Gophers football OK if Big Ten drops divisions if rivalry games remain – Twin Cities

The Big Ten may stop splitting football programs into two divisions, according to an NCAA rule change Wednesday, and the Gophers are fine with it if one thing stays in a new setup.

“Whatever we end up doing, I just hope we protect those rivalries because that’s a big part of who we are and what we’re about,” University of Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle told ESPN quoted at the Big Ten meetings this week.

The feeling within the Gophers football program is that this change is inevitable and they too would like the powerful rivalries to remain intact, Pioneer Press has learned.

For Minnesota, of course, that starts with the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Ax with Wisconsin and the Battle for Floyd of Rosedale with Iowa. Gophers-Badgers is the most-played rivalry in FBS at 131 games since 1890, and both schools have lobbied for it to be postponed in 2020 during the disrupted COVID-19 season. Gophers-Hawkeyes have played 115 times since 1891.

The U also has a long-standing rivalry trophy, the Little Brown Jug, with Michigan and a more recent one, the Governor’s Victory Bell, with Penn State. The history of the pitcher goes back to 1903, but the bell only to 1993.

Don’t expect all 14 Big Ten teams to be lumped together for the 2022 season while changes are afoot.

The NCAA said this week’s conferences can now select the two teams for their championship game in any way they see fit. The Pac-12 moved quickly on Wednesday with a prompt announcement that its title game will feature the two teams with the best records.

An ACC model appears to be something the Gophers and their involvement in rivalries could get behind them. The 14-team ACC discusses a 3-5-5 format in which a school plays three designated rivals each year and then rotates between the other 10 teams. “School A” played five teams one season and the other five the next year.

Under the 3-5-5 format, the Gophers’ rivalry games against Wisconsin and Iowa would be shoe-ins, but the third would be harder to decide. Michigan makes historical sense, but facing the Wolverines every year would be an ongoing, difficult challenge.

Two other ideas would be Purdue, where there has recently been a falling out between head coaches PJ Fleck and Jeff Brohm, or Nebraska, where fans have been showing up and working to create their own rivalry trophy.

The Big Ten went into divisions in 2011 with the Legends and Leaders setup. The names were not well received and were eventually scuttled and replaced with the current east-west setup when Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference in 2014.

The Gophers have never won a division championship, finishing second in 2021, 2019 and 2014. Wisconsin leads the west with four Big Ten title game appearances, followed by two each for Iowa and Northwestern.

The West Champion has also never beaten the East Champion in the Big Ten title game, going 0-8 and often suffering blowouts.

SB Nation took a look at how the conference title game would have looked since 2014 if there had been no divisions and the top two teams had progressed, factoring in tiebreaks. A second Eastern team would have replaced the Western representative in three of the eight games in that span. That means there would have been an alternate history in 37 percent of Big Ten title games since 2014, including last year when Ohio State would have theoretically replaced Iowa and had a rematch with Michigan.

Since taking over the Gophers program in 2017, Fleck is 15-14 in games against West teams and 6-8 against East teams. Here is his record against each team:

Indiana: 2-0
Pennsylvania: 1-0
Rueger: 1-0
Purdue: 4-1
Nebraska: 4-1
Illinois 3-2
Northwest: 2-2
Wisconsin: 2-3
Maryland: 2-3
Michigan State: 0-1
Michigan: 0-2
Ohio State: 0-2
Iowa: 0-5

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