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Big Ten expansion essentially created spread and pro-style divisions

With few exceptions, the Big Ten's divisions are split by offensive style.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When the Big Ten announced that it would be expanding to add Maryland and Rutgers, conference commissioner Jim Delany boasted that the Big Ten would now "live in two regions:" the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic.

As a result of moving to 14 teams, the Big Ten ditched the Legends and Leaders divisions to set up a divisional structure based on geography. The East Division stretches the 750 miles between New Brunswick and Bloomington, while the West Division stretches the 600 miles between West Lafayette and Lincoln.

It's a massive footprint, and one that truly does live in two regions. As a result, the Big Ten's divisions, at least stylistically, play like their own separate conferences.

East school Coach Scheme West school Coach Scheme
Indiana Kevin Wilson Spread Illinois Bill Cubit Pro-style
Maryland D.J. Durkin Spread Iowa Kirk Ferentz Pro-style
Michigan Jim Harbaugh Pro-style Minnesota Tracy Claeys Pro-style
Michigan State Mark Dantonio Pro-style Nebraska Mike Riley Pro-style
Ohio State Urban Meyer Spread Northwestern Pat Fitzgerald Spread
Penn State James Franklin Spread Purdue Darrell Hazell Pro-style
Rutgers Chris Ash Spread Wisconsin Paul Chryst Pro-style

It didn't always used to be this way. Ohio State and Penn State ran pro-style offenses under Jim Tressel and Bill O'Brien. Nebraska ran a spread with Bo Pelini. But as the divisions changed, teams on the separate sides of the line of demarcation have evolved very differently.

In the East, Ohio State went the spread route when hiring Urban Meyer, while James Franklin sought to further distance himself from the pro-style O'Brien years by hiring Joe Moorhead as his offensive coordinator. More recently, Rutgers ditched pro-style coach Kyle Flood for Meyer disciple Chris Ash, and hired an OC who will run the spread. New Maryland head coach DJ Durkin did the same, and Penn State's James Franklin further established his spread bona fides by hiring Fordham's Joe Moorhead as OC.

In the West, Nebraska went the pro-style route by hiring Mike Riley to replace Pelini. Wisconsin had been pro-style for years, then hired spread-based Gary Andersen, which was a culture clash with athletic director Barry Alvarez. The Badgers went back to pro-style native son Paul Chryst. Illinois hired Tim Beckman, who ran a spread offense, but he brought in a pro-style offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit, and was eventually replaced by Cubit.

So, why the stark contrast? It's precisely because of Delany's "live in two regions" mantra. The East is filled with better athletes at the skill positions, while the West has bred players for the trenches. Over the last three recruiting classes, of the top five players in each of the East states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey), only 24 percent were offensive linemen or tight ends, according to the 247Sports composite. On the other hand, 42 percent of top players in the West states (Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska) played one of those positions. (Indiana was declared neutral territory).


The only outliers in each division make a bit of sense. Northwestern recruits from Chicago, which has mostly skill position players, while the rest of the West has easy access to Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota for recruits. In the East, Michigan can recruit nationally, while Michigan State has had some success recruiting Wisconsin, and also had success finding less heralded players out of Ohio.

But mostly, like teams in other conferences, Big Ten teams tend to base their styles off where they're located. Iowa, for instance, is heavily offensive line focused, and assistant coach Brian Ferentz explained to the Cedar Rapids Gazette why that program will almost certainly never hire a spread coach.

"What's our recruiting base? Where can we recruit?" Ferentz asked. "We'll recruit our tail off, but if we don't have a relationship, it would be difficult for us to beat (Ohio State for a running back in Chicago). It doesn't mean we won't try, it just means it's hard.

"We can get tight ends. We might go head-to-head with one of those schools for a tight end (or a lineman) in Chicago. But we can get bigger guys. We can get more physical guys. So you're going to see us a lot of times line up with two tight ends in the game. Three tight ends in the game. A fullback. Offensive linemen.


"The frustrating thing sometimes from the fans' perspective is why don't you just spread out and do what Indiana does? Well, I have a lot of respect for what Indiana does, but we're not built like Indiana. I think a lot if we're going to be successful, we need to embrace what we are and get good at it."

The Big Ten is in a strange spot. It has one division that can easily find spread players, and another division that can easily find pro-style players. Essentially, it's two separate conferences that live in two separate regions. And as the evolution continues with new hires settling in, the differences in style of play for interdivision games will become even more distinct.


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