UW Health Sports Medicine 

Lucas at Large: Big Ten wise to follow lay of the land


You didn't have to be drinking Kool-Aid from the Little Brown Jug to realize that geographical realignment was a most reasonable option for the Big Ten. And this was not about passing the Illibuck on competitive balance, even if a couple of trophy games will be taking a hit.

Competitive balance can be so fleeting.

Five short years ago, Michigan's storied football program was cycling south of the southern-most campus in the conference -- making for no stranger bedfellows than the Wolverines and Indiana Hoosiers -- while Iowa was cycling in the opposite direction.
 New Big Ten Divisional Alignment
 East  West
 Michigan State
 Ohio State
 Penn State

In 2008, Michigan finished with a 3-9 overall record, matching Indiana at the bottom of the Big Ten. At 2-6, the Wolverines were one game better than the Hoosiers in league games. In 2009, they both won just once in the conference with Michigan going 5-7 in all games. Indiana was 4-8.

Contrast and compare ...

In 2008, Iowa was one of three schools that won nine of 13 games, joining Michigan State and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes were 5-3 in the Big Ten; a springboard for 2009 when the Hawks ended up with 11 wins (as many overall as both Ohio State and Penn State) and played in the Orange Bowl.

Iowa was the seventh-best team in college football.

Michigan was the 10th-best team in the Big Ten.

That was four short years ago.

Granted, there has been a noteworthy reawakening in Ann Arbor under Ohio-bred (Dayton) head coach Brady Hoke, who has erased the taste of Rich Rodriguez's tenure and made the Wolverines dangerous again with back-to-back records of 11-2 and 8-5 (6-2 each year in the Big Ten).

By contrast, the Hawkeyes have been in need of realignment -- front wheel -- after running over potholes the last three seasons (19-19 overall). In 2012, Iowa may have bottomed out at 4-8 and 2-6 in the Big Ten; at least a beleaguered Kirk Ferentz is hoping that he has seen the worst.

Based on his track record, there's every reason to believe that Ferentz will get the Hawks back on track sooner than later -- assuming, of course, that the can keep a few running backs healthy during the grind of a long Big Ten season, which will get longer in 2016 with nine league games.

Over the last five seasons, Iowa is 39-25 (21-19) and Michigan is 34-29 (18-22).

During that same span, Northwestern is 40-25 (21-19) and Michigan State is 44-22 (27-13).

In Jim Delany's New World Order, the Hawkeyes and the Wildcats are in the Big Ten West and the Wolverines and the Spartans are in the Big Ten East. So maybe Iowa doesn't look like Michigan right now anymore than Northwestern looks like Michigan State, right? It's not as one-sided as you think.

The 'Cats are coming off a 10-3 season (and returning most of their best players) whereas Sparty is trying to bounce back from a 7-6 season (after winning 32 games over the previous three years). At the moment, there is not a significant competitive gap between these two programs.

Now consider the sum of the moving parts: Why can't the "Big 4'' in the West (Wisconsin, Nebraska, Northwestern, Iowa) compete against the "Big 4'' in the East (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State), particularly with the uncertainty of the Nittany Lions' scholarship reductions?

Obviously, it's not a wash today unless you're talking about the current wild cards in the West (Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois) versus those in the East (Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers). Still, everything is subject to change on a year-to-year basis, including competitive balance in 2014.

So with the exception of a couple of trophy games that will no longer be staged annually -- the Little Brown Jug between Michigan and Minnesota and the Illibuck rivalry between Illinois and Ohio State (Rivalry? Who knew?) -- the Big Ten's geographical realignment can stand on its own merit.