There are a few things that need to be established before we get to the nitty-gritty:
1. Jim Delany -- and everyone else who matters -- has repeatedly emphasized that competitive balance and long-standing rivalries will be prioritized over geography.
2. Unfortunately for Delany, pretty much every real rivalry in the Big Ten is based primarily on geography. Think about it.
3. Michigan and Ohio State will be in the same division. There's no way the best rivalry in college football is getting split up -- Delany and Michigan AD Dave Brandon have basically said as much. Nobody wants to see what's traditionally the conference's biggest game of the year replayed a week later. Not gonna happen. I will immediately laugh at and ignore any proposal that separates UM and OSU.
4. The Wisconsin-Iowa-Minnesota triumverate will also remain intact. There's no good reason to split them up and eliminate one or more of the Big Ten's most intense rivalries.
5. There are four traditionally elite programs: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska (in no particular order).
6. A hypothetical North-South alignment wouldn't work. Not only would you be separating Michigan and Ohio State, you'd be separating Nebraska from all three of its geographic rivals and creating an embarrassingly weak divisional grouping of Illinois/Northwestern/Indiana/Purdue. You'd lose a ton of rivalry games and end up with illogical divisions that are no better than the ACC's (quick, name which teams are in the Atlantic Division and which are in the Coastal). East-West is the only way to go.
OK, so ... there are two similar proposals that fit all of these requirements. The first:
Obvious problem: Three of the four strongest teams are in the same division.
Wisconsin and Iowa will probably be better than Michigan and Penn State this year, but the important thing to remember is that we're talking about permanent, long-term divisions. Kansas State was awesome back in the late 1990s, too, and Oklahoma and Texas sucked. But if anything's been established in the last few years (with the resurgence of Alabama, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, etc.), it's that the cream will always rise to the top. Michigan will be very good again, probably soon. And for schools in geographically isolated areas or with limited resources (like K-State), it's really hard to maintain consistent success. It's extremely likely that 20 years from now -- and for most of the time in between -- the top four in the Big Ten will still be Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska.
My first instinct when looking at this proposal was that it'd be fine despite its one obvious flaw. Having three of the top four in the East makes it pretty top-heavy, but Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin have all been consistently good (except for a few outliers) for the past decade. It's not like the West would be bad. And, just as importantly, every meaningful rivalry is preserved.
But consider this: No school other than Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State has won an outright conference title since 2001, and it's only happened three times since Penn State joined the Big Ten in '94. Those three represent a clear top tier. The whole point of having a conference championship game is to have a conference championship game, not a BCS tune-up like we've seen for Texas or Oklahoma in the Big 12.
While all three schools in the West are consistently good (sometimes better for Nebraska), it's asking a lot to assume that either Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska will be elite every year and provide an opponent at the approximate level of the Ohio State-Michigan-Penn State winner. In other words, it's a lot more important to put two of the conference's best teams in the championship game than it is to have divisions that are hypothetically balanced in terms of average winning percentage or some other statistical measure.
The more I've thought about it, the more I've decided that there's no reason NOT to shift Penn State to the West and balance out the four traditionally elite programs. Penn State is the only school in the conference that doesn't have a geographical or historical rival -- mostly because they've only been in the Big Ten for 16 years and Pitt's in the Big East -- but if you asked PSU fans who their biggest rivals are, they'd probably say Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa, just because those are the teams Penn State usually plays with the most on the line. Their rivalries are purely competitive ones. There's no hatred, no sense of attachment or history.
If you wanna talk about history, consider that a recent Nebraska-centric post on Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries has already generated 200-some comments on the 1994 national title vote. I agree with the writer's assessment that PSU-Nebraska isn't a rivalry just because of 1994, but it doesn't hurt. There's something to be said for having a pissed-off fan base. And what really matters is that the two would regularly be competing for division titles, which is exactly what makes Penn State's games against Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa so important.
That leads us to our second proposal:
Better, yes? The East's top pair (Michigan and Ohio State) is traditionally a tiny bit stronger than the West's (Nebraska and Penn State), but the West's second tier (Wisconsin and Iowa) will more consistently compete for division titles than the East's (Michigan State, Purdue and Northwestern). This arrangement does require the Illinois-Northwestern "rivalry" to be split up, but I doubt anyone outside the state lines will lose any sleep.
Probably the best-case scenario in terms of pure balance would be splitting up Iowa and Wisconsin, but that just can't happen. Even if there's some sort of protected cross-divisional rivalry game, those two schools are rivals with each other AND Minnesota AND would be geographic rivals with Nebraska, so somebody would be seriously losing out and would probably throw a shitfit.
As far as I can see, this is the best we're gonna get. We keep every rivalry intact except Illinois-Northwestern (which would still be played at least two out of every four years) and ensure that each division will almost always have a team worthy of playing in the conference championship game.
All that said, I won't be surprised if Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State end up stuck in the same division when the music stops (the decision will be made in August). That'd be the easy/lazy way to do it. But based on Delany's insistence that competitive balance will be key, my prediction is that we get Michigan-Ohio State in one division and Penn State-Nebraska in the other.
The other issue still to be determined is whether there will be eight conference games (as has been the case forever) or nine, which would allow more intraconference play and cut down on games against the New Hampshire Culinary Institute. Nine would be better on almost every level ... except for the whole money thing. More crappy opponents = more money and a better shot at bowl eligibility (which in turn means more money). There will probably be some school presidents and athletic directors who are FOR SERIOUS against losing any wins and/or revenue.
Assuming that the money argument wins and that we're stuck with eight conference games, that means five divisional games and three nondivisional games. I'm still hoping that one of those three nondivisional games will be locked in as an annual crossover rivalry for each team (such as Illinois-Northwestern, Michigan-Minnesota and maybe Michigan State-Penn State), but that'd be a bitch mathematically. The two free nondivisional spots on each team's schedule would then rotate between five schools; I don't have any idea how that would work.
Realistically, it'll probably be an eight-game conference schedule with the three nondivisional games for each team rotating every two years. Michigan would play (just hypothetically) Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota for two years -- home and away with each -- and then Illinois, Wisconsin and Penn State for two years. No team would ever go more than two years without playing any other team. Hard to complain about that (even if you're Illinois or Northwestern).
But a nine-game schedule would be even better: With four nondivisional openings and only six nondivisional opponents, each series would be "on" for four years and "off" for two. Every team would play every other team in four out of every six seasons. At that point, protected rivalry games wouldn't even be necessary. Sign me up.
For the record, there's at least some support for the nine-game schedule. ESPN blogger Adam Rittenberg talked to five athletic directors who seemed to be on board, and it only takes nine votes to pass a bylaw in the Big Ten. So if you'd like to sign my petition ... yeah, that'd be awesome. I'm just not sure there's enough support, especially when you consider that at least a few Big Ten teams already have their 2011 nonconference schedules filled. I don't think anybody wants to pay Directional State University a $200,000 cancellation fee and then fill that spot with a conference road game.
If it happens, great. If it doesn't, I have no issues -- as long as the divisions are balanced and preserve all the major rivalries. Like I said earlier, I won't be shocked or devastated if Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State end up clumped together in the Division of Death, but my hope is that Delany and the rest of the decision-makers are smart enough to look at the Big 12 and realize that having a conference championship game won't mean much if two of the three best teams are sitting at home.