In the end, the Big Ten Conference of college football decision-makers could not go with a strict East versus West version of competition with the Nebraska Cornhuskers pulled into the mix.
Nebraska will switch its schedule to Big Ten play in 2011.
Where to put them in the Big Ten, and how to divide the rest of the existing 11 teams, was still in question until Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and university athletic directors plotted their course a few hours before the opening kickoff of the current season.
Football is the only Big Ten sport in which divisional scheduling changes were considered.
A proposal to put The Ohio State University versus the University of Michigan game earlier in the new schedule met with fervent disapproval from fans north and south of the border who wanted to have that rivalry remain as their final game of the conference season.
Placing the two schools in separate divisions could mean they might meet again in a newly formed conference title game (beginning in 2011), although whichever school loses the rivalry game might also be eliminated from a divisional title that will be required to play in the conference championship.
The East-West divide would have had the conference looking like this:
East — Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue
West — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin
New Big Ten Conference Divsions
The new conference divisions will keep the biggest conference rivalry, that of OSU-Michigan, intact, as well as provide a scenario where other traditional inter-conference tug-of-wars remain viable.
The finalized Big Ten Conference divisions are:
Division A — Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern
Division B — Illinois, Indiana, Penn State, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin
In the above schedule, OSU and Michigan will remain the final game of the season for both schools. The new look of the conference will also create a border rivalry between Iowa and Nebraska with possible divisional honors on the line.
Without doubt, six teams have the strongest conference records (five Big Ten and one Big 12 presently): Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin. Creating a divide that would pit these powers against each other for divisional rank, but that would also hopefully get the strongest two to a conference championship game was tricky, as Commissioner Delany attested.
And that was the second biggest question to answer, after the traditional rivalry feud.
Rivalries lost annually in the shuffle include Iowa-Wisconsin, Minnesota-Penn State, and Penn State-MIchigan. However, these rivalries will be played in some seasons: they just won’t be contested every year in the new lineup.
Some rivals from each of the two new divisions will continue to play every year, such as Michigan-OSU, Michigan State-Indiana, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Penn State-Nebraska, and Purdue-Iowa. Their games are described as “protected crossovers”, as they will be out-of-division battles.
Also, it is the plan beginning in 2015 for teams to play nine conference games, rather than the eight scheduled now.
Deciding Factors in Changing Big Ten Conference
Commissioner Delany stated from the beginning that competitive balance, geography, and traditional rivalries would be the three biggest factors taken into consideration in deciding how the Big Ten Conference would be divided around its new component — Nebraska.
However, it is now readily agreed that splitting the four money programs, or conference superpowers, if one wishes to avoid the term “money” — Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Penn State — down the middle was inevitable in order to best benefit the entire conference.
With that split, at least one of the two dollar powers in each division may well get to the title game after Thanksgiving, ensuring their welcomed fan base will attend an annual powerful ending to the conference season without sacrificing the best attended rivalries during the season.
Of course, there is always the unexpected — injury, penalty, upset — that may tilt the expected euphoria.