Steven M. Sipple: East-West not necessarily best for NU

2013-03-21T14:00:00Z 2015-04-03T21:17:26Z Steven M. Sipple: East-West not necessarily best for NUBy STEVEN M. SIPPLE / Column JournalStar.com

Tom Osborne chuckled as he thought back to a Big Ten meeting he attended after Nebraska first became part of the conference.

The topic of discussion was division alignment.

"They said their No. 1 principle — they always had principle — was competitive balance," the former Husker athletic director said Wednesday.

Big Ten officials analyzed team records over a period of several years and determined the big dogs were Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska.

"They wanted to make sure those four teams played a maximum number of times," Osborne said.

So much for principles.

In college football, principles tend to take a back seat to lucrative television deals.

Principles, in many ways, have become something of a whimsical notion.

So, hello Maryland and Rutgers. And goodbye to the "principle" of competitive balance in the Big Ten divisional structure.

According to ESPN.com, the conference will go with a geographic split for its divisions in 2014. In other words, time zones will divide the seven-team divisions.

One problem: Eight schools are in the Eastern time zone, six in the Central. So, the East-West shift appears to be down to Indiana or Purdue. Either would be OK.

Forget Michigan State joining Nebraska in the "West" division. Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis has said MSU definitely wants to continue playing Michigan every year. That's assured if the teams are in the "East."

Discussions are ongoing, but here is how the divisions likely will shake out (division names haven't been officially determined):

* East: Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers, Purdue or Indiana.

* West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Purdue or Indiana.

The balance of power clearly tips eastward. If you don't feel uneasy, Husker fans, perhaps you should — unless your overriding desire is the easiest route to the Big Ten Championship Game, as opposed to the best teams coming to Memorial Stadium.

Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has to be continually mindful of the stadium expansion project that will bump attendance beyond 90,000 this season. The athletic department recently purchased radio and TV advertising to help sell available seats. Ever think you would see that happen?

The sacred sellout streak isn't a guarantee — hence its significance. Ask Osborne. One of the primary reasons he fired Bill Callahan after the 2007 season was a concern over the glaring number of empty seats at Memorial Stadium. It was officially sold-out, but you saw what Tom saw.

Even in "down" seasons, Nebraska officials perhaps would worry less about empty seats if Michigan and Penn State (NU's protected crossover rival in the current alignment) were regularly playing in Lincoln. According to ESPN, Purdue vs. Indiana would be the only protected crossover in an East-West configuration.

Marc Morehouse of the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette wondered: "Will it still feel like the Big Ten if Iowa plays Ohio State and Michigan four times each in 12 years?"

Nebraska fans might wonder the same.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini may wonder how an East-West alignment would impact NU's strength of schedule, considering that component could become much more of a factor in the national playoff system that begins in 2014.

After all, Illinois appears to be a good five years from being a consistent .500 team. Iowa is coming off a 4-8 season and seems stagnant. Northwestern is rising but has a much lower ceiling than, say, Ohio State and Michigan. Same goes for Minnesota.

Lots of folks try to push Nebraska-Wisconsin becoming a hard-core rivalry, but the notion feels forced. It isn't as if either program is a cinch to steamroll even a relatively mediocre division. Please forgive my skepticism.

The regional divisions do make sense in some ways.

For instance, "When you look at travel costs, and everything involved, I just think something like (an East-West alignment) is going to have to happen, particularly when you think about the Olympic sports," Osborne said.

He declined comment on Rutgers and Maryland joining the league.

"I'm really not in position now to make any strong comments," he said.

Osborne is on the sidelines, and might soon be watching something he didn't necessarily sign up for.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About the writer

Steven M. Sipple | Lincoln Journal Star

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.


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