The grind of playing in the East Division of the Big Ten has taken a toll on teams over the past four years, and this year the biggest hit may be on the conference itself.
The Big Ten may not have a team in the College Football Playoff for the first time since it started in 2014.
No. 6 Wisconsin, the leader in the West Division, is 9-0 and still very much a playoff contender. But the playoff selection committee has the Badgers ranked eighth because of a resume light on marquee victories. Wisconsin plays only Michigan among the East's big four this regular season. Meanwhile, traditional Big Ten powers Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State each have two losses, in part because they have been beating each other up.
"It's difficult, but that is the beauty of this conference," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, whose team has beaten both Michigan and Penn State — while losing to Northwestern from the West. "I have told players: 'If you want to play in the NFL, come play in the East side of this division, for that matter the Big Ten Conference, because you are going to play against great football teams and great programs and great coaches.' You see it every single weekend here. There are no hall passes."
Head coaches are reluctant to talk about to imbalance. Jim Harbaugh of Michigan wanted no part of it on a conference call this week. Chris Ash of Rutgers said that the issue is something for commissioner Jim Delany.
The Big Ten tried to set up its divisions based on competitive balance when the conference first expanded to add Nebraska. The divisions were named Legends and Leaders and Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State were in one division while Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska were in the other. That lasted for three seasons, but when the conference expanded to 14 teams by adding Rutgers and Maryland it realigned to simple East and West. That put Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan together. With Nebraska struggling to find its way back to consistent top-20 status, it has left a concentration of power in the East that will be difficult to balance.
The top five teams in the Big Ten — the top four in the East and Wisconsin — have football revenues ranging from roughly $70 million to $97 million, with Michigan leading the pack.
Ohio State led the conference in spending on its athletic programs in 2016, shelling out $166.8 million, according to financial figures publicly available. Michigan was second at $157.8 million, followed by Wisconsin ($130.4 million), Penn State ($129.3 million) and Michigan State ($121.9 million). Purdue was last at roughly $79 million.
The SEC has experienced a similar issue with the West dominating the East in recent years, but traditionally Georgia, Florida and Tennessee have shown capable of stacking up with the West powers such as Alabama, LSU and Auburn.
Penn State coach James Franklin, who previously coached at Vanderbilt, said the SEC West was 'brutal.' His schedule the past three weeks could be described the same way. Penn State just finished a three-game span that featured games against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. The last two were on the road and the Nittany Lions lost both by a combined four points.
"There is no doubt it is challenging," Franklin said. "It is what it is. I also think that's what makes the Big Ten so special and so exciting. But there is no doubt the difference in the two sides of the conference, at least currently with the model we are in now. Over time, things change, teams drop off and teams step up. So it is hard to predict that."
Franklin said there are always solutions and options, but one has to wonder whether Delany would consider realignment. The commissioner declined to address an issue that is a frequent topic of conversation in Big Ten country.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst isn't worried with three regular-season games left and probably a conference title game.
"Last week was all about focusing on Indiana and that's all that matters and this week it is Iowa," he said. "You get the opportunity to play the season and at the end of the season you earn the right to go to whatever games you go to, and the sole focus I think for your players is to enjoy it and to be at their best is to be in the moment."