How Much Different Would The Big Ten Have Looked Without Divisions?

With this week’s decision by the NCAA to remove restrictions on how FBS conferences can decide championship game participants, the days of the Big Ten having two separate divisions has now become numbered.

Originally, if a conference had 12 or more teams, they had to split into divisions. That rule has now been removed, clearing the way for some pretty big changes across the college football landscape. And soon.

The Pac 12, for instance, waited all of about nine minutes after the ruling to do away with divisions in football immediately. The conference title game will no longer be the first place team in the Pac 12 North against the first place team in the Pac 12 South. Instead, they will do what the 10-team Big XII does and have the top two teams in the conference standings play in the title game.

The quick move by the Pac 12 and the expected move by other Power 5 conferences will position their best teams to have a better shot at selection by the College Football Playoff committee. No longer will the second-best team be on the outside looking in if they happen to be in the same division as the best team.

This then begs the question of long will we have to wait until the Big Ten does something similar?

We should probably find out one way or another relatively soon because it’s not like this move was a surprise. It was done for a purpose and those purposes will soon be realized.

But what kind of difference will it make in the Big Ten when the move (almost assuredly) eventually happens?

Not a small one.

The Big Ten began their conference championship game in 2011 when they added Nebraska as the 12th team and then (in)famously split into the Legends and Leaders division. That lasted for three seasons before they rearranged things geographically with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014.

Since the move to East vs. West, the West has yet to win a Big Ten title. They are 0-8 in the conference championship game. Wisconsin, which is currently in the Big Ten West does have a pair of B1G titles, but they came when the Badgers were in the Leaders division.

(And those two titles also came when the Buckeyes’ best players were suspended in 2011 and then OSU had a postseason ban in 2012.)

Over the 11 years of having a Big Ten Championship Game, only five programs have earned titles. Ohio State leads the way with five, followed by Wisconsin and Michigan State with two, and Michigan and Penn State with one each. The Badgers and the Buckeyes tie for the most appearances with six each.

What would the numbers have looked like without divisions and instead the Big Ten simply took the two teams with the best conference records?

Well, last year you would have had Michigan and Ohio State playing in the Big Ten Championship Game one week after the Buckeyes had just been punished in Ann Arbor.

If that doesn’t do anything for you, you might be a Michigan fan.

If you are a Michigan fan, then also know that having divisions kept you from seeing your team in the 2012 and 2018 Big Ten Championship Games. That 2018 game would have been a rematch with Ohio State one week after a 62-39 beatdown of the Wolverines. (Assuming Michigan wouldn’t have called in sick, of course.)

All told, without divisions (and ignoring that schedules would change without divisions), the same conference title game would have happened in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019. In six of the 11 years, however, there would have been a different matchup.

Here is the list of the actual Big Ten Championship Games side-by-side with what the game would have been without divisions (BCS and CFP rankings were used as tie-breakers when no other tie-breakers were available).

Of note, Wisconsin’s appearances get cut in half from six to three.

The difficulty of playing in the East compared to the West would also need to be factored in. Schedules for Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan would all be a touch easier without being in the East, though one could argue that more games on the road against teams from the West would not have actually made OSU’s record better. But certainly a home game against Purdue or Minnesota is preferable to a road game at Penn State.

Some people will bristle at the thought of having rematches in the championship game, but that’s already a possibility now. It’s happened three times over the first 11 years — 2011, 2012, and 2019.

Without divisions, however, rematches would have occurred eight times, including each of the last four years. But that number would likely decrease in reality because in five of the eight years since the conference went to the East and West, the East has had the two teams with the best record. And since the East teams all play each other, of course there would be rematches. With the divisions scrapped and the schedules redone, however, some of those matchups won’t necessarily be a regular-season fixture.

From an Ohio State perspective, their appearances would have increased from six to eight — even taking the postseason ban in 2012 into account. That’s certainly a plus. On the downside, however, the opponent in the Big Ten Championship Game would have been more difficult in several of those years.

You may have to get used to the thought of going back to no divisions, but that’s how we all grew up with college football anyway. While this will eventually be a pretty big change, it will only be noticeable because of the teams that will now be permitted to play in a title game.

This will also position the Big Ten to continue to fight for automatic qualifiers when the 12-team playoff argument rages on again. Many people have been against automatic qualifiers because they didn’t want an 8-5 team sneaking in. This essentially eliminates that possibility and lessens the argument against AQs.

We don’t know exactly when this will be happening, but it’s best to just make friends with it now.

And as Ric Flair used to say, whether you like it or don’t like it, learn to love it.