After Sunday's announcement that the Big Ten was realigning it's football divisions starting in 2014 the common narrative is that the East will be way more difficult than the West and that there was a clear and vast void in competition between the two divisions. However, those that have spouted that narrative have presented zero actual evidence of this so called imbalance actually existing.
Say what? Let me explain. First things first, most of those who believe there's this wide gulf in balance rely on only anecdotal evidence – mainly that Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State are historical brand names – as the basis for their argument. There's very little talk of actual facts to back up those claims and that's where they go off the rails for me.
Those of you who have been with us from the start know my love for history and facts. Mainly because facts are pretty stubborn things – either they exist or they don't. It's hard to refute facts. So in that vein I went in search of an answer to the topic that's been on the mind of most in Big Ten country over the past five days or so: Is there a huge imbalance of power between the East and West?
In order to figure out the answer to that question I decided it best to take a look at the factors that matter most in the world of college football – wins, 10 win (or more) seasons, and Big Ten championships. I also took a look at things with a pretty broad bush by focusing on the last 20 years – you know the time since Penn State was added to the conference rolls for the 1993 season. It also gives us a long enough time frame to account for ebbs and flows of specific teams, conference strength and decline, and for trends to develop one way or the other.
Now this isn't a perfect measure of things because Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers weren't (and in the case of RU and MD not currently) members of the league, but that's out of our control as they couldn't always be awesome like those of us who's teams have been in the league for quite some time, right?
So, the narrative is that with names like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in the East there will be a clear imbalance of power and that the East is vastly more difficult to navigate. However, the numbers suggest something just a bit different.
When you look at the number of wins per team over the past twenty years, the East and West division averages are damn close: East = 138.5 wins/last 20 years, West = 134.4 wins/last 20 years. Yep, that's just about four games difference between the divisions over the past twenty years. Not exactly a wide gulf of difference if you ask me, and to put it another way – that's less than .02 wins a season per team of difference over the past twenty years.
Taking a look at where the individual teams rank from top to bottom we also get a picture that shows us that perception doesn't match the reality of actual history from the past 20 years of results in terms of wins too.
As you can see by ranking the divisions are nearly equal in terms of where teams rank in win totals over the past twenty years. For me it's hard to say that the new divisions are imbalanced when you've got three teams from each division in the top 6 and two of the top 3 are actually in the West division.
How about 10 win seasons, after all OSU and Michigan are the cream of the crop, right? Oops, wrong again. The difference between the two divisions is just one 10 win season on average (East 5, West 4) and in total numbers aren't far off either, with the East having 35 total 10 win seasons and the West having 28 10 win seasons.
O.k., what about Big Ten Championships? Well, try the awful imbalance of 16 for the East and 13 for the West…. Holy crap, that's SOOOOOOOO huge, huh? I mean, three whole championships of difference. Remove the top three teams over the past 20 years (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan) and the imbalance swings the other way totally. Instead it's 2 championships for the East and 7 for the West.
Overall, what the numbers actually show us is that the perceived strength of the East division isn't as true as some think. The strength of the division is at the top, that much is a given – it would be with any division that includes Ohio State. However, out West it's the teams that occupy the middle of the division that give it it's strength in terms of historical success. Teams like Purdue, Northwestern, and Iowa have all had more periods of being good to great than any of the schools not named Michigan, Penn State, or Ohio State have had in the East.
Of course that also means that there is an imbalance, but it's not inter-divisional, rather intra-divisional. Those who aren't Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State don't have the history behind them to support that they'll ultimately be competitive within their division. So, it's up to them to step up to the plate.
In historical terms you can actually make an argument that from top to bottom it's likely that the West is actually going to be the tougher of the two divisions to win on an annual basis and isn't that what "competitive balance" is all about?
Yes, there's no denying that in the here and now, over the next few years, the East looks stronger than the West, but those that make that argument are only looking at what's right in front of them. History clearly shows us the imbalance is far from great, in fact it's nearly the same as the balance that exists in the current format.
Those that also argue about competitive balance also miss the fact that competitive balance wasn't the focus of this realignment – it was about geography and rivalries more than anything else. If you want to argue that competitive balance should've been the focus, well, then that's a completely different argument all together.
With that in mind it's hard to argue they got it wrong this time around. It was the best of all worlds considering the Big Ten presidents and athletic directors accomplished the two main goals of putting teams together that are closer to each other and keeping most of the rivalries intact. The only rivalry trophy games that are gone on an annual bias are The Little Brown Jug, the Governor's Victory Bell, and the Illibuck, three rivalry games that haven't exactly been competitive as of late if ever really. The last round saw the Heartland Trophy, the Old Brass Spittoon, the Land-Grant Trophy, and the Governor's Victory Bell all gone on an annual basis and two of those were big-time competitve (not to mention historically bitter in the case of the Heartland Trophy).
Ultimately the talk of this wide imbalance between the two divisions doesn't stand up to the facts of 20 years of history. Are there more wins, more championships, and more 10 win season's in the East than the West? Yes, and as I said before, any division with Ohio State in it would have those advantages. However, history and facts tell us the gulf between the two on all accounts are rather small. In fact, they aren't much different than what exists in the current format. So, what's the beef with this version of alignment again?