Divide and conquer

How do measures from the most recent Big Ten realignment affect Northwestern?

When Maryland and Rutgers join the Big Ten in 2014, the conference centered for so many years in the Midwest will reach the shores of the mid-Atlantic.

But what does this mean for Northwestern?

No more "Leaders" and "Legends"

No, commissioner Jim Delaney isn't expunging any mention of Archie Griffin or Otto Graham from the Big Ten record books, but the arbitrary and slightly self-gratifying system divisional system used since 2011 will be replaced with a more logical alignment in 2014: West and East.

Naturally, Northwestern will be in the West Division, and Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin will join them there. This leaves Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Rutgers to make up the East Division.

Instead of playing Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois each season, Northwestern will swap annual matchups with the Wolverines and Spartans for ones with the Boilermakers and Badgers. Also, the annual Land of Lincoln game with the Illini won't count toward one of the Wildcats' two crossover games in 2014 and 2015.

However, one big change coming down the pipe may make the most drastic change.

Expanded Big Ten schedules

2014 and 2015 will serve as transitional years for the Big Ten, but in 2016, teams will play nine conference games each, six against divisional opponents and three against teams on the other side of the conference.

It would be foolish to predict which teams get the better end of the bargain so far in the future, especially since most of those future Big Ten players are high school sophomores as we speak. Even so, if the stock of the Big Ten stays somewhat stable, the increase in conference games will crowd out some non-conference opponents.

This presents an interesting balancing game for the conference's athletic directors and head coaches. The better the conference gets, the greater the incentive to schedule non-conference games against easier teams as a warm-up for a tougher season. As snooty as it sounds, if the conference gets bigger while the season stays the same, something will have to give.

The Road Ahead

As mentioned before, it's tough to tell just how good each team will be in three years, and since Northwestern's schedules are set through 2016, we won't see how this impacts schedule making for a little while.

However, this move isn't about making a big splash in small timeframe. Rather, this is a means by which the Big Ten can ease into expansion and maintain logistical cohesion in the process. We may not know just how much balance or imbalance the divisions may have in skill. It's hard to say just how effective Maryland and Rutgers will be in the Big Ten, and what they may add with their presence.

What we do know is that Jim Delaney has set up a system that makes travel within the bigger Big Ten more logical, paving a smoother path to a sustainable conference in the future.


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