Big Ten football's new divisional power balance: Lessons from the SEC and Big XII

Landgrantholyland.com

The SEC and Big XII both had periods in which one division was significantly stronger than the other. Were those periods of imbalance predictable and what does that track record say for the new Big Ten divisions?

Big Ten fans had a number of reasons to feel aggrieved by the divisions that their league office spat out upon the splitting of the conference into two sections going into the 2011 season.

Most notably, the monikers Leaders and Legends will be taught in business schools for years as a case study in a ham-handed attempt at overly haughty branding. Additionally, fans could not remember the rosters of the two divisions, mostly because the split made no sense at all. And of specific concern to Michigan and Ohio State fans was the fact that their teams’ rivalry game – one that has been an late-November fixture for eons – could've either been moved to October or could just become a prelude before one or both teams play a more important game on the following Saturday.

The addition of Maryland and Rutgers to the conference, while met with yawns at best and disdain at worst by Big Ten fans, has allowed the league to reach the end of an error in one important respect: the league has fixed its divisions. Abandoning a setup that lacked rhyme or reason, the Big Ten has now settled on a basic East/West structure, one that is easy for fans to remember and ensures that the league’s signature game will not be moved or marginalized.

However, the new divisions raise the one concern that caused the Leaders/Legends debacle in the first place: three of the league’s four historical powers are now in the same division.* Put another way, the most fertile recruiting grounds in the Big Ten are almost all in the East, while the West contains mostly talent-barren states. If geography is destiny, then the Big Ten has a good chance of ending up lopsided.

* - The fact that this split was only possible because the league added a pair of football bantamweights to slot in below Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in a potentially loaded Big Ten East is itself a comment on the fact that Big Ten expansion may end up being remembered as Delany’s Folly, a move driven by TV households and little else.

Broadly speaking, there are two historical lenses that we can use to evaluate the likelihood of Big Ten power being concentrated in the East. One is simply to look at the teams’ ranks over the entirety of college football history. The assumptions there are that one ought to use the biggest sample size to judge college football programs and that the institutional factors that are expressed and/or accumulate over time – proximity to talent, fan interest, tradition, facilities, etc. – tend to be constant. A second approach would just be to look at the last 10 years. The reasoning there is that the distant past is meaningless and that a blue chip high school star will only be interested in current facilities, recent results, and the coaches on staff now.

So what do those lenses tell us about the balance of the Big Ten going forward? Thanks to Chris Stassen’s invaluable database, here are the numbers:

Team

1869-2012 Rank

2003-2012 Rank

Michigan

1

29

Ohio State

4

3

Nebraska

7

19

Penn State

11

17*

Michigan State

28

45

Wisconsin

41

14

Minnesota

42

78

Purdue

58

64

Iowa

60

31

Maryland

63

68

Illinois

67

108

Rutgers

70

37

Northwestern

101

53

Indiana

105

111

* - I did not adjust Penn State’s all-time record to remove the effects of the NCAA-mandated forfeits. Penn State would rank in the top 10 if so. I did, however, recalculate Penn State’s record for the last 10 years because otherwise, the Lions would be the worst team in the conference. Even those who expect the sanctions to take a massive toll would refrain from putting Penn State in the Marianas Trench with Indiana.

Our frame of reference gives us two different answers. If we use all of college football history as the yardstick, then we do expect the East to be strong and the West to be weak. Four of the conference’s five historical top-30 programs are in the East. On the other hand, a 10-year frame of reference makes the league look balanced because it captures Iowa’s and Wisconsin’s ascents.

Thus, our view of the Big Ten’s future balance depends greatly on whether we think that two programs that have some of the hallmarks of major programs – attendance, revenue, players in the NFL – but lack others – proximity to talent – will remain in the top third of college football.

But the Big Ten is hardly the only league whose fans wondered about whether their splits would end up looking like Germany after 1945: one side vibrant and growing, the other most noted for building a wall to keep its citizens from fleeing.

When the SEC split in 1992, the divisions looked fairly even initially, but the East quickly asserted control, winning six straight conference title games after losing the first edition. In short, Tennessee and Florida were way ahead of the rest of the league for the better part of the 90s. When the Big XII formed in 1996, the North looked stronger initially, as Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas State were all excellent programs while Texas and Oklahoma were years removed from being consistent contenders. As time passed, the dynamic switched as the programs of Big XII South took advantage of being close to Texas high school talent and won the last seven Big XII Championship Games.

So based on the all-time and 10-year lenses, were the SEC and Big XII balanced when they split into divisions?

Team

1869-1991 Rank

1982-1991 Rank

Alabama

3

14

Tennessee

10

13

LSU

12

28

Georgia

17

18

Auburn

19

8

Arkansas

25

23

Florida

38

15

Ole Miss

47

56

Vandy

59

98

Kentucky

69

72

South Carolina

79

48

Mississippi State

89

78

By either measure, the SEC looked good when it became the first league to go to the divisional format. If one uses the all-time yardstick, then the West was slightly stronger than the East, although that is only true if one does not account for the fact that Arkansas had played slightly weaker SWC schedules over its history. If one looks at a decade of results, then the West is also slightly better, but the shorter frame of reference incorporates Florida’s rise, which was the biggest reason why the East dominated the league for the initial years after the split.

Team

1869-1995 Rank

1986-1995 Rank

Oklahoma

4

16

Texas

5

36

Nebraska

8

2

Colorado

20

8

Texas A&M

23

4

Texas Tech

53

41

Missouri

57

94

Baylor

58

32

Kansas

75

77

Oklahoma State

89

71

Iowa State

92

88

Kansas State

108

74

Oddly enough for a league that was lopsided to the North for the early part of its history and then reversed field in the Aughts, the league looked balanced when it split into divisions. Looking at the all-time numbers, the conference had five top-30 programs, three in the South and two in the North. In fact, if you expand the analysis to top-60 programs, then the South looks even better, as it had five of the eight programs who met that criteria. And although one would think that the North would look better using the 10-year frame of reference – the last year before the formation of the Big XII saw four future North division teams finish in the top ten of the final AP Poll – the South actually had five of the top seven teams in terms of winning percentage from 1986-95.

So what can we learn from this little historical exercise? There are a few points to be made:

1. A track record is no guarantee of future performance. Looking at the historical numbers, there was no way to predict that the SEC East would do so well in the first years after the SEC split into divisions. Florida’s rise was partly predictable, based on population and economic growth (not to mention the success of Florida State and Miami in the '80s), and partly unpredictable, based on the fact that the Gators hired a future Hall of Fame coach in 1990. Likewise, the Big XII North turned out to be a little better than the historical numbers would have predicted, in no small part because those numbers do not capture the strength of a Kansas State program coached by Bill Snyder. That said…

2. The historical data are useful. As things have played out in the SEC, the West is a little stronger than the East, which is a result that would have seemed likely in 1992 when Roy Kramer changed the structure of the conference. The West has been led by Alabama, LSU, and Auburn in that order, just as the 1869-1991 numbers indicated. As things played out in the Big XII, the South turned out to be stronger, led by Oklahoma and Texas. Again, this is the result that the historical numbers would have predicted.

In the end, the Big Ten looks fairly similar to what the Big XII was. Michigan and Ohio State play the roles of Texas and Oklahoma, the two most historically successful programs in the league. Nebraska is … Nebraska, the anchor of the other division. Penn State is Texas A&M, albeit with an NCAA-imposed millstone around its neck. Iowa and Wisconsin look like Kansas State and Colorado, two programs without proximity to talent that were punching above their historical weight. Kansas State was able to sustain their success and then return to prominence after a fallow period because of Bill Snyder. Colorado has gone in the tank.

The conclusion is that the programs in the West will need to be run very well in order to bring balance to the Big Ten. Otherwise, the related factors of historical success and proximity to talent that favor Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State will lead to a lopsided conference, just as they did in the Big XII.

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