MADISON, Wis. — If you’re a Wisconsin football fan, chances are the sight of the Big Ten’s proposed divisional realignment for 2014 has already elicited one reaction: unabashed excitement.
Gone is the annual matchup with perennial national title contender Ohio State. Gone is the annual game with traditional powerhouse Penn State. It its place, Wisconsin will see more geographically friendly games, as divisions change from “Legends” and “Leaders” to “East” and “West.” The Badgers, headed for the West division, also will see competition that appears to be a notch below their counterparts in the East.
The proposed new divisions haven’t been made official, but they reportedly will look like this:
“East” division: Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Purdue or Indiana.
The only apparent question mark is whether Purdue or Indiana will ship off to the East. Either way, this divisional setup certainly favors the Badgers.
“If you look at pairing them off, you say, ‘Ok, you’ve got Wisconsin and Nebraska on one side,’ ” said Pat Richter, Wisconsin’s athletic director from 1989-2004. “On the other side you’ve got Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State. That doesn’t square with the way it was before. Then you’ve got Maryland and Rutgers who are kind of unknowns. Rutgers certainly has been a quality team.
“I’d kind of keep quiet if I was sitting on our side and wait and see if anybody squeals on the right, I suppose.”
Records from last season indicate teams in the East will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Excluding Purdue and Indiana because of their unknown final destinations, the East Division went a combined 48-27 last season (.640 winning percentage). Only Maryland (4-8) finished with a losing record among Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have gone to a bowl game in seven of the past eight seasons.
The West Division, meanwhile, went a combined 40-26 last season (.606 winning percentage). Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota all finished with losing records. And though Northwestern won 10 games and its first bowl game since 1949, the Wildcats haven’t demonstrated consistent success in the Big Ten.
“I can’t imagine guys on the other side just saying, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds really good,'” Richter said.
Iowa has been considered a program on the same level as Wisconsin, but the Hawkeyes are just 10-12 in the Big Ten during the past three seasons. Wisconsin is 17-7 in conference play during that time.
Wisconsin’s biggest competition to win the West appears to be Nebraska — the same team the Badgers thumped, 70-31, to win the Big Ten championship last season. It is a team Wisconsin has beaten in two of three meetings since the Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten.
Richter proposed putting Michigan State in the West and moving Purdue to the East as a means to keep the competitive balance. The Badgers and Spartans have developed one of the most heated rivalries in recent years in the Big Ten. Now, that matchup will go on hiatus for the next four years and will occur sporadically after that.
The most notable switch for Badgers fans is Ohio State and Wisconsin being put in separate divisions. The Buckeyes have beaten the Badgers in five of the last six games with no signs of slowing down under coach Urban Meyer, who is entering his second season in charge of the program. The Buckeyes finished last season 12-0 and likely would have challenged for a national championship game spot if not for a one-year NCAA postseason ban.
The path to reaching the Big Ten championship, which Wisconsin has won the past two seasons, appears to be easier than ever for the Badgers. And for Wisconsin fans, it doesn’t feature a drive longer than the seven-hour trek to Nebraska. In other words, consider the proposed divisional realignment a win-win for Wisconsin and its fan base.