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Drawing the dividing lines in the Big Ten

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Benjamin Worgull
August 3, 2010
— The hot topic of debate here Monday at the 39th Big Ten Football Media Days was the same that has swept the entire college athletic landscape this summer—conference expansion.

When the Big Ten pushed the first domino down last December, conference commissioner Jim Delany said the league would add teams that fit its profile of athletics and academics. That formula made Nebraska a natural fit, and the Cornhuskers announced on June 11 that they would join the Big Ten in 2011.


While expansion talk has died down for the time being, two key questions still persist: How will the Big Ten split into divisions, and will the conference have a championship game?


Delany answered the last question, saying he expects a championship game to be played in December 2011. But he hasn’t formulated how to build balanced football divisions, and nobody else really knows, either.


“I’m just glad that I don’t have to make that decision,” said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, whose school was the last to join the conference and began football competition as a league member in 1993. “There are a lot of different combinations, I think, that would be good to put us in position where we can have a team that can be champions of the Big Ten and go on and be national champions.”


The most logical decision, according to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, would be keeping the divisions in an East-West alignment: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue in the East; Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin in the West.


That alignment would keep most trophy and rivalry games intact, which was the main message nearly every Big Ten coach and the commissioner expressed during their 15 minutes at the microphone.


“The division also has to be constructive in a wise way to preserve traditional rivalries,” Delany said, citing geography and competitive balance as other factors. “We’re going to need to do everything we can.”


Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema recollected a story from his first season under Barry Alvarez. With Alvarez letting seniors pick their goals, Bielema witnessed a young man from Indiana, tight end Jason Pociask, raise his hand and simply say that one of his goals was to beat Iowa.


“That made a huge statement to me about the impact of that rivalry to that young man, and I think that’s the case,” Bielema said. “We have a longstanding rivalry with Iowa (and) Minnesota, one of the longest in history of football.


“That’s one we’d like to keep … So, as a person that participated here in the conference as a player, I know how important those rivalries are.”


At the same time, Bielema acknowledged that, with the Big Ten adding a 12th member, new rivalries will be involved. When the announcement came, Bielema wasted little time expressing his excitement through his Twitter account, announcing that he would like to see the Badgers close their conference season each year against Nebraska.


“I’d like to have tradition for ourselves, whether it’s Minnesota, whether it’s Iowa, whether it’s Nebraska,” Bielema said. “If they come up with something else, I’m all game, but let’s have something and run with it.”


UW is scheduled to close league play this season with a home game against Northwestern. From 2000 through last season, UW closed Big Ten play against four teams—Northwestern once, Minnesota and Iowa four times apiece and Indiana once.


But where any new Big Ten tradition will lead still is anybody’s guess. Delaney has promised some answers, however, possibly as soon as this month.



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