.”
The Big Ten is fighting a perception problem nationally that it is the fifth of the so-called Power 5 on the gridiron, lagging behind the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pac-12 and, particularly, the almighty Southeastern conferences.
With the new four-team College Football Playoff (because it will be a capital-letter affair, to be sure), that perception problem could become an unkind reality for the Big Ten, particularly if it is the lone conference left in the cold when the four bids are awarded.
The idea is already out there that the Big Ten champion will have to be 13-0 to have a shot at the playoff. If it were to be a 13-0 team from the perceived-to-be-weaker West? All bets could be off.
In the end, however, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is pleased with the renewed emphasis on geographical rivalries.
“I like the divisions,” Alvarez said. “No. 1, it’s good for our fans. I didn’t like it when we didn’t protect Nebraska and Iowa (during the first alignment); we protected Minnesota. Our fans want to drive to Lincoln and they want to drive to Iowa City. It was a burden for them the way it was set up. I think setting it up geographically makes more sense.”
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, the Badgers had played in the Leaders Division with Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue. The Legends Division was made up of Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern.
And as far as any imbalance between the Big Ten’s East and West divisions, history should remind us these things tend to be cyclical.
Once upon a time in the SEC, the East Division held all of the power with behemoths Florida, Georgia and Tennessee slugging it out, while the West was seen as almost an afterthought.
With the SEC West home to recent BCS national champions Auburn, Alabama and LSU, as well as a potentially emerging powerhouse at Texas A&M, nobody makes fun of the SEC West anymore.