CHICAGO — Legends and Leaders?
The Big Ten Conference divisions look more like Legends and Losers now.
The geographically challenged football alignments the Big Ten so painstakingly pieced together don't look quite as even now that Penn State has been busted by the NCAA for covering up the atrocities committed by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The Nittany Lions' sudden fall has created short- and long-term competitive-balance issues for the conference.
In the Leaders Division, traditional powers Ohio State and Penn State are on NCAA probation and therefore ineligible for the Big Ten title game (the Buckeyes for one year, the Nittany Lions for four). With Purdue, Illinois and Indiana combining for a 26-70 conference record the past four years, the division title and a return to the Big Ten title game has virtually been ceded to the University of Wisconsin.
That's good for the Badgers but bad for the Big Ten.
The imbalance is a sore subject with some people in the loaded Legends, especially this year when six of its teams are eligible for the title game compared to only four in the Leaders. Most appear willing to live with that for one year, though things might not improve much if Penn State is decimated for years by the harsh sanctions imposed by the NCAA.
"The only thing I can tell you is this is such an unbelievable circumstance," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Thursday at the Big Ten Media Days event. "You wouldn't see this coming. But at the same time, life's not fair. And whether it's fair or not, it doesn't matter. We have a schedule to play."
But make no mistake. In the Legends, where five teams are considered contenders, the current setup is considered unfair.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald went so far Thursday as to propose having the Legends winner make the title game and the other participant be chosen from among the other eligible teams by a committee of the 12 athletic directors plus commissioner Jim Delany. Some thought Fitzgerald was joking, but he confirmed he was dead serious — so serious he presented the proposal to his athletic director.
Fitzgerald has less chance of his idea being enacted than Indiana does of winning the Big Ten, but his reaction showed people think some schools are benefitting more than others from the NCAA troubles of Ohio State and Penn State.
"As a coach, you think about those things," Fitzgerald said.
Of course, you would hate to overreact to a short-term situation. Ohio State will be eligible for the Big Ten title game next year and the Buckeyes are expected to be as strong as ever under coach Urban Meyer despite the NCAA sanctions he inherited from Jim Tressel.
So it all depends on Penn State. If first-year coach Bill O'Brien can keep the Nittany Lions competitive despite a four-year bowl ban, having his scholarships capped at 65 and potentially losing players under relaxed transfer rules, this won't be a huge issue. But if Penn State sinks, the Big Ten will take on a seriously lopsided look.
Citing USC's quick rebound from NCAA probation, Meyer said, "I think Penn State's going to bounce back a lot faster than you think." However, the situations aren't the same. USC had its scholarships reduced to 75, not 65, and had more talent. Even Delany admitted Penn State's penalties "will inhibit competitiveness for awhile."
It's likely Penn State's name and in-state recruiting power will keep it from falling off the map. But the Nittany Lions won't be a contender, either. So unless Purdue or Illinois comes on fast, the Leaders will be UW, Ohio State and not much else.
Adding a ninth conference game could alleviate the problem, but Delany shot down that proposal after discussing it with the athletic directors. And since Delany virtually eliminated any chance for realignment earlier in the week, it means the Big Ten is going to be unbalanced, possibly for years.
Many considerations went into the division alignment, but biggest was splitting evenly the four national brands — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska. Since Penn State has forfeited that status for the immediate future, taking a look at realignment is a good idea.
Maybe the Big Ten could be realigned along East-West lines like it should have been all along.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.