The Big Ten East and West, while geographically accurate and nominally an improvement from its divisional predecessors of the Leaders and Legends, are potentially a hindrance to the conference’s College Football Playoff hopes and there’s a chance the current format won’t determine which schools play in the Big Ten Championship in the future.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney, when asked by the media Wednesday if the two best Big Ten teams should play in the conference championship game rather than the two division champions, said, “It’s an item that has been discussed before. There is actually more discussion now than there was four years ago.”
It’s fundamentally a logical idea to have the conference’s two best teams play for the Big Ten Championship. Championship games are supposed to feature the two best teams, right?
But there would obviously be issues if two teams from the same division, which played completely different schedules than their cross-division counterparts, met in the conference championship game.
For example, Ohio State and Michigan would’ve played in the Big Ten Championship this year if the conference took the two best teams, while Northwestern would’ve been left out despite having the same conference record as the other two schools due to its head-to-head loss to the Wolverines.
So, what is the point of divisions if winning a division doesn’t guarantee a spot in the Big Ten Championship?
There are two responses to that question that are pretty simple — although, perhaps more so in theory than in practice.
Abolish the divisions. Just get rid of them entirely.
Sure, the Big Ten has four more teams than the division-less Big 12, but the conference’s brass could find a way to build nine-game conference schedules so that every school plays the other 13 on a consistent, rotating basis.
You could still protect annual rivalry games like Ohio State-Michigan, Wisconsin-Minnesota and Indiana-Purdue.
Or — the arguably more feasible, option two — restructure the divisions. Electing to switch to the conference’s third iteration of its divisional groupings in a seven-year span may not have great optics, but the conference might be hurting itself if it doesn’t make a change.
When the conference’s three best teams are in the same division (like they are this year with No. 6 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan and No. 12 Penn State in the Big Ten East), the Big Ten potentially cuts its playoff chances in half.
Think about the SEC Championship this season, when undefeated Alabama and 11-1 Georgia met in the conference championship game. The winner of the matchup was going to make the playoff regardless of the outcome. There was even a chance both teams would have made the playoff if the Bulldogs had won.
But if Northwestern, which arrived in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship with an 8-4 record, had beaten Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, the Wildcats would have had no business being in the playoff discussion.
They may have barely even cracked the top 15 of the committee’s rankings with a win over the Buckeyes.
Ultimately the Big Ten would benefit from a setup, whether it’s no divisions or restructured divisions, that would maximize the number of Big Ten Championship matchups between teams that are undefeated and/or have only one loss, while creating schedules that give both championship game participants opportunities for multiple wins over ranked opponents in the regular season.
The Big Ten has been left out of the College Football Playoff two years in a row in the playoff era. This year the Big Ten had three teams ranked between No. 6 and No. 12, and last year it finished with No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 9 Penn State ranked in the top 10 but outside the top four.
Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State have often cannibalized each other’s playoff hopes and with two consecutive seasons without a Big Ten team in the College Football Playoff, the Big Ten is right to take a step back and analyze its current structure.
Asking if the two best teams should make the Big Ten Championship rather than the two division winners is the wrong question to ask, but it might lead to the right answer: change the current division setup, whether it’s restructuring the divisions for better balance or eliminating both divisions in favor of balanced, rotating schedules.