Christensen: West is what's best for Gophers football team

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2013 - 8:10 AM

The 2014 realignment should benefit the U program.

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Gophers coach Jerry Kill isn't convinced -- or isn't saying so -- that the West is the easier division.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The Big Ten West should be a better fit for the Gophers football team than the Legends Division, and not just because it carries a far less conceited name.

The divisional competition won’t be quite as tough, the schedule will get easier at first, and the geographic grouping just makes sense.

So for a program trying to build momentum, the Gophers received good news Sunday, when Big Ten presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to split into East and West divisions for football in 2014, when Maryland and Rutgers join the conference.

Commissioner Jim Delany has not hidden from the fact that the East Division looks tougher on paper with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, along with Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland.

The Gophers will be grouped with Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue. The Big Ten is requiring each team to play six division games and two crossover games in 2014 and 2015, so here are the immediate schedule benefits:

• For 2014, the Gophers are currently scheduled to play four teams from the East — Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Indiana. Two of those need to be replaced with Illinois and Purdue.

•For 2015, the Gophers were set to play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. One of those games will be scrapped to add Illinois, which went 0-8 in Big Ten play last season.

Of course, when reached for comment Sunday, Gophers coach Jerry Kill dismissed the theory that the West will be easier sledding for his team.

“I don’t think any team, whatever side they’re on, can say they got a benefit or not,” Kill said. “Because you don’t know how programs are going to change or what things are going to happen.”

Kill and Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague both expressed satisfaction with the realignment plan for other reasons.

“It was important for us to be in the same division with our geographical and traditional rivals,” Teague said through a team spokesman. “I have to give credit to Commissioner Delany and the conference. They listened to the fans and universities, processed the information and then used that feedback to help make their decision.”

Kill said he likes that incoming Big Ten recruits will still get to play every other conference team at least once in a four-year cycle. That’s because the conference plans to rotate the crossover games.

The only protected annual crossover will be Indiana vs. Purdue. That means there will be more years when Minnesota and Michigan aren’t playing for the Little Brown Jug, and more years when Minnesota and Penn State aren’t playing for the Governor’s Victory Bell.

Those are two of the three trophy games the Big Ten is sacrificing, along with the wooden turtle Ohio State and Illinois play for most years.

But as Kill was quick to note, the Big Ten on Sunday also approved a nine-game conference schedule, starting in 2016. Teams will play six division games and three crossover games.

“When you go to nine games, that changes a lot of things for a lot of people,” Kill said. “That’s why you have a conference. You should play within your conference.”

Delany has implored Big Ten schools to strengthen their nonconference schedules, which runs counter to Minnesota’s recent moves. The Gophers paid $800,000 to get out of a contract to play North Carolina the next two seasons, replacing the Tar Heels with New Mexico State.

Delany told ESPN.com that conference presidents and chancellors also have agreed to stop scheduling FCS opponents.

The Gophers are scheduled to play FCS opponents in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2019.

“We’re shooting for 2016, but we have some contractual issues,” Delany told ESPN.com. He added, “For the most part, [the FCS games] were wins, and in a lot of cases, they weren’t good matchups. They’re good football teams, but it’s hard to compete when you’re 25 scholarships less.”

So there are some scheduling challenges coming for the Gophers in 2016 and beyond. But they are 1-9 in Legends Divisions games over the past two years, having defeated Iowa in 2011 but losing both years to Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern and Nebraska.

The Gophers will play that quintet again this fall, and then, they’ll happily say goodbye to the Legends and hello to the Big Ten West.

 

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

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