CHRIS BASNETT Lincoln Journal Star
The Big Ten conference once drew giggles for naming its football divisions “Legends” and “Leaders.” It created an imbalance by separating East and West.
Now, with the future of college football in the air, the league could join other conferences that have already taken the step of eliminating divisions and pitting the top two teams, regardless of geography, against each other in their title game.
“I think a lot of the athletic directors in the Big Ten that I’ve spoken to are proponents of getting rid of the divisions and say the top two teams should be given a chance to play the conference championship,” said Trev Alberts, athletic director of Nebraska Montag on his monthly radio appearance.
“And that would be my opinion too.”
From a purely competitive point of view, the move makes sense.
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Teams now in the East Division of the Big Ten have won nine straight conference title games, the last eight coming since the league switched from Legends and Leaders to East and West. Wisconsin won the first two iterations of the competition in 2011 and 2012.
But it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers.
The Big Ten are currently in the midst of a massive media rights negotiation that will decide who will broadcast the league’s games and how much that network will pay for the privilege. This number will not be small.
As long as Big Ten schools continue to receive eight-figure payouts from conference television contracts, television will have as much say as any other company when or if the league makes the switch.
There are other factors as well, Alberts explained. The TV portion is a big chunk, but what will the approach look like for a college football playoff that appears poised to expand? How does a conference firmly rooted in the concept of rivalries keep these traditions alive in a radically different planning model? And what will college football be like in five, 10, 20 years? Will it rule itself? Will the NCAA or something even have a say?
“So I think when you combine all these different factors, it’s a lot more nuanced, I think, than this simple, ‘Well, why don’t we do that?'” Alberts said. “And I think that the Big Ten — well, I know the Big Ten are very thoughtful and very cautious.”
That means none of actually scheduling the games.
“The challenge is, if you have numbers that don’t make sense, or if you can’t get enough round-robin games in football, how do you create competitive equity, especially when you’re not going to have divisions? said Alberts.
“Every year it’s going to be, ‘How did Wisconsin or Nebraska win the championship this year? They haven’t even played Penn State or Michigan State.’ You will get that.”
According to Alberts, it could take 25 or 30 years for true schedule equity to even out.
“The reality is this: we hear a lot about a lot of different ideas. And it’s conjecture and opinion, and quite frankly, a lot of that comes from a position of personal interest,” Alberts said. But it only adds a little to the confusion. Honestly there are a lot of questions and a lot of work going on behind the scenes and yes there is some reflection on that.”
The move has already been made in other conferences.
Next season’s Pac-12 and Mountain West in 2023 will abolish divisions and pit the top two teams in the league against each other for the conference title.
That goes with what Alberts said.
“I think you will see more deregulation. And I think you’re going to see different approaches to that from league to league.”
The Big Ten are likely to head in that direction as well. It won’t happen in 2022, although even Alberts half-jokingly warned things could always change.
But as college football continues to navigate the early stages of what appears to be a massive upheaval, even the respectable Big Ten is likely to change at some point.
“You can’t change that easily,” said Alberts. “We happen to be the only Power Five (conference) in the middle of media rights negotiations. That really impacts some of those things for us.”
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