For the Sake of Iowa Football, Abolish Big Ten Divisions

By Tom Clos on November 9, 2022 at 10:29 am
go hawks go
© Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

You won’t find a stauncher defender of the Big Ten’s current divisional alignment than me.

For years, as the conference’s West division champion routinely walked into Indianapolis in early December, returning home with nothing more than an extra game on its schedule and a big fat L, I remained steadfast that the Big Ten’s current alignment was not as lopsided as it seemed.

I believed the East division’s top alignment complainers, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State, were just crying because they happened to be in the same division as the dominant Buckeyes. And since the East/West split that belief has some merit. It's not like the three have routinely knocked off Ohio State on their way to Big Ten glory (since 2014 the Buckeyes have won the division five times, while the Nittany Lions, Spartans, Wolverines have one title each).

Well, ladies and gentleman, given how last season ended and seeing the current football situation in Iowa City and beyond, I think it’s just about that time.

The Big Ten needs to scrap divisions for the better health of the conference, but more importantly for the better health of Iowa football.

As the teams out East get stronger (especially Michigan, who is seemingly almost at Ohio State's level now) it’s obvious the league as a whole would benefit with some sort of round-robin format pitting the two best Big Ten teams against each other in Nap Town. And If you’re unsure I suggest you watch the Illinois-Michigan State game from this past weekend.

The Illini, who to this point have been running away with the Big Ten West, laid an egg at home against a massively shorthanded, embattled, and last place Spartans team in a 23-15 loss that probably should’ve been worse had MSU head coach Mel Tucker not had his head sewn to the field turf during the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.

Even worse, by the time December 3rd rolls around Illinois will have losses to perennial conference doormat Indiana and likely the top four-ranked Wolverines who they meet in Ann Arbor next week. If the Illini somehow blow this thing, the West division will be represented by either Iowa (loss to Michigan and blowout loss to Ohio State), Wisconsin (loss to Michigan State and blowout loss to Ohio State), Minnesota (blowout loss to Penn State), or Purdue (loss to Penn State).

In the meantime either the Buckeyes or Wolverines will lose out on a trip to Indy with a likely 11-1 record.

I’ll admit however that I don’t really care too much that conference realignment will help the league as a whole. I hate every Big Ten member school not named Iowa to the point that when bowl season comes around I want them all to lose by 50. To see Michigan or Ohio State get screwed in any way makes me happy so I'm not going to die on this hill for the conference's sake.

The more impactful result for abolishing the unbalanced East/West alignment is helping improve Iowa football.

Removing divisions would force Kirk Ferentz to compete yearly with all 13 of his conference counterparts. Directly competing with the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Spartans, and Nittany Lions would put more pressure on Ferentz to evolve his program whether through coaching changes, overhauling the offense completely, recruiting better athletes, or all of the above and then some.

Ask yourself, as a current member of the Big Ten West who is Iowa aiming to be better than year in and out -- Illinois or Ohio State? The Illini, who finally have their act together for the first time since the days of Ron Zook, are a yearly fixture on the Hawkeyes’ schedule while the Buckeyes have played Iowa just twice since 2013. 

Is this program more about being better than Minnesota, who hilariously haven’t won even a slice of a conference crown since 1967 or Michigan, the defending Big Ten Champion, who looks to be on its way to another potential title and CFP berth? Iowa plays the Gophers annually for Floyd of Rosedale while the Wolverines and Hawkeyes have tangled just three times in the regular season since 2014.

The answer is clear: Ferentz’s program is being built to be just good enough to beat its mediocre divisional counterparts but not Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. It's evident via the product on the field as well as through his unwillingness to evolve with the rest of major college football.

To be fair, Iowa has owned each of its yearly West rivals not named Wisconsin pretty much since the East/West split. But as for the Ohio States and Michigans of the conference? Yes, the Hawkeyes have beaten each within the past seven years but in the grand scheme of things those victories meant almost nothing other than a fun night to remember and a YouTube clip I can frequently watch.

Since 2014 the Hawkeye standard has been: Win the Big Ten West and whatever happens in Indianapolis happens.

Did Iowa win the Big Ten in 2015? No, but at least they won the West.

Did the Hawkeyes win the conference crown last season? They weren’t even close to winning the title game, but hey there's a Brothers in Indy!

It’s this mentality and low bar that is helping hold back the Hawkeye program from winning things that actually matter on a national level. 

If you’re still not convinced, see the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game or the Michigan and Ohio State games this year because they were fun and not at all massively depressing. 

Overall Big Ten Standings (as of 11/8/22)
School Conf Overall
Michigan 6-0 9-0
Ohio St. 6-0 9-0
Illinois 4-2 7-2
Penn State 4-2 7-2
Maryland 3-3 6-3
Minnesota 3-3 6-3
Iowa 3-3 5-4
Purdue 3-3 5-4
Wisconsin 3-3 5-4
Michigan St. 2-4 4-5
Nebraska 2-4 3-6
Indiana 1-5 3-6
rutgers 1-5 4-5
jnw 1-5 1-8

Just think of a world right now where the 5-4 Hawkeyes are currently residing in a tie for 5th place in the conference standings, three games out and already eliminated from a title game spot. They'd be playing out the string on a very disappointing campaign that might lead to some big changes in the offseason.

Instead, Iowa actually has a somewhat realistic shot at reaching Indianapolis entering the season’s final three weeks thanks to the comedy of errors that is the Big Ten West.

It’s ridiculous and it’s hurting Iowa football

Because if the Hawkeyes somehow repeat as division champions it will be held up by the Ferentzes as progress. As a reason that whatever the father-son duo is doing is somehow “working.” And as a reason to not make the necessary changes on offense this offseason. A reason to not evolve into the 21st century like most big-time college football programs would.

I can just see Papa Ferentz’s quotes following several 6-3 and/or 9-6 defeats next season:

  • I don’t know if you realize this but we won our division last year. . ."
  • Well, we did reach the championship game last season
  • Well, last year seemed to be a pretty successful season and I make more than you peasant journalists anyways, so. . .

OK, that last one might only be partially accurate but the sentiment remains: Reaching Indianapolis, even though the Hawkeyes’ offense remains one of the country’s worst units (see the final 27+ minutes of the second half at Purdue), will be held up as some sort of grand achievement when it really means nothing more than another blowout loss on a national stage and a hangover that just won’t quit the morning after on the long trek heading west on I-74.

Right now it feels like there are two completely different Big Ten conferences. One is competing for national titles and another is competing for a participation trophy in early December.

In order for Hawkeye football to compete with the big boys, the Big Ten needs to abolish the divisions now.

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