B1G Debate: Should recruiting rankings make Big Ten consider shuffling divisions?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Should recruiting rankings make the Big Ten consider shuffling divisions?
RYAN: By now, you’ve probably seen the rankings for the 2022 recruiting classes coming off the Early Signing Day on Wednesday. As you could have guessed, the programs in the East Division are significantly out-pacing the programs in the West Division.
- If you go by total points, which favors the program with more recruits, the East has the top 5 and 7 of the top 8 classes in the B1G, meaning the worst program in the East (Maryland) has a better ranking than the No. 2 program in the West (Purdue).
- If you go by average player rating (which is probably a little bit more fair considering some programs may take a smaller class), the East still has the top 3 and 7 of the top 9, meaning the worst program in the East (Maryland) is still better than the No. 3 program in the West (Northwestern).
These rankings make it seem like the best talent is heavily concentrated in one division. That perception is true. If you don’t believe me, look at the East’s record in Big Ten Championship Games (8-0). And if you think that’s all Ohio State, think again; the West has also lost all 3 games against non-Buckeyes opponents.
The lopsided recruiting isn’t enough to make me want to switch up the divisions, but that in conjunction with the results on the field certainly is. It’s not good for the conference if whoever wins the East is going to win the Big Ten. What is the point of even having divisions, then? And to end with a dud of a game kills the momentum of a season. The East beat the West by 39 points this year.
I know the Big Ten is all about “tradition” (see what I did there?), but these divisions aren’t part of the B1G’s longstanding tradition. They were created in 2011 and shuffled in 2014 when Maryland and Rutgers joined. After 8 years of data, we can conclude that this isn’t working. And judging by the recruiting rankings, it’s not going to flip anytime soon. Maybe the West will win a year here or there, but if these divisions stay the same over the next decade, I would set the over/under at 1.5 wins in the title game for the West. And I’m probably taking the under.
Is there any point in keeping these divisions?
CONNOR: So what you’re saying is … Legends and Leaders 2.0?!? Yes, it’s time to shake things up. Badly. I’m still in favor of divisions, but the way that they’re currently constructed doesn’t make any sense. I’ll even take it a step further than the recruiting rankings. If you look at the 2021 247sports talent composite rankings, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are at the top, and 6 of the first 8 B1G teams are from the East.
Let’s go even further than that. If you wanted to track the amount of 5-star players on each team’s roster in 2021, the East had a 20-4 advantage. That’s actually an improvement from last year’s 18-2 advantage. To borrow a phrase from Ari Wasserman, yes, stars matter. At least if we’re talking about winning on a big stage. Your divisions should give you the best opportunity to do just that. History shows us the B1G has hurt itself in that area.
That’s not a good thing. Say what you want about the difference between the SEC East and SEC West. At least Georgia has 2 Playoff berths. There’s nobody anywhere near a Georgia level in the B1G West. That’s a problem.
As tempting as it is to suggest totally abolishing divisions, which the Big 12 did because it can play a yearly round robin, I don’t think that can work in a 14-team league. The second that the SEC announces it’s switching to a 9-game conference schedule (I think that happens with Texas and Oklahoma moving into the league), Kevin Warren should announce that the B1G is changing its divisions.
In case you need a refresher, here’s what the old Legends and Leaders divisions looked like:
All you need to do is add Rutgers to the Ohio State-Wisconsin division and add Maryland to the Michigan-Michigan State division. Those divisions work. You’ve got a much better chance at trading off division titles that way. This year, the Legends would’ve had 5 bowl teams (including Maryland) and the Leaders would’ve had 4. Dare I say, that works.
This power struggle isn’t changing anytime soon. You can still have your 3 crossover games with your 1 rivalry game. I’ll even do the rivalries for them:
- Michigan-Ohio State
- Michigan State-Penn State
(Nebraska fans, if you’re upset with your rivals, stop being stupid and appreciate the fact that I gave you an annual date with Indiana.)
That actually matches up in terms of 21st century success and yearly talent level recruited. What are your thoughts on this? Got an alternative solution?
RYAN: I think the most important thing for the Big Ten is to create some sort of balance like the SEC has, meaning the winner of the conference championship game is going to the Playoff. If Florida or Georgia beat Alabama or LSU, they’re probably going to be in. In the Big Ten, the West is usually just trying to play spoiler and, save for a few exceptions, doesn’t have a real chance at getting in.
Whatever the divisions wound up being, the biggest thing for everyone will be being on the opposite side of Ohio State. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State cannot be in the same division. It makes no sense and handicaps the league.
Heck, you could even just take Ohio State out of the East and swap it with Illinois or Purdue. That would create some much-needed balance.
Let me ask you this: What is the merit of even having divisions?
If the goal is to get a team in the CFP, why not make it so the top 2 teams are in the championship game? The only downside I can think of is the danger of rematches; like, would it have been fair for Michigan to have to play Ohio State a second straight week in the Big Ten Championship Game when it just won the week before? Of course not.
The weakness of divisions, though, is that a team like Iowa can get away with playing Ohio State once every 4 years. That’s certainly not fair. Iowa has a much greater chance of winning 9 or 10 games without playing the program that basically beats everyone. The Hawkeyes may have been the least-impressive 10-win team I’ve ever seen.
I don’t think anything will ever be completely fair, because there’s no perfect solution while keeping some of these traditions alive. But there are still ways to improve the current power imbalance.
What else do you think can be done?
CONNOR: The benefit of divisions is, ironically enough, the complaints about the scheduling. If you don’t have divisions, you could theoretically have a team miss Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. I realize that could happen now, but it’s less likely. I think they just do it because it’s easier to track rotating schedules with 14 teams. It then gets complicated with rotating between home venues and all of that.
The Big 12 gets away with it because it’s pretty simple. Play all 9 opponents, if you have 5 home games 1 year, you get 4 the next. To be honest, I don’t know that the Big 12 model has really worked that well, either. This was the first time since 2014 that Oklahoma didn’t win the league. Just as you mentioned with how weird that would’ve been with Michigan having to turn around and face Ohio State again, that’s essentially what the Big 12 had with the Oklahoma State-Baylor deal. They split, and it ultimately cost the Big 12 a seat at the table.
It’s too bad that the B1G can’t have pods because that’s really what the league needs. Pods work with 16, but not 14 because obviously that isn’t divisible by 4. But if the B1G had added Iowa State and Kansas like so many were speculating, here’s how I would do the pods:
Hey, dare I say … that’s not so bad! You could still have your 1 annual rivalry game (I kept rivals in separate pods) and just rotate playing 1.5 other pods. Get back to work on expansion, Kevin Warren.