B1G Debate: Who will benefit most from abolishing divisions? Who will benefit least?
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: Who will benefit most from abolishing divisions? Who will benefit least?
RYAN: There was an interesting report this week from The Athletic that the Big Ten is considering dropping divisions for its next TV agreement and reducing the number of conference games from 9 to 8, freeing up a week to play another member of “The Alliance” and create some more enticing matchups.
This makes a ton of sense for the Big Ten as a whole, because it would enable it to get its 2 best teams in the conference championship, which is critical in the Playoff era. It will hopefully create some more competitive games in the championship game, too, as the West has not won in the 8 years of the current format.
There will also be more balance. How is it possible that Illinois hasn’t played at border rival Indiana since 2013? I don’t think anyone needs to see Rutgers play Michigan every season; it would be nice to see Iowa play Ohio State (1 matchup in the last 8 years), Michigan State play Minnesota (1 matchup in the last 8 years) or Michigan play Purdue (1 matchup in the last 9 years).
So, who would benefit the most? I think once again, it is Ohio State. It will essentially mean that the Buckeyes will have to lose twice to be kept out of the conference championship game. Ohio State hasn’t suffered multiple conference losses since 2011, the year before Urban Meyer took over, and it has happened just once in the last 17 seasons. In the division format, Ohio State could easily be kept out by tiebreaker, like in 2016 and 2021. In a division-less format, Ohio State would’ve played in the conference championship game those years.
The next in line to benefit will depend on how the Big Ten chooses the 3 annual opponents for each team. I could see someone like Penn State taking advantage of this new setup and being free from having to beat out Ohio State every year to get in the conference championship.
With that in mind, I know who benefits the least: Michigan. You know the Wolverines will be paired with Ohio State each and every season, so the possibility will exist that they will have to beat their rival twice instead of just once. Like this season, for example, Michigan would’ve had to face Ohio State the very next week in the championship game, which would’ve severely decreased the importance of Michigan’s monumental win in the regular season finale.
How do you see it?
CONNOR: In a sense, yes, Ohio State will benefit from the B1G doing something that probably should’ve happened after the 2018 season when the league champ was left out of the Playoff for the third consecutive year. You’re right that the Buckeyes would’ve had 2 more B1G Championship appearances as a result of a division-less system.
But let’s be honest here — how much more can Ohio State truly benefit? I mean, we’re talking about a program that won 4 of the last 5 conference titles and 5 of the 8 overall. In 6 of 8 seasons of the current divisions, Ohio State either won the conference title or it still reached the Playoff. The Buckeyes are 78-5 against B1G competition in the regular season in the last 10 years.
I’ll go in a different direction and say that Penn State is in position to thrive the most. Having a year or 2 in a row to avoid Ohio State would greatly benefit Penn State, which is 1-7 against the Buckeyes in this current East-West format. Against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, AKA the 3 other teams who have won the East in the current system, Penn State is 7-17 during that stretch. Against everyone else in the conference, the Lions are 35-11.
I’m not saying Penn State is suddenly going to start ripping off B1G titles, but I do think there’s something to be said for at least getting to Indianapolis. That’s why I think we have largely different conversations about Paul Chryst compared to James Franklin. Chryst went to 3 conference championships, and Wisconsin has 4 total during this era. He did that despite the fact that in the same stretch (including B1G Championships), he has a 5-7 record against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. If we include Penn State, whom Chryst is 0-3 against, that number drops to 5-10.
That’s why it’s Wisconsin who benefits the least. The Badgers no longer have that built-in advantage of playing against the West for 2/3 of their conference schedule. Sure, there are tougher annual matchups than Minnesota, but I can’t imagine a Wisconsin fan feeling confident about the idea of more games against teams with more talent.
I understand the difficulty of having to beat Ohio State twice. It can also work on the flip side where Ohio State has to beat Michigan twice. I think given the struggles the Wolverines have had against their rivals in the 21st century, a regular season win combined with a B1G Championship loss might not be quite as crushing as one would think, especially if that loss was still rewarded with a Playoff berth in an expanded field.
You know who else probably is sweating this move? Nebraska. From 2014-21, the Huskers are 3-11 against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. More matchups against those teams would be bad news. On top of that, there’d be the annual game with Iowa, which is riding a 7-game winning streak in that rivalry.
Who did we overlook here? Does maybe Indiana stand to benefit from a more even playing field? Dare I say … Rutgers?!
RYAN: Fair point on the Chryst/Franklin discussion. Though to be fair, Penn State isn’t going to start making more appearances in conference title games if it can’t beat Illinois at home. And Nebraska has struggled enough in the West to where it shouldn’t be too big of a deal.
I think every team in the East is going to be thrilled with getting rid of divisions, and every West team will be sad to see them go. Northwestern will have a much more difficult time making a conference championship game in this new format.
We’ll see if this actually happens, but it will be a significant change — for the better — if it does.