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Gophers football OK with Big Ten ditching divisions if rivalry games remain

The NCAA said this week conferences can now select the two teams for their championship game in any way they see fit

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Minnesota Gophers players rush to celebrate with the Paul Bunyan trophy after their victory against the Wisconsin Badgers Nov. 27, 2021, at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Harrison Barden / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — The Big Ten can stop dividing football programs into two divisions, according to an NCAA rules change Wednesday, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers are OK with that, if one thing remains 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 was quoted by ESPN at Big Ten meetings this week.

The sentiment within the Gophers football program is this change is inevitable, and they, too, want the powerful rivalry games to stay intact, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has learned.

For Minnesota, of course, that starts with the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe 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 politicked for it to be rescheduled during the disrupted COVID-19 season in 2020. Gophers-Hawkeyes have played 115 times since 1891.

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

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While change is afoot, don’t expect all 14 Big Ten teams to be lumped together for the 2022 season.

The NCAA said this week conferences can now select the two teams for their championship game in any way they see fit. The Pac-12 moved quickly 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 commitment to rivalries, could get behind. The 14-team ACC has been discussing a 3-5-5 format that would have a school play three specific rivals every year and then alternate between the other 10 teams. “School A” would play five teams one season, and the other five the next year.

Under the 3-5-5 format, the Gophers’ rivalry games vs. Wisconsin and Iowa would be shoe-ins, but the third one would be more difficult to decide. Michigan makes sense historically, but facing the Wolverines each year would be a constant, uphill challenge.

Two other ideas would be Purdue, where there has been recent beef between head coaches P.J. Fleck and Jeff Brohm, or Nebraska, where fans have come up and worked to instill their own rivalry trophy.

The Big Ten went to divisions in 2011, with the “Legends” and “Leaders” setup. The names were not well received and eventually were 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 runner-up in 2021, 2019 and 2014. Wisconsin leads the West with four Big Ten title game appearances, followed by two apiece for Iowa and Northwestern.

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

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SB Nation looked at what the conference title game would have looked like since 2014, if there were no divisions and the best two teams advanced, considering tiebreakers. Three of the eight games in that span would have had a second East team replace the West’s representative. That means there would have been an alternative history in 37 percent of Big Ten title games since 2014, including last year when, theoretically, Ohio State would have replaced Iowa and had a rematch with Michigan.

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

Indiana: 2-0
Penn State: 1-0
Rutgers: 1-0
Purdue: 4-1
Nebraska:4-1
Illinois 3-2
Northwestern: 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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