Joe’s Corner: Big Ten Divisional Realignment a Win for Northwestern

WNUR Sports Director Joe Misulonas (@jmisulonas) takes a look at the new Big Ten Divisional alignments and argues why they will benefit Northwestern in the long-run.

Photo by Benny Sleu/US PRESSWIRE

Photo by Benny Sleu/US PRESSWIRE

In a column I wrote last fall for the Daily Northwestern, I argued Big Ten expansion is a net gain for Northwestern. Even if Maryland and Rutgers don’t have enormous fan bases, the more schools added to the conference means more revenue from the Big Ten Network.

According to Nate Silver, the New York Times columnist who correctly predicted the outcome of each state in the 2012 election, Northwestern has the smallest fan base in the nation amongst Big Ten teams (once Maryland is added, they will become the second smallest). The Big Ten Network’s revenue is divided equally between all schools in the conference. Therefore, Northwestern with it’s fan base of 500,000 (using Silver’s estimates) makes the same amount of money as Ohio State, a team with over 3,000,000 fans. Northwestern benefits the most from Big Ten revenue sharing, therefore any additional revenue to the conference, such as expansion, means Northwestern will gain more than the other Big Ten teams.

My argument last fall focused on financial gains for Northwestern. However, with the announcement of the new Big Ten divisions (which will begin when Maryland and Rutgers join the conference in 2014), an added benefit has emerged for Northwestern fans.

Currently, the Big Ten is split between Legends and Leaders, two dubious distinctions with no bearing on the divisional makeups (seriously, Northwestern is a legend, but Ohio State isn’t?). The new divisional alignments will be geographic, with the conference split into the West and East divisions. The East will be Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. The West will be Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Let’s take a look at these divisions. The East will have cream puffs in Indiana and Maryland who will get beat up in divisional play, and Penn State will be decimated from sanctions for the next several years. And Rutgers is a program with only a couple good years and several mediocre ones. It seems that the bottom of the West is much weaker, and Northwestern should be upset that they didn’t get that conference.

But look at the top of the East! Ohio State AND Michigan, the perennial Big Ten powerhouses in one division. Imagine if year in, year out Northwestern had to compete with both those teams just to get in the Big Ten Championship Game. Throw in a fairly good Michigan State program, and the top of the West is downright frightening.

The West doesn’t have the cream puffs the East does. Minnesota is an improving program, and Purdue and Illinois are struggling programs that in the past have had successful and strong teams. And Iowa is always a wildcard team, veering year by year between the Biggest Surprise in the conference to the Biggest Disappointment. Those are four teams that Northwestern won’t be able to chalk up as wins each year.

But the top of the West is less fearsome than the East. Wisconsin is a solid program that has won three straight Big Ten titles (although Ohio State wasn’t eligible last year, and they were without a doubt the best team in the conference), but they rarely produce top 10 teams that are mentioned in National Championship speculation. And Nebraska has been a solid program, but they haven’t finished as a top 10 team since 2001. Formidable opponent? Yes. Dominant national program? Not really.

If this was the Northwestern program of three years ago, I would much rather be in the East. Northwestern strived for Bowl Appearances and didn’t set their sights much higher than a barely over .500 record. In the East, it is much easier to get those easy victories over Indiana, Maryland, and Penn State (at least for the next few years), and then take an undefeated non-conference schedule and make a Bowl Game.

But the current Northwestern football team has greater expectations. This isn’t a program crossing their fingers for a Bowl Game. They believe they can win the Big Ten and represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. If Northwestern continues to improve, as it has steadily over the last four or five years, this is a team that will be a contender for the Big Ten Championship every season.

Northwestern won’t have to compete with the perennial powerhouses in Michigan and Ohio State each year to make the Big Ten Championship Game. They’ll have to beat out Nebraska and Wisconsin, which won’t be an easy feat. But the road to the Big Ten Championship Game seems more manageable in the West than the East.

But we’ll have to wait until 2014 to find out.

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