With a big payday near its grasp and only days away from the NCAA Division I Council shedding all championship game constraints, the Big Ten can reshape its future scheduling, alignment and championship arrangement any way it chooses beginning in 2023.
Following its June 5 presidents and chancellors meeting, the Big Ten should announce its future media rights agreement. It’s likely the league will connect with two primary over-the-air networks and perhaps two different cable channels once the current football arrangement ends in December, according to an industry source. Next week, the Division I Council meets and likely will approve a recommendation from the NCAA Football Oversight Committee to eliminate the requirement to play either a round-robin schedule or split into divisions in order to hold a championship game.
What does this mean for the Big Ten? The media rights deal could double the league’s annual media revenue from the current $54 million per school this fiscal year. The NCAA’s rules chance would allow the Big Ten to eliminate divisions — if it chooses — and stage a title game between the top two teams in the 14-team conference.
But before changes take place, there are other factors league and school officials will ponder. Of the 72 college football games with at least 3.5 million viewers last fall, 58 involved either the SEC or Big Ten. When the SEC adds Texas and Oklahoma by the 2025 season, it is expected to increase its league schedule from eight to at least nine games. After briefly considering a change from nine league games to eight in order to play annual games against the Pac-12 and ACC, the Big Ten will stay at nine moving forward.
According to Sports Media Watch, of the 18 Big Ten-only regular-season games with at least 3.5 million viewers last fall, nine were non-divisional games. That’s nearly 43 percent of all East-West games. A nine-game schedule allows the Big Ten control of seven more games, which could provide matchups like Iowa–Penn State (6.9 million viewers), Ohio State–Minnesota (6.3 million) or Michigan–Nebraska (4.6 million) to its media partners. Including the league title game, just three Pac-12-only games exceeded 3.5 million viewers and no ACC-only games hit that mark.
The biggest question then becomes the Big Ten’s divisional structure. It’s likely the Big Ten won’t change its current alignment until College Football Playoff expansion is finalized for the 2026 season. But league administrators and coaches have held discussions about whether to keep, alter or eliminate divisions. What could change look like? Here’s a sample.
When it added Nebraska in 2011, the Big Ten tendered an equality-based Legends and Leaders alignment for three years. After a second round of expansion added Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, the league opted for a geographic arrangement. In eight years of regular-season meetings, the divisions mostly are balanced with the East holding a 77-70 lead. Ohio State’s 18-2 and 5-0 record in title games tilt the scale heavily toward the East. But the East has won all eight championships, which has drawn derision and scrutiny.
Big Ten East since 2014
|School||B1G W-L||Crossover W-L|
Big Ten West since 2014
|School||B1G W-L||Crossover W-L|
The current arrangement features plenty of divisional games capable of generating big ratings and mixes in compelling non-divisional matchups. At their spring meetings next week, Big Ten athletics directors and administrators could discuss every option and ultimately decide to keep the current arrangement, which is perfectly divided geographically but not as competitively at the top.
Pros: The divisions already have created their identities. The East Division is considered a national powerhouse, along with the SEC West. The West Division has a high floor with a distinctly physical brand of football. The highest-profile teams in each division play one another every year and only one historic rivalry crosses the border that requires protection, and that’s Purdue–Indiana. The divisions are balanced for the majority of teams.
Cons: The East Division has won all eight league title games. Most games have been close, but there have been a few uneven outcomes in primetime on the largest stage. The more disparity grows between the divisions in championship games, the more likely the league’s historic bond could fray among certain schools. That perhaps could lead to existential issues a generation down the road.
Discussions over both previous divisional alignments were protracted and difficult. The first iteration was settled in 2010 and it divided the six most successful programs from 1993-2009. On the Legends side were Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa. The Leaders included Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. The remaining teams were filtered in based on rivalry preservation. Getting left out, however, was Iowa-Wisconsin. Both have historic rivalries with Minnesota, and there was no chance of acquiring two cross-divisional keepers. So, Iowa-Wisconsin faded away, but not without Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez putting up a pair of strong arguments with former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
Potential revamped Big Ten divisions
In 2014, newcomers Maryland and Rutgers wanted to join nearby Penn State in a division, so an East-West split seemed the best option. The decision for which school leaves the Eastern time zone came down to Purdue (westernmost campus) or Michigan State (westernmost state). At the time, only Ohio State seemed assured of success among the East Division programs. Penn State was heavily sanctioned by the NCAA, and Michigan was inconsistent. Michigan State was viewed as a quality counterweight to the Buckeyes, and the Boilermakers were sent West with their series with Indiana remaining intact.
In order to preserve divisions but perhaps spur more championship-level competition, the league could choose to revamp them a third time. If it’s done geographically, it could consist of one division of outposts (Outer) and another (Inner) on the inside. Another geographic version contains North and South divisions with the potential for protected crossover games. Another way is to revive the old Legends and Leaders blueprint with different names and allow for a protected crossover game.
Pro: A divisional title is an annual goal and a tangible achievement. If the divisions are competitively balanced and rivalries are preserved, then the structure helps establish consistent scheduling. Divisional races are compelling.
Con: Another divisional structure since 2011 could lead to a few eye rolls. Would a different geographic alignment improve the East-West imbalance or overcorrect it? Are the league’s lopsided championship outcomes cyclical or simply a result of Ohio State’s dominance?
Expansion impacted every Big Ten sport and made men’s basketball scheduling difficult, especially with rivalry preservation. When the league opted for 20 Big Ten men’s basketball games in 2018-19, officials devised an uneven scheduling plan which allowed the three instate series (Indiana-Purdue, Northwestern–Illinois, Michigan-Michigan State) to play twice annually. Then the four west teams (Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska) would play one another five times over a three-year period while the four east teams (Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers) would do the same. Then the other teams would compete four times over three years. The alignment preserved some key rivalries, but it didn’t help Ohio State play its historic foes more often. There’s always a hangnail.
Potential Permanent Big Ten Rivals
Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana
Purdue, Maryland, Illinois
Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska
Rutgers, Ohio State, Indiana
Michigan, Penn State, Northwestern
Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers
Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska
Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin
Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State
Michigan, Penn State, Maryland
Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers
Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern
Maryland, Penn State, Michigan
Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska
From 1995 through 2010 in the 11-team Big Ten, every football program had two permanent opponents and cycled through the other eight foes six times over an eight-year period. If the 14-team Big Ten eliminated divisions, one way to keep important games intact is to guarantee each school three annual opponents and rotate through the other 10 foes six times over a 10-year period.
Pro: All of the league’s most important rivalries are protected. Other opponents are cycled through enough to where the identity centers on one Big Ten, rather than two separate divisions. The two best teams will qualify for the championship game regardless of geography.
Con: The undetermined questions could give anyone in charge a headache. Who decides which rivalries carry the most weight? How much impact will the league’s television partners have in deciding who plays whom? Who becomes annual rivals with Rutgers and Maryland? What if one school ranks another as its top rival but it doesn’t land on the other team’s list? Will Penn State be required to play Maryland and Rutgers each year or will it protect higher-profile foes Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State?
There’s not an easy answer for the Big Ten as it moves forward with scheduling. Sometimes each school’s interests run parallel to the league. Other times, they collide. Perhaps with a 12-team CFP, the Big Ten East runner-up has a better shot at a playoff berth without a championship game loss. Or, if the four-team playoff remains in place, a division-less league is more equitable. Either way, with NCAA deregulation likely, league officials will have plenty to discuss over the coming months when it comes to divisional alignment.
(Top photo: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)