Mon Jun 14 04:46pm EDT
So many questions about Nebraska's move to the Big Ten in 2011, so little time. Let's take it from the top:
• Do they have to change the name? No. The great irony of the realignment scenario at the moment is that the Big Ten is sitting tight with 12 teams, and the odds are growing by the minute that the Big 12 will somehow survive with only ten. But the universal immutability of mathematic truth pales in comparison to the necessities of branding, and there is no older, more solid brand in college sports than the Big Ten.
The league formed as the seven-team Western Conference in 1896, readmitted original member Michigan as the tenth team in 1916 and – with the exception of a three-year span from 1947-49, immediately following the departure of original member Chicago (replaced by Michigan State in 1950) – maintained ten members for the next 75 years. The addition of Penn State as the eleventh team in the early nineties wasn't enough to overcome the ancient cachet of "The Big Ten," and it doesn't have to change for Nebraska – or Notre Dame, or Missouri, or whoever.
That doesn't mean the conference won't change the name; I have some interesting suggestions in my inbox, some of them from senders who seem pretty confident in their imminence. Sorry guys: There is already a Northeastern Conference, and a Great Lakes Valley Conference, and a Great Lakes Conference that has nothing to do with sports or colleges at all. Could Michigan and Ohio State fans really stomach playing in the "Big North"? If expansion goes beyond 12 teams, there's always the prospect of conceding to become the Big 14 or Big 16, but after 100 years, the Big Ten is just the Big Ten.
• Divisions: How will they split them? Commissioner Jim Delany laid out three factors for determining divisions on Friday, in order of importance: 1. Competitive fairness, 2. Maintaining traditional rivalries, and 3. Geography. We can rewrite those priorities as:
1. Splitting up Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, the three programs responsible for eight straight conference championships/automatic BCS berths and four of seven at-large BCS bids since 2002; and
2. Preserving the prominence of the Ohio State-Michigan game in the regular-season finale.
The first criteria pretty much precludes geography as a factor: An East-West alignment would group all three of the conference's most successful, profitable programs in the long-term into the same division. The second forces Ohio State and Michigan into the same division, to prevent a possible rematch in the championship game following the traditional finale. (Yes, that means the Buckeyes and Wolverines can't play in the Big Ten title game; this is the cross they bear to maintain the "relevance" of the hallowed regular-season showdown, which takes on greater significance if it's winner-take-all and be undercut by a different result in a week or two.)
Almost all of the league's traditional rivalries can be incorporated into the division setup without throwing off the competitive balance: Incorporating Illinois-Northwestern on one side of the divide and Indiana-Purdue on the other isn't going to have any effect on the conference championship race very often. The alignment I've thrown together at right is balanced in terms of the "Eyeball Test of Average Competitiveness," and except for Penn State flying across the Mississippi into Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska maintains geographical coherence without being all literal about it. A few teams – Wisconsin-Minnesota, Penn State-Michigan State – may have to cross divisional lines for their annual rivalry games, but it's a minor inconvenience for the sake of competitiveness and keeping Michigan and Michigan State together; you can swap Minnesota and Michigan State if you must, and all traditional year-end rivals will be within the same division – i.e., no back-to-back rematches in the conference title game.
• Wait, does Nebraska have a Big Ten 'rival'? Well, no; technically, neither does the other newbie, Penn State, despite the imposition of the monstrosity that is the Land Grant Trophy to add a little oomph to the Nittany Lions' rivalry-of-convenience with Michigan State. Wisconsin has already appealed to close each season against the 'Huskers, a matchup with some growth potential that I've taken to referring to as the "Red Dead Redemption."
Nebraska's most natural Big Ten rival, though, is its next-door neighbor, Iowa, once an annual opponent for the 'Huskers through the first half of the century and – most importantly – the original "Cornhuskers." The Hawkeyes have good, old-fashioned rivalries with Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the Badgers and Gophers are bound together by a freakin' axe, and only Nebraska stole their name, kind of.
• Are there any other crazy scheduling glitches? More than once over the last couple years, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez has floated the idea of adding a ninth conference game, a la the Pac-10, which was mathematically impossible in an 11-team conference. (Yes, we're deferring to arithmetic again: 11 teams x 9 games = 99 ÷ 2 teams per game = 49.5 games.) In a 12-team league, though, it would be possible to add a fourth game from the opposite division to the five mandatory intra-division games for a nine-game conference schedule, which – assuming that game replaces the Akrons and Youngstown States on the non-conference schedule, and not the Alabamas and Southern Cals – should make for a more complete, more competitive conference race.
By replacing a cupcake game, though, it would also effectively add an extra loss per season to half the conference, which the realities of bowl eligibility will probably never tolerate.
• Can we get a little option up in here? Please. This has nothing to do with expansion, it's just an annual plea to Nebraska coaches to indulge several generations of fans' nostalgia for the old face-stomping triple-option attacks that were so synonymous with some of the most dominant outfits in college football history for 20 years. The new start presents the 'Huskers with the perfect opportunity to go retro in an increasingly spread-friendly environment, and given the depths of last year's offense, it certainly can't hurt.
• What is the shelf life of this blueprint? Until such time as Notre Dame decides to forfeit its precious independence, which could be quite a while, actually. With one-time target Missouri looking to remain in the Big 12, after all, the Big Ten would have very, very little incentive to reach for Rutgers, Syracuse or Pittsburgh out of the Big East unless it's to balance out the divisions in a 14 or 16-team layout with the arrival of a real target, i.e. the Fighting Irish. Sans ND, an even dozen looks like the status quo until NBC just finally just runs out of money.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.