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When it was announced Nebraska would become the 12th member of the mathematically challenged Big Ten Conference in 2011, it looked like a win-win situation for the University of Wisconsin.
First, Nebraska was a name brand in college football, a national power that would make the Big Ten more attractive to television networks and add gold to the coffers of the conference’s schools.
Second, it seemed like the Big Ten couldn’t possibly split into two divisions for football in a way that wouldn’t please UW fans. If it used geography, UW would retain its rivalries with Minnesota and Iowa and perhaps start one with Nebraska. And if it used competitive balance, UW seemed destined to stay with the conference’s marquee schools — Michigan and Ohio State.
Unfortunately, what appeared to be a win-win situation for UW instead turned into one giant loss.
When the Big Ten unveiled its divisional alignment and scheduling formula Wednesday, very little about the arrangement was alluring for Badgers fans. No school was going to get everything it wanted in this process, but where UW was concerned, the Big Ten trampled on tradition and ignored fan appeal.
After months of discussion, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany came up with the following alignments: UW, Ohio State, Penn State, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana in one division; Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern in the other.
From UW’s standpoint, something’s wrong with that picture. Only one school in its division — Illinois — is in a state that shares a border with Wisconsin. So much for rivalries and road games that fans can easily drive to. But that’s not even the worst part.
Historically, there are four schools that raise the blood pressure of UW football fans just by showing up at Camp Randall Stadium. In no particular order, they are Ohio State, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa.
Starting next year, only one of the four will be in UW’s division. And in any given year, only two of the four are guaranteed to be on UW’s schedule. In fact, Iowa and Michigan will be off UW’s schedule in 2011 and 2012.
Delany said competitive equality, tradition and geography — in that order — were considered when dividing the conference for football. On future schedules, each school will play five games against division teams and three against teams from the other division. Each school will also have one permanently protected game against a rival from the opposite division.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we did everything we could to respect traditions,” Delany said.
Some traditions, yes. UW’s traditions, no.
For instance, Ohio State and Michigan will still keep their prized date on the final Saturday of the regular season even though they will be in different divisions and could meet again the following week in the conference championship game.
But for a conference that stubbornly clings to its outdated name, the Big Ten failed to recognize UW’s white-hot rivalry with Iowa. Minnesota will remain UW’s protected rival, but the Badgers’ game with Iowa, which had been protected in the past, will lose all of its steam.
A cynic might suggest that UW athletic director Barry Alvarez was only too happy to sign off on that since Iowa has beaten UW six times in eight years. However, this much we know to be true: With one announcement, the Big Ten ripped the heart out of the Heartland Trophy.
In the immediate future, UW and Iowa will meet only four out of 10 years. Even if the Big Ten expands to a nine-game conference season in at some point, UW will only play Iowa six times in 10 years.
About the only plus in this alignment for UW is that it will be guaranteed four games every year against Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue, some of the conference’s weakest programs. Could it be the Big Ten was throwing UW a bone for putting it in a division that makes almost no sense?
Whatever the reason, Wednesday was not a good day for Badgers fans. UW’s top two rivals were put in another division, and the Badgers will play glamour teams such as Michigan and Nebraska only four times every 10 years.
Who knew that competitive balance would come at such a price?