CHICAGO – Is it time for another round of division realignment in the Big Ten?
Following five straight Big Ten Championship Game wins by East division teams since the last round of division realignment in the conference, that has been one of the most popular questions at this week’s Big Ten media days.
Count Penn State coach James Franklin as a coach who believes there at least needs to be a conversation about the possibility.
“I think the East is very strong and has been very strong for a number of years, and I think obviously you can have the argument over history, there's ebb and flow, but if you look at the East it's pretty strong,” Franklin said. “Probably similar in a lot of ways to what the SEC West is like. So I think we've got to look at that, at least have a discussion. Not saying that we necessarily have to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”
Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State have consistently been among the Big Ten’s best teams for the past half-decade, and all of them appear to be well-positioned to remain among the conference’s powers for years to come. Add in the fact that the Big Ten has been left out of the College Football Playoff for the past two years, and the amount of questions about whether it’s in the conference’s best interest to have all of those teams in one seven-team division increases.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck believes it is likely that the Big Ten will realign its divisions once again.
“Change is inevitable,” Fleck told Scott Dochterman of The Athletic. “I think we all know that. I think that the East and West have been around for a while. I like it, I like the division of it. But I don’t think it will stay the same. I think we’ll change it at some point because change is coming somehow, some way. And I think people are going to want to move it around, and shake it up a little bit.”
The problem with any proposed realignment is that there’s no easy – or necessarily better – way to do it.
When the Big Ten first went to a two-division structure with the addition of Nebraska in 2011, the conference attempted to form two divisions based on competitive parity – called Legends and Leaders – that were widely panned. Geographically, the current division structure makes sense; the seven easternmost teams play in the East, while the seven westernmost teams play in the West.
Additionally, realignment might not solve the Big Ten’s recent failures to make the playoff. Ohio State was left out as the conference champion for the past two years because of blowout losses to Big Ten West teams – Purdue and Iowa – that have not ranked among the conference’s power teams but were still good enough to embarrass the Buckeyes on those days.
Ohio State's Ryan Day acknowledged that playing in the Big Ten East might be tougher than playing in the Big Ten West, but the first-year head coach said he hasn’t personally given any thought to the subject of realignment.
“I think our side is tough,” Day said. “We’ve got our hands full on our side. But the rivalries are awesome. I do think when you have to play up north, you have to play Penn State, you’ve got to play Michigan State every year, that’s hard. And so, we’ve got our hands full that way, but no, I haven’t really thought about that.”
Rutgers coach Chris Ash, whose Scarlet Knights have gone 1-19 against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan (with the only win coming against Michigan in 2014) since joining the Big Ten, said he does not think the divisions should or will change.
“I don't think you're going to be able to realign the conference to make everybody happy,” Ash said. “We could try to do that and have those conversations, I just don't think it's possible. It is what it is. It's a very competitive league on both sides, in the East and in the West, and we've got to play who we play. I like where it's at right now, and I don't see it changing anytime soon.”
Regardless of whether another realignment might ultimately be in the cards, there is a realization throughout the Big Ten that there are conversations that need to be had about strengthening the conference’s place in the playoff conversation.
Eventually, the CFP could expand to more than four teams – which also could potentially mean automatic bids for champions of Power 5 conferences like the Big Ten – and that could be the simplest solution to the problem. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said Friday that he believes an expanded playoff is “inevitable.”
In the meantime, though, there are other changes the Big Ten could potentially discuss to ensure they are not at a competitive disadvantage, such as whether their schools should continue to play a nine-game conference schedule while the SEC and ACC only play eight regular season conference games. Having a ninth conference game means Big Ten teams are playing an extra cross-division game, like Ohio State’s games against Purdue and Iowa, while schools like Alabama and Clemson are often using their fourth non-conference game to play a Group of 5 or Football Championship Subdivision team.
“When you play nine conference games, you're going to have more losses within your conference, just obviously mathematics tell you that,” Franklin said. “So I just think all these things need to be discussed after the last two years and what's happened, because I think obviously a lot of people in this room, as well as the people in our conference, feel like we have an opportunity to compete with anyone, anywhere, at any time. We want the opportunity to do that.”
“Not saying that we necessarily have to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”– Penn State coach James Franklin on potential Big Ten division realignment and schedule changes
Whether eight conference games or nine conference games, Fitzgerald believes all FBS conferences should be playing the same number of conference games in order to maintain shared data points across college football.
“To have I think a true champion that's won on the field, we've got to have shared data points,” Fitzgerald said.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Big Ten should do to improve its College Football Playoff chances in future seasons because the CFP committee itself has not been consistent in its personnel or with its selection criteria. Committee members change from one year to the next, and while the committee is supposed to value a number of criteria that includes conference championships and strength of schedule, that hasn’t always appeared to be the case in recent years.
“The constant churn of the committee is an issue for me,” said Jim Delany, who is entering his final season as Big Ten commissioner. “I just wish we had a little more continuity. I wish they would demonstrate as well as state a stronger commitment to strength of schedule ... I totally support the idea that we should be playing comparable schedules, and if we're not playing comparable schedules, there ought to be some way to differentiate that, but we haven't had our way on that one.”
Ultimately, the Big Ten is only one conference that has a say in changes that could eventually be made to the playoff and college football at the national level. From the commissioner down to the athletic directors and coaches, though, it is their responsibility to ensure that they do what they can to put their teams – particularly their conference champions – in the best possible position to make the playoff and compete for a national championship.
“There's a lot of things you can't control,” Franklin said. “I think what we've got to do is control the things that we can control, the things that we know are constants and those are the discussions that we're going to have to have as a conference.”
As a first-time head coach, Day said he is solely focused on his job at Ohio State right now, but once he gets through this season, he wants to be involved in the conversations next offseason about what could be best for the Big Ten and the College Football Playoff – especially knowing that the Buckeyes have been on the short end of the stick for two years in a row.
“When you look at what we did last year and beating the team up north who was the No. 1 defense in America, and I think they were fourth-ranked in the country at that time; to do what we did, and still not get in, that was really hard,” Day said. “So it is frustrating. But I also understand that there is no easy solution in there and again, being a first-time head coach, I really want to get through the first season and then really start to dive into these things in the offseason.”