West’s embarrassing day should spark Big Ten realignment talk
Saturday was humiliating for the Big Ten West and really the best example yet of why the conference’s division alignment is laughable.
Everyone knows the division setup is incredibly lopsided. Everyone knows the Big Ten has received criticism for the imbalance. And everyone knows the league has ignored any and all calls for realignment up to this point.
But Saturday proved just how ridiculous things are, and the Big Ten needs to continue to be called out on its setup in hopes of finally getting something changed.
In the Big Ten West on Saturday:
n Wisconsin lost at home to BYU, 24-21, a crushing defeat for the No. 6 Badgers, who had College Football Playoff hopes. Wisconsin hadn’t dropped a non-conference game at Camp Randall since 2003. Even if the Badgers run the table in their weak division and win the Big Ten championship game, the home loss to a pedestrian BYU team likely will keep them out of the CFP.
n Northwestern lost at home to Akron, 39-34, marking the first time since 1894 that Akron beat a Big Ten team. You read that right — 1894. Akron wasn’t even called Akron back then, it was Buchtel College. It beat Ohio State in 1894, which was two years before the Big Ten was founded.
n Nebraska lost at home to Troy, which it paid more than $1 million for a one-shot home game. The Huskers are 0-2 for the first time since 1957, and the honeymoon has quickly ended for new coach Scott Frost. Troy, by the way, won at LSU last year, so you got to think no power programs are going to want to mess around with the Trojans anymore.
n Purdue lost at home to Missouri, 40-37, not a terrible loss but certainly the kind of game the Boilermakers need to start winning if they’re going to turn around their struggling program.
n Illinois, Penn State’s opponent this week, lost to South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago, 25-19. Earlier this year, the Illini barely beat Kent State, 31-24, the same team that looked horrible in a 63-10 loss at Penn State on Saturday. That’s a big part of why PSU is favored by 26¢ this week at Illinois.
Put all of those losses together, and it goes to show how bad the Big Ten West is this season. But it’s more than just this season.
Wisconsin is a legitimately strong team year in and year out, but you just can’t say that about any other program in the West.
Iowa is really good every six or seven years. Northwestern’s players always put up a good fight, but so many things are stacked against the Wildcats ever becoming a perennial power. Nebraska used to be a perennial power, but now it can merely hope for nine wins a year, which wasn’t even good enough to keep former coach Bo Pelini around.
The other teams in the West — Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota — would be middle-of-the-pack or bottom feeders in any other Power 5 league.
The Big Ten East, meanwhile, has Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State slugging it out for supremacy. Only one of the four can get to the conference championship game, but if you put any of them in the West, they’d immediately challenge Wisconsin for that berth every year.
Yes, Michigan already has a loss at Notre Dame, and Michigan State fell at Arizona State. But those aren’t bad losses by any stretch — again, both were on the road — and those two still could give Ohio State and Penn State problems and battle for the East division title.
Look, life is not fair. The sooner anyone learns that, the better off he or she will be in life.
But certainly, life is not fair in the Big Ten East, not when compared to the relative cakewalk that exists for, say, Wisconsin in the West.
This isn’t about being fair, though. For the Big Ten, division realignment should be about business and common sense.
The league is pretty much always going to get one team in the College Football Playoff. If it wants to get two, there needs to be better balance, so that whatever team loses the conference championship game can still have a strong enough resume to warrant a second spot in the CFP.
As it stands, the West has one good team and a bunch of mediocre or bad ones, so there just aren’t that many chances for quality wins in the division. Like I said earlier, that will only hurt Wisconsin after its loss to BYU because it has no margin for error the rest of the way and a bunch of dog games to go along with road trips to Michigan and Penn State.
OK, so what if Wisconsin beats the Lions or Wolverines? Sure, it would be a good win, but it would be watered down somewhat if neither team can topple Ohio State in the Big Ten East.
I’d love to say realignment will happen soon. But it won’t. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said so in July.
“To be honest with you, it wasn’t received that well,” Delany said at Big Ten media days about realignment talk based on program strength as opposed to the current geographic model. “I think the identification by fans, their desire to play geographic rivals and to really, fully, sort of reinforce the historical rivalries at the end of the day was more important than trying to achieve in any particular timeframe competitive equality.”
Delany is a smart guy with a ton of influence. If he were to fully throw his support behind realignment, based on the chances of getting two teams into the CFP, you have to believe it would carry great weight in the Big Ten.
It would be nice to believe that at some point the West Division could turn things around and really challenge the East with regards to having numerous great programs.
But that seems like such a long shot because, really, the only program that even has a chance to join Wisconsin at that level is Nebraska, and it’s just hard to believe the Huskers will ever be able to get back to being a perennial power like they were for so long.
Maybe after the West suffered such an embarrassing weekend and got criticized throughout college football, it could be the impetus to restarting a discussion about balancing things out in the Big Ten.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.