When the Big Ten pushed the first domino down last December, Conference Commissioner Jim Delany said the league would add teams that fit their 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.
Delany answered the last question, saying he expects a championship game to be played somewhere in December 2011, but hasn't formulated how to build balanced football divisions, and nobody else really knows either.
"Obviously when Nebraska got in and we started talking about a championship game, you start (asking questions)," said Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno, who coached the last team to join the conference and started competing as a league member in football in 1993.
"I'm just glad that I don't have to make that decision. 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 OSU 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 and 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 his 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 Head Coach Bret Bielema recollected a story during his first season under Coach Barry Alvarez. With Alvarez letting seniors pick their goals, Bielema witnessed a young man from Indiana, Tight End Jason Pociask, raise his hands 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 were."
At the same time, Bielema acknowledge that with the Big Ten being a new conference, new rivalries are going to 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 its yearly league schedule 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 … I think it's neat. I would rather it be Ohio State-Wisconsin, but you can't ignore history."
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.
Another so-called advantage for adding Nebraska to the fold is the opportunity to add a ninth conference game, something Delany is in favor of doing in the next few years to eliminate scheduling headaches and heighten the competitive nature for players and fans. Results are still mixed on that front.
"In this conference, the home game is a tremendous advantage," Bielema said. "The year you have five (home games) versus the year you have four, I'll bet you there will be a dramatic difference."
Even if Bielema is against a ninth conference game, he, along with Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Minnesota's Tim Brewster, admit to be anxious about expanding recruiting possibilities to the west.
So far, the Badgers have eight verbal commits in the 2011 class, all coming from two states (six from Wisconsin, two from Florida). Traditionally not making an impact west of Minnesota, Bielema hopes the increase visibility with increase options.
"To me, (Nebraska) opens up more recruiting possibilities to the west in addition to the ability to recruit more in Minnesota, the Dakota's and Nebraska itself," Bielema said. "It might open up some more channels to the west and also just brings more value to the league … Personally, it just brings so much value to our conference that you can't buy anything like that."
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