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Big Ten Football Divisions – Who Has It Best? July 12, 2012

OK, so yeah – this post would have made a lot more sense last year when the Legends and the Leaders were announced.  But after reading this ranking of the Big Ten coaching jobs by Adam Rittenberg, which I think is a fairly accurate power ranking of the current Big Ten programs, I got to thinking how some schools, like Michigan State, who are locked into a yearly cross-division “rivalry” with bottom-dweller Indiana, have it really good.  Or how other schools, like, say, Minnesota, have to deal with Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, MSU in their division AND a cross division rivalry with Wisconsin.  To me, at least with the current state of the programs (and the history of each), it looks like Minnesota is locked into five Big Ten losses every year.

So who has it best?  Who has it worst?  How could we tell?

Well, since I have no background in statistics and am just a blogger, I feel perfectly prepared to toss out a bunch of numbers, claim they mean something, and ignore all rules of statistical probabilities in order to arrive at a bogus conclusion.  Specifically, I’ll use Rittenberg’s program rankings, look at the six opponents they’re locked into playing year after year, and see which teams got the short end of the “balanced divisions” stick.

The reason I disclaim (can that be a verb? statistical AND grammatical deficiencies) is because something feels off with these numbers.  It seems to me that a team at the bottom would just naturally have the hardest schedules because the one bottom-dweller they won’t get to play is themselves.  Same for a team at the top.  Ohio State has the added benefit of never having to play the best team in the conference, because they are.  I think you get my point.  And if you don’t, hey, I’m just a blogger.  Your statistical and grammatical rules frighten and confuse me.

So here’s the list that Rittenberg came up with (again, he was ranking the “best coaching jobs”):

1. Ohio State
2. Michigan
3. Penn State
4. Nebraska
5. Wisconsin
6. Michigan State
7. Iowa
8. Illinois
9. Purdue
10. Minnesota
11. Northwestern
12. Indiana

Pretty good, right?  The only real quibble I’d make is I would put Nebraska ahead of Penn State.  Partly because Nebraska was probably the best program in all of college football from 1970 to 2000, and partly because of the environment at Penn State today.  But for the purposes of this highly scientific study, I’m going with Rittenberg’s list.

Each school had 5 division opponents they will play every year, and one cross-division “rival”.  Our rival is the Purple People.  Ohio State has Michigan.  Purdue and Iowa (what?).

So if Ohio State gets one point and IU gets 12, meaning Ohio State would be the toughest perennial opponent and Indiana would be the easiest, who has the highest score (highest score meaning easiest locked-in schedule)?  Here’s the math:

Ohio State (divisional opponents are #3, 5, 8, 9, 12, plus Michigan is 2)
Michigan (4, 6, 7, 10, 11, plus Ohio State is 1)
Penn State (1, 5, 8, 9, 12, plus Nebraska is 4)
Nebraska (2, 6, 7, 10, 11, plus Penn State is 3)
Wisconsin (1, 3, 8, 9, 12, plus Minnesota is 10)
Michigan State (2, 4, 7, 10, 11, plus Indiana is 12)
Iowa (2, 4, 6, 10, 11, plus Purdue is 9)
Illinois (1, 3, 5, 9, 12, plus Northwestern is 11)
Purdue (1, 3, 5, 8, 12, plus Iowa is 7)
Minnesota (2, 4, 6, 7, 11, plus Wisconsin is 5)
Northwestern (2, 4, 6, 7, 10, plus Illinois is 8)
Indiana (1, 3, 5, 8, 9, plus Michigan State is 6)

So lets add that up and list the schedules, from easiest schedule to most difficult.  Note that the divisions are fairly balanced – Leaders total up to 38, Legends to 40, so the base numbers are comparable, with the Leaders division being slightly more difficult based on these rankings.  Which, I guess, somewhat changes this entire post to be “which crappy teams got lucky with a bad rivalry opponent”.  But ignore that for now.  Let’s pretend like science just found us an answer.

1. Michigan State – 46 points
2. Wisconsin – 43
3. Iowa – 42
4. Illinois – 41
T5. Ohio State – 39
T5. Michigan – 39
T5. Penn State – 39
T5. Nebraska – 39
9. Northwestern – 37
10. Purdue – 36
11. Minnesota – 35
12. Indiana – 32

No real surprise to see Michigan State with the easiest route.  Guaranteed games against Minnesota, Northwestern, and Indiana every year.  The three Big Ten programs with the least historical success, on the schedule every single year.  And no surprise to see Indiana last.  Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State locked into the schedule every year.  On years when they rotate to Nebraska and Michigan as their other two cross-division opponents, they’re basically starting 0-6 in the conference and hoping to beat us or Purdue.

For us, I think we did pretty well.  As we discussed last summer, locking in with Northwestern plus getting IU and Purdue in our division was key.  Three of the four also-ran Big Ten programs are on our schedule every year.  Indiana only gets one of the four (of course, they do get to play us, we of eight-wins-between-2003-and-2006 fame, so it’s not all bad).  Overall, though, with the top-4 programs locked in to rivalry games against each other (Ohio State-Michigan, Penn State-Nebraska), Indiana got the most difficult draw possible (Michigan State) and we got the easiest (Northwestern).  Thanks for being in Chicago, Chicago’s (8th favorite) Big Ten team!

Will this list change, even this year?  Of course.  Northwestern is playing above their historic level, and schools like Penn State are currently below.  Just because Purdue is historically the 9th best program in the Big Ten doesn’t mean they won’t have another Drew Brees run and become our 3rd-toughest opponent.  But overall, with the history behind each program, I think we were given a bit of a gift.  Especially in a year like this year, where Minnesota is on the schedule and we play the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th team on this list.

The first step for our program in attempting to grow it back to national prominence is to climb off of the Purdue-Minnesota tier and up to the Iowa-Wisconsin tier, and I think this list illustrates that this is possible.  Especially if Penn State falls and the Leaders division becomes Ohio State, Wisconsin, and a trainwreck.  I like our odds in that trainwreck.  Climb to the middle tier, build recruiting off of those bowl bids, and take aim at a Big Ten Championship Game or two.

Or, schedule 12-0 Cincinnati and 10-2 Missouri again, sink the season before it starts, add in a coach who can’t stop a 6 game losing streak nor decline the correct penalty, and go back to the days of Penn State leading 56-3 at halftime.

I choose the first one.

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7 Comments
jdl July 12th, 2012

We’ve always had a favorable deal, prior to the recent changes our “protected rivals” were IU and NW. Can’t beat that. Maybe this time we can actually take advantage instead of pissing it away.

oskee July 12th, 2012

Hey JDL!

This cuts both ways, of course. No attendance/interest for games against NU or IU. So we’re also locked into those low box office games (with their downside on our perceived strength of schedule).

illiniranger July 13th, 2012

“I like our odds in that trainwreck.” That may be my favorite all time line.

oskee July 13th, 2012

When they declared the present divisional split, Rosemont promised to “revisit & rebalance” at some point in the future-but IIRC they didn’t set a date to do this. We may see a committee formed about the time the BCS contract runs out and the four team playoff kicks in. But right now I don’t think anyone can seriously cry “unfair”.

illiniranger July 13th, 2012

They should have done an East and West like the SEC. The reality is that programs rise and fall over time; when you balance the conference in say 2009 it will look very different in 2019. I remember when the Big 12 first merged – KSU, Nebby, and Colorado were much better programs than UT, Oklahoma, and AandM. Also, Big 12 South members like TTech, Baylor, and Okie State were also rans. Now that has completely changed with Nebby and Colorado bolting the conference. Same with the SEC. Spurrier and Fulmer dominated the conference in the late 90s – now the SEC West clearly having the best programs.

Trying to “balance” the league was as bad an idea as the names Legends and Leaders.

oskee July 13th, 2012

I think that Delany will want to rebalance in order to make sure the top two teams are actually playing in the Championship game-and to increase the chances of the Big Ten getting to two “top” bowls.
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It’s JMHO, but if only one of your top teams is playing in Indy it makes it hard for that second top team to make a case for one of the “better” bowls over the opponent in the league championship game. (And what about an upset in Indy? You might get both of your top teams shut out.)
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I’m sure the conference office has a few people working there who do nothing but think of these things; but IMHO for a number of reasons they will try not to group a consistent #1 and 2 into the same division. If for nothing else, they’ll want the highest ratings possible out of the Indy game.
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My only question is, when do they rebalance?

illinibacker July 14th, 2012

wow. I had banished that 2005 Penn State game from my memory. I’ve never witnessed a bloodbath like that. I swear PSU could have scored 150 that day if they wanted to. It was like the varsity team playing the freshman team.