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Big Ten coaches discuss conference’s possible competitive imbalance

Andrew Holleran / Photo editor

CHICAGO РWith death comes new life. Clich̩, but those five words very much apply to the situation facing the Big Ten this upcoming football season.

Ohio State and Penn State are not dead football programs – they both will play a 12-game season starting in September – but their hopes of contending for a Big Ten title this fall are long dead, and some fear that a competitive imbalance may now exist in the conference.

Due to NCAA and conference sanctions, both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are unable to play in the Big Ten Championship Game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. The two schools’ ineligibility has made teams from one side of the conference much more alive in the Big Ten title race, an issue that was raised at the conference’s media days July 26 in Chicago.

The Big Ten football conference is made up of two divisions: Leaders and Legends. Each division has six teams a piece. OSU and PSU are both members of the Leaders Division, meaning that about 33 percent of the Buckeyes side of the conference will not be a factor in the Big Ten title race this fall.

“I think the only thing I can tell you is this is such an unbelievable circumstance,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke, whose Wolverines are in the Legends Division. “And I’m sure (Big Ten) Commissioner (Jim) Delany and everyone else, you wouldn’t see this coming. But at the same time, life’s not fair. And whether it’s fair or not, it doesn’t matter.”

Since 1993, when PSU started playing in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions have accounted for 10 conference titles. The other four schools that make up the Leaders Division-Illinois, Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin-have combined to win the Big Ten only six times dating back to 1993.

Beside the Badgers, who have won the Big Ten five times since 1993, the last team from the Leaders Division to win the conference that is eligible to play in the conference championship game this season was Illinois in 2001.

The competitive imbalance this season has one Big Ten coach proposing a title game adjustment.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Big Ten should make a temporary change to the rules this season and potentially allow two teams from the Legends Divisions to play in the conference title game on December 1 in Indianapolis.

“Maybe (the Legends Division) winner should automatically be in the championship and then take the others teams that are eligible and you put a committee together of the 12 (athletic directors) and Commissioner Delany as the 13th vote,” he said. “That’s kind of how we’re doing the playoff and it makes a little bit of sense to me.”

Whether the conference will make a change to its conference title game qualifications or not was not answered by Delany at his press conference Thursday afternoon.

Ohio State will be eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2013 and Penn State will back in conference contention in 2016. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said that he likes the way the divisions are set up, but he is not sure if a switch in alignment is necessary this season.

“I think they set them up well. Who could have envisioned what’s going on, having two teams in the same division who are not eligible to play in the championship game,” he said. “And whether they do anything to adjust (the divisions) for a year, I don’t know. That’s way above my head.”

Many coaches said it did not matter, though, and that every team has to go out and play regardless.

“It’s still going to come down to winning football games,” said Illinois first-year coach Tim Beckman. “You’ve still got to win your Big Ten football games to give yourself that opportunity to get in that championship game on December 1, 2012 in Indianapolis.”

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema agreed.

“It doesn’t really matter because we can never skip a step to get where we want to be, which is obviously in Indianapolis at the end of the year,” he said.

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