Big Ten division realignment talk picks up steam amid East's dominance

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck responds to a question during the Big Ten media days.

Chicago – Maybe it’s to better position the conference for the College Football Playoff.

Maybe it’s for competitive balance.

Maybe it’s because the Big Ten just likes to change.

Whatever the reason, it appears that division realignment might be on the horizon once again for the conference that first implemented divisions in 2011 when Nebraska joined to bring the total number of teams to 12. When Maryland and Rutgers came on board in 2014, that created another shuffling of the 14 institutions that were divided into seven-team divisions.

Now, as the East has established itself as the dominant half of the Big Ten, the talk of moving things around has resurfaced.

“Change is inevitable,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “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.”

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The reasoning for a change seems clear. Since the East and West divisions were implemented in 2014, the Big Ten champion has come from the East in all five seasons with Ohio State winning three titles and Michigan State and Penn State capturing one each.

In fact, in 2013 during the final season of the Legends and Leaders divisions, Michigan State won the conference title, meaning a team from what is now the East has won the last six championships. Throw in the fact that 12-0 Ohio State was banned from postseason play in 2012, and the East dominance gains even more traction.

“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,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Probably similar in a lot of ways with what the SEC West is like. So I think we've got to at least have a discussion. Not necessarily saying we need to make any changes, but we need to have a discussion.”

Penn State head coach James Franklin responds to a question during the Big Ten media days.

So, it would seem the competitive balance has been lost, something the Big Ten was aiming for when it created the Legends and Leaders divisions, only to move to a more traditional geographic setup in 2014.

However, there’s no guarantee competitive balance will be attained with realignment.

The East has four teams – Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State – that are routinely ranked among the top teams in the nation. The remaining three East teams are Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers.

But the West is showing signs of surging. Wisconsin is as consistent as they come while Iowa and Northwestern are also tough to beat. Add in the momentum of Nebraska under Scott Frost and Purdue under Jeff Brohm and there’s a case to be made the West isn’t far behind the East.

“The Big Ten West is getting better every year,” Brohm said. “There are outstanding coaches that are coaching in this league, especially on both sides of the conference, but the Big Ten West has gotten better, and each and every week it's going to be a tough contest. I know for us with our schedule, there's not an easy week. We've got to come ready to play.”

Indiana’s Tom Allen, who was an assistant at Ole Miss, said he experienced similar debates in the SEC. He thinks letting things play out is the best move.

“Our divisions aren’t as longstanding as theirs and so I think if you let time unfold itself, then it’ll probably balance itself back out,” said Allen. “I just know this, since I’ve been here, I think we’ve played everybody in the conference and they’re all tough.”

No respect for Northwestern

Northwestern won its first division title last season, capturing the West and reaching the Big Ten championship game.

Guess what that gets the Wildcats heading into 2019? Not much, it appears, as they were picked in a recent poll of writers to finish fourth in the division.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald responds to a question during the Big Ten media days.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald at least had a sense of humor about it Friday at Big Ten media days.

“I'm going to have Matt Foley come talk about that in the first team meeting and really get the guys stoked up,” Fitzgerald said, invoking the old Chris Farley character from Saturday Night Live. “We're not great click bait, I guess, so picking us first isn't real sexy.”

No, it probably isn’t. However, picking the Wildcats might be the safest bet. They’ve won nine or more games in three of the last four years, going 10-3 in 2015 and 2017 before going 9-5 – 8-1 in the conference – last season.

Still, Fitzgerald will do his best to keep his team focused.

“We'll just earn it,” he said. “That's what's so great about football. The West gets knocked. I enjoy it.  That's what I tell our players, ‘Enjoy it, and you've got to go out and earn it on the field,’ and that's what makes our game so great.

“We'll just continue to do that and control what we can control, but yeah, it's always fun to read this time of year how we stink. I should actually get better at golf because I don't know why I coach. I should just golf. Haven't experienced August since 1984, so maybe I should start doing that.”

Rule change review

Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials Bill Carollo was on hand Friday to recap some rule changes. The biggest was to the targeting rule, which continues to be one of the more talked about in the game.

While the rule isn’t changing, how the officials handle it will.

“All elements of targeting have to be confirmed, meaning that there won't be a ‘stands on the field,’” Carollo said. “Last year, if we weren't sure, the play would stand, and that player would be disqualified. This year, all elements have to be confirmed. If not, the player stays in the game. That might be about 10 percent of plays last year, based on the numbers last year. We'll have 10 percent possibly less targeting calls this year.”

Carollo also said any player who commits three targeting calls in a season will now be disqualified for that game and one full game after.

“We call this a progressive penalty,” he said.

Other rule changes include eliminating the two-man wedge on kickoffs, imposing a 15-yard penalty for blindside blocks in the open field, and moving the ball from the 25 to the 3-yard line beginning in the fifth overtime.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau