Jace Frederick: Gophers football team plays in Big Ten’s JV division
Saturday marked the eighth conference title game played since the Big Ten switched from its “Legends and Leaders” format to “East and West.” In those eight championship games, the East is 8-0, with five victories coming by double digits.
Michigan’s obliteration of Iowa in the Big Ten football title game Saturday night was another reminder of the obvious: The Gophers compete in the conference’s JV division.
Saturday marked the eighth conference title game played since the Big Ten switched from its “Legends and Leaders” format to “East and West.”
In those eight championship games, the East is 8-0, with five victories coming by double digits.
On Sunday, Michigan was announced as one of the four qualifiers for the College Football Playoff. The Big Ten has had seven qualifiers in eight seasons — again, all from the East.
Three Big Ten teams will compete in the prestigious New Year’s Six bowl games this season — Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. East, East and East.
Those were the conference’s three best teams, yet it was Iowa who cakewalked its way to Indianapolis, where it received a rude awakening from the far-superior Wolverines.
Such is the story in the Big Ten championship game. The conference’s best team takes on not the second-best team, but sometimes the third, fourth or fifth.
A gladiator emerges from the Big Ten East to meet whichever Big Ten West team had the most favorable schedule.
This year, Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota all took their licks against a Big Ten titan — with Ohio State beating the Gophers and Boilermakers, while Michigan took it to Wisconsin.
The toughest East opponent the Hawkeyes had to play was Penn State, a mediocre squad this season whom Iowa was trailing 17-3 before Penn State’s starting quarterback went down with an injury.
In two of the past three seasons, the Big Ten West representative was Northwestern. Take that for what you will. No disrespect to the Wildcats. They may not be mighty or prominent, but they’ve taken advantage of several golden opportunities to reach a conference title game simply by being “pretty good.”
That’s more than Minnesota can say.
That’s not to say Wisconsin hasn’t had some decent teams through the years, just never the best one.
And Iowa did go 12-0 to start the 2015 season, only to then lose to Michigan State and Stanford to close its season. Even those Hawkeyes likely would have suffered two or three regular-season losses in the other Big Ten division.
The Big Ten West is always a step behind.
Big Ten West defenders will chalk up the lopsided results between the two divisions to Ohio State’s dominance. Of course the division with the best program will reign supreme.
But Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State also have won Big Ten titles in that span. And, frankly, those four schools and Wisconsin make up the conference’s top five programs.
Eighty percent of the conference’s top five reside in the East. That’s how you establish such dominance and imbalance between the divisions on a yearly basis.
It’s how Big Ten West programs can continue to convince themselves they’re competing at a high level because they’re winning 60 percent of their conference games. That meant something 10 years ago, but it loses quite a bit of luster when you realize you’re likely dodging three of the conference’s top five teams each season.
Being the sixth- or seventh-best team in the conference usually results in a very strong season in the West.
How much better would Glen Mason’s Big Ten record have been had he only had to face one of Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan each season?
The obvious solution would be for the Big Ten to change formats again in hopes of creating two divisions with more competitive balance.
But the reality is, this is the structure that serves the conference best. There is a reason the Big Ten sends teams to the playoffs year after year.
Instead of having to gut out one more difficult game it could potentially lose against Ohio State or Michigan State, Michigan imposed its will Saturday against an average Iowa team, putting an exclamation point on its season and cementing its place among the nation’s top four teams.
That’s how you produce playoff teams. That’s how you get three schools into the six most important bowl games.
Perhaps the Big Ten prefers it stay that way.