Five years ago last week, the landscape of Division I college athletics changed forever. Nebraska announced its intentions to join the Big Ten conference, beginning a domino effect among conferences that lasted for several years and culminating last fall, when the Big Ten welcomed two new members and Louisville joined the ACC. As of right now, the Power 5 conferences are fairly stable, and despite noise that the Big 12 may add a new member or two, nothing has yet to come of these rumors. Now that this recent realignment wave is over, it's time to examine the effect that it's had on Indiana, especially within the context of the B1G.
First, let's take a look at the three teams that have joined the B1G in the past five years, and analyze their effect on the Hoosiers.
Football still dominates in Lincoln, though as was pointed out on this site back in January, there's as much consternation surrounding Nebraska football as there has been around IU basketball in recent years. Regardless, they are still a well-known program with an ardent fanbase that travels well. Nebraska joined the B1G five seasons ago; however, the Hoosiers still have yet to play them in football in this timeframe. Nebraska finally travels to Bloomington in 2016 for football, but five straight years of not playing one conference opponent is a long time. Besides football, the Huskers have had a couple surprise victories in basketball over the Hoosiers, and it would be nice if the B1G ever scheduled Indiana and Nebraska to ever play a regular-season baseball series.
Talk to me when everyone finally does the right thing and establishes the Mellencamp-Springsteen Trophy as the official rivalry trophy between IU and Rutgers. If UConn and UCF can have a trophy, so can we.
Among the new teams, the Terrapins seem to best complement Indiana's strengths in the B1G, even after only one year. Maryland seems to be ahead of the Hoosiers in football right now, but three competitive and entertaining basketball games (plus hard feelings still resonating from 2002) have made the Terrapins an opponent that Hoosiers fans will look forward to seeing Indiana face in the coming years. In addition, Maryland has a strong soccer tradition like the Hoosiers do, the baseball team is up-and-coming, having made the Super Regionals this past year, and its women's hoops team is always a contender under coach Brenda Frese.
Now, let's look at how individual sports have changed for Indiana in the wake of realignment.
After a few years of the much-mocked Leaders and Legends divisions, the B1G has resorted to geographical divisions, splitting up the two Indiana schools in the process. The Hoosiers appear to have pulled the shorter end of the straw, and have joined the East Division, which features Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State. While playing these opponents gives the Hoosiers some good exposure and a tough challenge, and Ohio State winning the inaugural College Football Playoff resulted in a nice payout for all B1G teams, this schedule makes it hard for IU to get over .500 during conference play. And it will just get tougher once Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin become more entrenched in their respective jobs. Even games against other division rivals Maryland and Rutgers both ended in 20-point losses for the Hoosiers last season, whereas perhaps the Hoosiers would have had better luck in divisions that weren't divided geographically.
On the other hand, the expansion to 14 teams, plus the Bucket Game being protected, means that IU will play some traditional opponents much less in future years. I don't think many Hoosiers fans will miss the Wisconsin blowouts, but the large Chicago IU alumni base cannot be thrilled that Indiana will not have played a game in the state of Illinois for four years by the time of their eventual game at Northwestern in 2016.
Oh, and congrats on your victory over IU in football, Rutgers fans - that sure is a lot to brag about. Do it for 26 straight years then maybe we'll talk.
The worst part of conference expansion for basketball is that it has cut down on the frequency of games against rival opponents. For the second time in three seasons, IU will only play Purdue once next year. In fact, with an 18-game conference schedule, the Hoosiers will wind up only playing a home-and-home with 5 of the other 13 conference teams. This creates an unbalanced schedule in what is year in and year out one of the toughest conferences in college. Another sore point is the B1G tournament. In 2017, this tournament will be held in DC, and the next year in Brooklyn. Not only would seeing the Hoosiers play a Thursday afternoon first-round tournament game several hundred miles away from Indiana be a tough ask, but it's also not exactly going to inspire nearby fans to attend either.
As mentioned earlier, bringing Maryland into the fold really gave the B1G a boost this season, but I think fans would be happier overall if the Hoosiers were guaranteed to play Purdue twice a year in a home-and-home.
Bringing Nebraska in gave the conference an excuse to host the B1G baseball tournament at TD Ameritrade Park, the site of the College World Series. And while I have my own misgivings about the park's cavernous size, the tournament brought out excellent fan support last year and it's a good warmup in case teams do make the CWS. Unfortunately, having an entire network dedicated to B1G sports has only done so much, and a lot of the smaller sports still do not get the air time they deserve. A case in point is college baseball, in which the first two days of the B1G tournament were shown on BTN+, and not the main BTN station.
Outside the B1G
One nice aspect of the NCAA realignment is that it benefited in-state rival Butler, and elevated the Bulldogs' status to a fourth major basketball program within the state as a member of the Big East. When the Hoosiers defeated Butler in the Crossroads Classic last season, it was hailed as a marquee win against a major conference opponent, something that would not have been said even in the Brad Stevens heyday.
Despite some misgivings, NCAA realignment and expansion have had a neutral-to-good outcome for the Hoosiers so far. Yes, the unbalanced schedule in basketball is frustrating, but the Hoosiers still play every team in the conference at least once a year, and the B1G is projected to be one of the top conferences in hoops again for 2015-16. And once the B1G adopts a nine-game conference schedule for football in 2016, Indiana will begin to see B1G West football opponents more frequently again.
But the reason why realignment has been good for the Hoosiers is, of course, the money. The revenue from the conference's new television deal projects to give each school almost $45 million by the 2017-18 season. And while it's a shame that the athletes themselves don't see a dang cent of this revenue, the money does help for facilities upgrades, recruiting trips, and generally improving quality of life on campuses. And that money even comes before factoring in revenues from actual athletic events.
Oh yeah, and like it or not, we're stuck with Rutgers. So get used to them.