We, sirs, have a Nelly-sized diemma that needs solving: as you all know, with twelve teams and a conference championship looming, it appears likely that the Big Ten will be divided up into two divisions. Personally, I'm not a fan of the division concept: I'd like it if the Big Ten championship game just featured the league's two best teams, but, I can see why, for the sake of rivalries and simpler scheduling, the league plans on opting on going all mitosis and splitting up into two seperate, but potentially equal benefits. (On a side note, the pods idea being kicked around by some places, although weird and never going to happen, is totally awesome.)
After this here jump, I'll be looking at how some of the more likely potential divisions would effect NU.
Here's the things any NU fan will be looking for in the new divisions, in order of importance:
1. A decent schedule: chances are, this will even out over time, but you wouldn't want to get dumped into a hyper-division with OSU/PSU/Michigan/Nebraska. It's clear that the logical setup is to have two of Michigan/PSU/OSU/Nebraska per division, but with each team playing multiple games out of division as well per year, there's really no set-up that guarantees or doesn't guarantee we'd be getting screwed over on a yearly basis.
2. Some sort of geographic sense: This is just me, but I love - love - the Big Ten road trip. As a college student, it's very appealing: you get up, drive for two, three hours, tired as all hell, and spend all day checking out another college's awesome experience. I wouldn't want to be in a division that made this implausible week-in, week-out.
3. In-conference rivals: This is the least important aspect, not because I think rivalries are unimportant - they're the opposite of that - it's because we don't have any we need to worry about preserving. It would be nice to have U of I in our conference, but, even if Illinois is in the other conference, it seems likely that each team will have one protected out-of-division rivalry game, and Illinois would clearly be ours, as neither of us really has that much in the way of rivalries with other schools. Everything else - our currently protected "rivalry" with Purdue - really doesn't matter to me, and it doesn't seem like divisions will hamper our ability to play the Illini every year.
The Northwestern Geography Department Memorial Edition Divisions:
East: Indiana, Penn State, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State
West: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Chances are, we're not going to see this set-up - Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan in the same conference isn't pretty, or, at least it won't be once we see the Rich Rodriguez failboat blowing away in a gentle breeze, either by halfway decent football teams or by firing squad.
But I'll be damned if this isn't the best set-up for NU. I don't foresee many years where it would be a total longshot for Northwestern to ouplay the bunch we're lumped in with - although, this past year, we would've finished fourth in the division, but that's sort of a fluke. We'd completely dodge the double-barrelled OSU-PSU shotgun, and, I guess Michigan is supposedly good too.
Sadly for us, it's never going to happen: quite frankly, this doesn't screw up competitive balance that much, as The Only Colors pointed out last week, but everybody seems to think it will.
The Fighting Competitive Balance Fire with a substance that is not water but in fact a highly flammable substance Divisions
East: Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin
West, plus Penn State: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Minnesota, Penn State
This is silly, because Penn State shouldn't have to go on 800 mile road trips every weekend just so OSU and Michigan get to be in the same division. That's unfair and silly. It casts Penn State as the third wheel in the conference's pre-existing power balance, which is also silly. I just don't like this set-up, and have a genuine problem with all the concepts proposing Nebraska-Penn State form an unholy bond of matrimony in a new division between two schools as far away from each other as we at Northwestern are from our huge rivals, Boston College and Colorado. (seriously. State College is further from Lincoln than we are from Boston or Boulder.)
It leaves us with an annual game against Penn State, which is really, really far away, and Nebraska, the new guys. I like it, but it's no geographic divisionn.
The Slightly More Absurd Northwestern Geography Department Living Memorial Geographic Alignment Conference
North: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin
South: Penn State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois
First off, Big Ten North and South is funny. For some reason, the first metaphor that comes to mind is paying a stripper by slipping her neatly-apportioned rolls of 100 pennies each instead of singles: its still a dollar, but... really?
Secondly, this puts NU in the dreaded mediocrest of conferences: the South contains arguably the three best and three worst teams in the league right now, giving NU a really bland road to indifference, but a seemingly easy one to the conference championship. Not a bad dilemma to have. I like the other teams in the north, though, and we could get Illinois as our protected rival.
East: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern
West: Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State
I really like this set-up. Relatively adherent to geography, a lot of retained rivalries in-division as well as some good cross-division protected ones, and - oh, wait, wait, sorry, I just soiled myself thinking about having to play Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State every year. If you'll excuse me while I go clean all this doody out of my boxers.
(doody. important word.)
I'd love to co-sign a conference lineup this sensible, but, as a Northwestern fan, swap us out with Purdue and you'd make me a very happy man.
"Charter": Michigan, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin
"Expansion": Nebraska, Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State
I don't have the same problem here I do with most Nebraska-Penn State setups because this isn't merely forcing them into a division so OSU and Michigan can have their fun. However, I do feel it's a bit of a geographic clusterfreak, but it gives NU possibly the most favorable set of conference opponents I've seen yet. It's not a bad try by any standards, but it leaves a little bit too much in favor of the "expansion" division than to be hoped for, especially with Michigan's falling out as a power in recent years.
"Old": Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois, Indiana
"New: Nebraska, Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa
First off, it would be hilarious if they actually used "old" and "new", just to piss off Michigan.
Secondly, not to harp on the same point, but the Nebraska-Penn State issue pops up again, not to mention the unholy trinity of Purdue-Illinois-Indiana, which really wrecks any semblance of parity in that conference. Much as the conference's three best programs have to be split up, so do these three.
For an NU fan, this provides a little bit of a competitive challenge. It's among the tougher sets of opponents I'd be willing to consent to - if only because winning this wouldn't be completely implausible, but seems really, really difficult.
Conclusion: My favorite division alignment, to be honest, is the simplest: right down the middle, east and west. I say this both as a Big Ten and a Northwestern fan: as an NU fan, it gives us a set of opponents that doesn't seem like a rollover but doesn't seem like it'll be an impossible mountain to climb, as a Big Ten fan - and I can't stress this enough - I really don't think the PSU/OSU/Michigan MECHADIVISION will be as enormous a murderfest as it seems, and the numbers back it up. That alignment gives me everything I could hope for in a conference, geographically, rivalry-ly, and of course, competitively. Co-sign.