The Big Ten officially announced realignment starting in the 2014 football season, with teams divided into two seven-team divisions — East and West, mercifully replacing Legends and Leaders.
The general consensus is that the Gophers made out nicely in the new configuration, which places the two new Big Ten teams (Maryland and Rutgers) in the East with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Indiana. The Gophers get Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Iowa in the West.
To get a sense of the relative strengths of those divisions as they relate to Minnesota, we took a look at what constitutes the “Golden Era” of modern Gophers football — 1999-2006, the final eight seasons under Glen Mason, when the Gophers went to bowl games seven times and defeated every other conference team at least once.
Keep in mind, this does not count Nebraska, which is certainly one of the power programs now in the West but was not part of the Big Ten back then. Here is how Minnesota did against these teams from 1999-2006:
New West: Illinois: 5-1; Iowa: 3-5; Northwestern: 4-2; Purdue: 1-5; Wisconsin: 2-6; Overall: 15-19.
New East: Indiana: 4-2; Michigan: 1-5; Michigan State: 4-2; Penn State: 4-2; Ohio State 1-5; Overall: 14-16.
Many of those programs are in much different places in 2013 than they were a decade ago. That’s why Gophers coach Jerry Kill has merit when he says it’s too early to say whether one division will be easier than the other. But historically speaking — and the Gophers’ golden era notwithstanding — the West should offer less resistance more consistently.
So what should be the realistic expectation for the Gophers starting in 2014? A good chance at going .500 against West foes almost every season … a chance once every few years, when the schedule breaks right, to contend within the division … and also the chance, when the team is young and the East crossover games are tough, to finish near the bottom.
Just remember when you get excited to see winnable games against Illinois, Iowa and Purdue on the schedule every year, those schools, at least for now, are thinking the same thing about Minnesota.