Penn State Football

How James Franklin and Jim Delany differ on a key playoff-deciding topic

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions clearly have the respect of ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.
James Franklin and the Nittany Lions clearly have the respect of ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit. Centre Daily Times, file

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was clear as can be Monday morning: The conference’s divisional format will not change any time soon. And Penn State coach James Franklin isn’t exactly happy to hear that.

Approaching the Big Ten’s fifth season in the East-West model, there remains a stark competitive imbalance between the two divisions. The East has won all four league championships and features a quartet of playoff-contending programs in Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. The West has Wisconsin, an intriguing Nebraska under Scott Frost, stable Iowa and that’s about it.

Big Ten West teams have reached three New Year’s Six bowls since the divisions were created. The East had three representatives — the Nittany Lions, Buckeyes and Wolverines — in 2016 alone and boasts 10 appearances in all.

But Delany cited the SEC as a predecessor, noting that the East was dominant for a period before the West — with Alabama, Auburn and LSU — took over. The commissioner doesn’t think four years in the Big Ten East-West era is “a long enough window” to determine that there is an unchangeable lopsidedness.

“The first (division) was based on competitive balance over the last 20 years. And to be honest with you, it wasn’t received that well,” the commissioner said of the Legends and Leaders setup, which was used from 2011-13. “The identification by fans, their desire to play geographic rivals and to really fully sort of reinforce the historical rivalries at the end of the day was more important than trying to achieve in any particular timeframe competitive equality.”

Penn State football coach James Franklin reacts to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's suggested pregame player availability reports during the Big Ten football media days.

The counterpoint there is, fans also want to see their teams reach the College Football Playoff. And with the Nittany Lions, Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines beating each other up, followed by a conference title game, it’s almost impossible to navigate the Big Ten East slate with one loss or fewer.

At least, that’s how Franklin sees it. The coach said with Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — teams with a combined record of 41-13 last season — vying for not just conference dominance, but a national title, the Big Ten East is “always going to be in the argument as the toughest division in all of college football.”

“You look at the way things are trending, you look at how those teams are playing, you look at how those teams are coached, you look at the coaching staff at those schools, you look at how those schools are recruiting, this is just going to continue to get stronger and stronger,” Franklin said Monday. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily ideal. I don’t know if it’s in the conference’s best interest or if it’s in the individual teams’ best interest. But that’s how it is.”

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who coached in the SEC East with Florida for six seasons, piggybacked Franklin on Tuesday.

“The competitive level at the Big Ten Conference right now is as strong as I’ve ever been in any conference,” the three-time national champion said. “Speaking in particular about the Big Ten East — once again, I can just give you my historical perspective of the different conferences I’ve worked in — it’s the most competitive division that I’ve ever been a part of.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. The Big Ten could realign divisions again based on something other than rivalry games and geography. It could totally do away with divisions and take the top two teams and pit them against each other in the conference championship.

Now, if the playoffs were expanded to eight teams — which Frost and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh advocated for on Monday — there would be less talk about the Big Ten East pitfalls. The conference wouldn’t have been left out last year. Penn State — the conference champion — would have made it in 2016.

But Franklin isn’t calling for an expanded playoff. In his words, he’s not “pounding the table looking for changes.”

“But when you’re looking at the playoffs and looking at a nine-game schedule, you have to say, are we built to give the Big Ten the best chance to win a national championship?” Franklin asked. “Does this current model give us the best chance to do that?”

With an unbalanced power struggle in the Big Ten East, the answer is likely no. Even though Delany may beg to differ.