May 5, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- From his office desk, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez can see the framework of the new video scoreboard that is under construction atop the north stands at Camp Randall Stadium. The screen will be among the largest in college football next season.
From his seat, Alvarez can also visualize how the Big Ten will look in 2014 after a geographic realignment will separate the conference into seven-team divisions. The Badgers will be in the West along with Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue.
“I like the grouping because it protects all of our natural rivalries, our border battles,” Alvarez said. “It will make it a lot easier for our fans to travel. That was not the case the last time.”
When the Big Ten expanded to 12 schools with the addition of Nebraska, the Badgers were placed in the Leaders Division, which also included Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana. Although Minnesota was a protected rival each season, Iowa was not.
Alvarez pointed out that there were much different criteria for that realignment. The three main considerations, in order, were competitive balance, maintaining natural rivalries and geography. “And there were six teams that clearly separated themselves,” he said.
Dating back to when Penn State entered the conference in 1993, the six winningest programs were Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State. So there was an equal divisional split along those competitive lines: three in the Leaders and three in the Legends.
There was also an equal split among “brand’’ programs – Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska – which was not the case with the latest realignment when geography, not competitive balance, was viewed as the most important criteria upon expanding to 14 with Maryland and Rutgers.
“We do have three of our ‘brand’ schools in the East,” Alvarez said of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. “And the perception is that the East is far stronger than the West because of it. But when you look at the winning percentages over the years, it’s more balanced than people think.”
Since 1993, Northwestern has won outright or shared just as many Big Ten Championships as Penn State. (Wisconsin has won six during this span, including three straight). Moreover, there’s little separating Iowa (81-78-1 in league play; 138-105-1 overall) and Michigan State (80-79-1; 135-109-1).
Alvarez agreed that competitive balance is subject to cycles. The Spartans are 18-9 over the last two seasons, while the Hawkeyes are 11-14. “But if you take a look at that 20-year stretch,” he said of the Hawks, “they’ve been pretty good during Kirk’s (Ferentz) tenure.”
In-season competitive balance is also impacted by injuries to impact players; difference-makers on either side of the ball. When the league goes from eight to nine conference games in 2016, Alvarez feels that there will be an urgency to develop better depth because the schedules will be strengthened.
Not only will there be fewer nonconference games – three instead of four – but there will be fewer overmatched opponents and less potential for mismatches. The Big Ten is phasing out games against FCS schools. Wisconsin has two remaining: Tennessee Tech in 2013 and Western Illinois in 2014.
“I just think it makes you better when you play a tougher schedule,” said Alvarez, noting that at least one of those future nonconference slots each year will be filled by a BCS program. “Overall, I think it will help everyone; I know that it will help our league. We’ll all have to recruit better.”
Alvarez acknowledged that there was some discussion on going to a 10-game league format. “But it would really create problems with scheduling,” he said, accenting the importance of having at least seven home games each season. “You still have to worry about your budget and bottom line.”
In 2016, Wisconsin will have four Big Ten home games, and five on the road. That will be the breakdown in even years for all teams in the West. In 2017, it will switch to five home, four away. “We weren’t crazy about a 5-4 split,” Alvarez said. “But it’s consistent with everyone within your division.”
After the Legends and Leaders realignment, Alvarez said, “The question was, ‘Is this etched in stone for perpetuity?’ The answer was ‘No.’ There was flexibility for change; which was a smart move. So when we added Rutgers and Maryland, the consensus was that geography was most important.”
There was some dialogue on Michigan State going to the West but there was not enough support for the move. Breaking up Purdue and Indiana posed some questions. But the annual rivalry between the Boilermakers and Hoosiers will be preserved in what will be the only crossover exception.
At that, there are a number of natural rivals in the Big Ten West: Nebraska-Iowa, Northwestern-Illinois and, of course, Minnesota-Wisconsin. “But I don’t necessarily think you have to end the regular season with that game,” Alvarez said of the Border Battle between the Gophers and the Badgers.
Last season, they met in mid-October. This season, they will play in late November.
Beyond the 2013 season, there’s no chance of Michigan and Ohio State playing on back-to-back weekends – at the end of the regular season and again in the Big Ten Championship game – thereby avoiding the 2012 Pac-12 scenario with Stanford and UCLA. “No one wants that,” Alvarez said.
Both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines are in the Big Ten East, a significant element of the 2014 geographical realignment. In general, Alvarez has been very pleased with how the conference has conducted its business under the leadership of commissioner Jim Delany.
“We’ve been consistent with what we’ve talked about over a long period of time,” he said. “I really like how our athletic directors work with the commissioner. There’s a give-and-take; everyone expresses themselves. Sometimes we agree to disagree. But we always come out on the same page.”
Alvarez attended the BCS spring meetings in Pasadena, Calif., where it was announced that Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas would play host to the College Football Playoff’s first national championship game on Jan. 15, 2015. The semifinals will be staged in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl.
But who will serve on the selection committee to pick those four teams?
That has been the question on everybody’s mind. Would Alvarez be interested?
“If I was asked, I would have to give it serious thought,” said Alvarez, a member of multiple Hall of Fames, including the College Football Hall of Fame.
“On one hand, I’d feel an obligation to college football. On the other hand, there would be the time commitment. A lot of things would have to be answered.”
Alvarez said that he visited with someone who had served on the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee and after crunching the numbers he estimated that he spent the equivalent of one year of his life breaking down tape and attending meetings during his five years on the committee.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has already stated in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to be considered for the College Football Playoff selection committee. Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick has expressed the same sentiment. The scrutiny of those selectors would be unmatched.
That has given Alvarez pause, until further notice, or until someone asks.