CHICAGO — The former Northwestern linebacker briefly showed his game face when the question about the Big Ten West vs. the Big Ten East came up Monday during Big Ten media days.
“Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, I think they all had eight wins last year,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re a season away from 10 wins. I don’t know. You can say what you want, but I think that’s a fairly strong side of our conference in a pretty strong division in the country.
“It’ll play out, it always does.”
It does and it will. Absolutely no one mourned the loss of the Legends and Leaders. No one even mentioned the former unfortunately named divisions. With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, the era of the geographical divisions has begun. And so have the East vs. West comparisons.
The East includes the blue bloods. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State are regarded as college football royalty. Michigan State is knocking on that door. MSU coach Mark Dantonio wore his Rose Bowl championship ring Monday to accentuate that point.
“Great division, a lot of storied programs in it,” Dantonio said. “A lot of built-in rivalries in it. Great football across the Big Ten. Very well coached. Exciting venues to play in, different stadiums. I would imagine it’s going to be a very competitive division at all times.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was asked how “stacked” the East Divison is.
“East Division is very strong,” he said. “As we get close to the season, start looking at the schedule, there’s a tough run ... The East is strong.
“I learned a long time ago you control what you can. Scheduling is certainly not who is in the East and who is on the other side, but very strong conference. You can tell by the recruiting, too, on that side, some very good recruiting that’s been going on. So, that’s going to be a challenge.”
Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez played at Nebraska, coached at Iowa and led the Badgers to three Rose Bowl victories as head coach. He is as Big Ten West as it gets. He broke it down on a 20-year historical cycle. When the Big Ten split into the Legends and Leaders in 2011 (Nebraska’s first Big Ten season), competitive balance was the main consideration.
“We [West] probably have three of the strongest and they probably have three of the strongest,” Alvarez said. “If you go back those 20 years, you’ll find Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska [in the West]. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State [in the East]. Those six have the best records and there’s not much separating those records.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany drove the bus on competitive balance in 2011. Geography always was the logical move, and Maryland and Rutgers clinched that. Now, Delany is comfortable with who is sitting where.
“I think these things ebb and flow, he said. “Northwestern has been to a Rose Bowl. Wisconsin went to three or four in a row. Nebraska has won National Championships. Iowa has played in very big games. Illinois has played in Rose Bowls and other major Bowls.
“When I think about historic balance, I think that the teams will play out based on the quality of the players and quality of the coaches. And I’m not worried about that part of it.”
So, now Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Northwestern are pasted together. They’ve been regional rivals for years and they’re now playing each other for a divisional trophy and a berth in the Big Ten title game.
These schools are imprinted by their geography. Set Northwestern’s circus offense aside, these teams that recruit to a very physical brand of football.
“A lot of people are going to sit back and compare this and compare that, and I get it,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. “There are some tremendous names on the other side ... We’re going to Iowa. Last year, you find me a more physical football game than we played there a year ago. I’d like to watch it with you and compare and contrast that game. People are going to say what they say, but I know we’re going to get challenged every week.”
As it sets up right now for the 2014 season, the East Divison will have spread offenses, for the most part, the speedy backs and, particularly this season with OSU’s Braxton Miller and Penn State’s Christian Hackenburg, the accomplished quarterbacks.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz quickly points out that Wisconsin has won two Big Ten championship games. Michigan State won last year with an offense that was more smashmouth than spread and a strong, aggressive defense.
The East Division has Miller, a two-time winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Silver Football Award. The West Divison has Iowa offensive tackle Brandon Scherff and that video of him hang cleaning 443 pounds three times.
“The blue bloods haven’t won a championship game yet and the three teams that have won the championship all look like Neanderthal football,” Ferentz said. “The three teams that have won championships all look like Neanderthal football, at least that’s what people want to call it. To me, it’s good football. They don’t turn it over, they run it, they pass it and they score enough points to win and play defense. That’s what the game has always been about.”
Ultimately, the beauty of East vs. West will be in the eye of the beholder. And it all will play out on the synthetic grass with the black rubber bits.
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