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Penn State Football: The Big Ten East is Even More Lopsided Than You Think

by on June 08, 2015 12:30 AM

“Oh, East is East, and West is West,” wrote Kipling, “and never the twain shall meet.”

That’s oh-so-true of the Big Ten Conference – unless you’re counting NFL Draft picks or the annual championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Otherwise, the Big Ten’s football divisional breakdown is, as Joe Paterno often said, “out of whack.”

Utilizing almost every measurable there is, the Big Ten’s East division is far superior to the West – in Big Ten titles, short- and long-term records, Top 3 league finishes, quality of head coaches, quality of recruits and overall home attendance.

And that’s after the Big Ten had the chance to get it right last season. But didn’t. As a result, the conference’s East division has the potential to be one of the top divisions in college football for years to come.

In 2011, with the addition of Nebraska, the Big Ten went from an old-time conventional straight conference/no division arrangement to the six-team-each Leaders and Legends divisions – nomenclature that made even less sense than the NHL’s old Smyth and Adams divisions.

Then, after three seasons with divisions named Leaders (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin) and Legends (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern), the monikers were canned for 2014. Legends became the West and traded Michigan and Michigan State to the East. Leaders became the East; jettisoned Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin to the West; and added newcomers Maryland and Rutgers.

We get that Michigan-Ohio State and Michigan-Michigan State are deep-seeded rivalries, but the East – and Penn State -- still got hosed in the realignment. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, Michigan and Michigan State have combined for 210 wins and a .598 winning percentage in conference play. During the same time, the trio of Wisconsin (109 wins), Purdue (73) and Illinois (55, winning just 31.5% of its Big Ten games) has just 237 wins and a .455 winning percentage.

The result is an East division that is loaded and top-heavy, with Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers. The West is decidedly weaker, with Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin. In some ways, that’s not news. But when taken in totality, examined piece by piece, the discrepancy between the Big Ten’s East and West divisions gets even … well … bigger. Let us count the ways:


You already know about this one, but the national media has been hitting it hard the last two weeks. According to recent rankings by, the East has three of the top seven coaches in college football. Ohio State’s Urban Meyer is No. 1, followed by Mark Dantonio of Michigan State at No. 5 and Jim Harbaugh of Michigan at 7. The Sporting News has that trio in its overall Top 6, with Penn State’s James Franklin at No. 24. TSN had Franklin No. 4 in the conference as well.

The East’s seven head coaches have a cumulative 455-272 record (.626 winning percentage) coaching in FBS conferences, while their counterparts in the West have a 367-331 mark (.526).

And if there’s any question, we point to Meyer’s three national championships; Harbaugh’s 44-19-1 record and Super Bowl appearance with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers; Dantonio’s 93-48 mark at MSU; and Franklin’s amazing renaissance at Vanderbilt, where he took the Commodores to consecutive Top 25 finishes for the first time in school history.


Penn State’s first season playing football in the Big Ten was in 1993. Of the six teams with the best conference records since, four are currently in the East -- No. 1 Ohio State (.798), No. 3 Michigan (.653), No. 5 Penn State (.614) and No. 6 Michigan State (.542). Overall, that translates to a 505-389-2 record (.565) for teams in the East and 482-598-8 (.447) for teams in the West.

Those numbers are over 22 seasons, long enough for programs to overcome sanctions, suspensions, John Smith and Brady Hoke, and short enough that some sort sustained success is necessary. It may be surprising that Penn State ranks fifth in winning percentage for conference play since joining the Big Ten. Ohio State is 140-35-1, Nebraska is 22-10, Michigan is 115-61, Wisconsin is 109-64-3 and Penn State is 108-68. Since the Sandusky scandal broke, beginning with the 2011 Nebraska game, the Nittany Lions have been 13-14 in Big Ten play.


Since 1993, the East has won nine outright conference titles to just four for the West. And when shares of the crown are counted due to ties, the East still holds a 22-14 edge. Ohio State leads with 11, followed by Michigan and Wisconsin with 6 each, and then Penn State, Iowa and Northwestern each holding at least a share of three league crowns over the past 22 seasons.


Here’s where consistency and the ability to be competitive year-in and year-out comes into play. The East has that in spades. A total of 49 times a team from the current East division finished 1, 2 or 3 in the final Big Ten standings. The West has done just half that, with 25. (Overall league won-loss standings, not divisional placement, were used to determine 2011-2014 finishes.)


Robert Rosenthal of wrote a fascinating analysis back in March, in which he looked at the 2012-2015 recruiting classes for all 14 Big Ten teams. He used the 24/7 Composite rankings, with ratings from Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 24/7 to decide which recruits from those four classes were consensus four-stars and five-stars.

As it turns out, over the past four recruiting classes the East has a crushing advantage over the West, with 180 consensus blue-chippers for the East and just 48 for the West. Ohio State and Michigan each have been equal or way better (the Buckeyes) than the entire other division. Here’s a breakdown, courtesy of Rosenthal, and remember -- these are aggregate totals for four separate recruiting classes; numbers include Maryland and Rutgers recruits before the schools joined the Big Ten:

Big Ten East (180) – Ohio State (67), Michigan (48), Penn State (24), Michigan State (16), Maryland (12), Rutgers (8) and Indiana (5).

Big Ten West (48) – Nebraska (22), Wisconsin (10), Northwestern (6), Iowa (4), Illinois (3), Purdue (2) and Minnesota (1).

The following really shows how the West is struggling on the recruiting trail -- here are blue-chip recruits over the past four years in the Power 5, broken down by division: SEC West (314), SEC East (207), Big Ten East (180), Big 12 (151), PAC 12 South (135), ACC Atlantic (115), PAC 12 North (100), ACC Coastal (90) and Big Ten West (48).


Big Ten teams in the East draw nearly 50% more fans to their home games than counterparts in the West. Granted, the stadiums for East teams are much larger, but then again so are their crowds.

Average attendance for an East home game in 2014 was 75,254 fans; average for a West home game was 50,582. Last season, the East had the top three home game averages in the conference – Ohio State (106,296), Michigan (104,909) and Penn State (101,623). The West had the bottom three home game averages -- Illinois (41,549), Northwestern (38,613) and Purdue (35,629). Combined, the last three barely exceed one game in The Horseshoe.


Here’s a puzzler: Even with better coaching, more success, more fan support and much more highly-touted recruits, when it comes to the NFL Draft, the two divisions are almost dead-even. 

Since 1993, teams in the East have had 463 players drafted, while the West has had 457. (Ohio State is tops, with 136, followed by Nebraska, with 108, and Penn State, with 94). The formula holds true over the past five seasons as well. From 2011-2015, teams in the East have had 78 players drafted by the NFL. So have teams in the West. (Ohio State is tops, with 23; Penn State is sixth, with 15).

So, apparently, the only place where the East and West have something in common is in one singular division – the division of professional football labor.


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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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