CHICAGO — The Legends and Leaders divisions are history, no longer fuel for mockery of the Big Ten.
With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten has switched to divisions based on geography. Such a change makes sense, but it also presents a major challenge for teams in the East.
Ohio State and Michigan State are regarded as the top teams in the conference, with Michigan and Penn State having their issues but still among the most tradition-rich in college football.
Whoever emerges from the East will have earned it. Contrast that to some of the top contenders in the West. Wisconsin and Iowa can traipse through the conference schedule not having to play Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan or Michigan State.
“It’s going to be a high-intensity division,” Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner said when Ohio State and Michigan State were mentioned, “because not only are they our biggest rivals, but now those games will (determine) whether we’ll be able to go to the Big Ten championship and complete our goals that we have every year.”
Michigan State handed Ohio State its first loss under coach Urban Meyer in the Big Ten championship game last year and then beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Yet in a media poll conducted last week by Cleveland.com, the Buckeyes were the clear favorite in the Big Ten this year.
Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, an Ohio native, didn’t dodge the question when asked whether Michigan State should be considered the favorite.
“Yeah,” he said. “If you look at last year, we beat them and won the Rose Bowl. But it’s not how it is. It’s stuff we can’t control. The only thing we’re focusing on is what we can control, and that’s playing football and winning each and every Saturday.”
Michigan State shed its tag as an enigma with last year’s championship, and Spartans coach Mark Dantonio believes last year’s success should have residual benefits.
“When you’ve tasted success and found you can do it — you swam across the river and found you could get to the other side — you have a better chance of getting there again, and I think that’s where we’re at,” he said.
But he also remembers a frustrating 2012 season in which the Spartans lost a number of close games. He also knows that opponents will be gunning for them.
“I think we’re a little bit more of the hunted,” he said. “That’s a good place to be, but it’s also a very precarious place to be.”
Penn State and Michigan are used to that bull’s-eye, but both have slipped in recent years. The Nittany Lions are still dealing with sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, although brash new coach James Franklin and promising sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg have them feeling optimistic.
The Wolverines’ record has regressed each of the two years since coach Brady Hoke went 11-2 in his debut season. This is considered a make-or-break year for him after a 7-6 record in 2013.
“My job is to make sure he’s not on the hot seat,” Gardner said. “So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make sure we win football games.”
It won’t be easy. The Wolverines play at Ohio State and Michigan State, in addition to an early trip to South Bend, Ind., to play Notre Dame for the final time before that rivalry ends.
It will be the second straight season in which Michigan travels to East Lansing. Hoke won’t use that, or the East’s general strength, as a potential rationalization if things don’t go well.
“We’re going back to East Lansing, two years in a row,” he said. “So what? What division? Who cares? You’re going to play 12 football games, right? When those (realignment) decisions are made, embrace it. If not, you’re going to make excuses, and we, rightfully, don’t believe in excuses.”