- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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There’s no denying a gap exists between the Big Ten’s East Division and the West, and it doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
Compare the recruiting territories, the money or the tradition and it comes up the B1G East every time. Those things aren’t exactly cyclical. Sure, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, along with several of the East's top QBs, won’t play beyond 2015. And part of the beauty of college football is how the rosters change every year.
But those three characteristics are a lot harder to alter than the depth chart. Poorer athletic departments don’t become rich overnight. The state of Iowa, which has produced three ESPN 300 recruits in five years, isn’t going to produce Texas-sized numbers anytime soon. And the likes of Illinois and Northwestern, which haven’t experienced simultaneous winning B1G records since 1971, aren’t going to experience the sustained success of most of the East … well, maybe ever.
Any way you look at it, the West is trailing by a significant margin. And it won't be easy to catch up. Here’s why:
The disparity between the divisions could arguably start and end right here.
Since 2010, teams currently in the East have found themselves ranked within ESPN’s top-25 recruiting classes a total of 19 times. Five different East teams have made the cut at one time or another. Over in the West? Only Nebraska has earned a spot in the top 25 – and that was for three seasons (2011, 2013, 2016).
That’s not to say teams such as Wisconsin and Minnesota can’t recruit well, or that ESPN's recruiting rankings are the be-all, end-all of future projections. But there's an obvious correlation between top classes and winning.
The teams that boasted ESPN's top 10 recruiting classes in 2011 were all ranked at some point in 2014, when those recruits were redshirt juniors or seniors. All but Texas at least received votes in the final Associated Press' Top 25 poll.
That means the West is at an inherent disadvantage in this department -- and that's likely because its teams are in much less fertile recruiting territory than the East. Compare the East states to the West, and that becomes clear. (And let's forget about the state of Indiana since both divisions are represented there in the Purdue Boilermakers and Indiana Hoosiers.)
In the remaining East states, there are at least eight ESPN 300 prospects in each state – Maryland (nine), Michigan (eight), New Jersey (eight), Ohio (10), Pennsylvania (eight). Over in the West? The five remaining states combine for just five such recruits.
Like it or not, there’s clearly a link between money and winning.
In 2013, the last year ESPN has financial data available, it was no coincidence that 10 of the nation’s 11 highest-earning athletic departments found their football teams ranked at some point in the 2013 season. (Tennessee was the lone exception.)
The problem with the East-West is that there is also quite a difference in money-earning power. On average, in 2013, an East athletic program made about 6.7 percent more than a West program. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot on the surface, but that’s likely a conservative difference – considering Wisconsin’s income spiked about $46 million that year, thanks to roughly a $40M increase in fundraising, while Maryland and Rutgers were still on the outside looking in at the B1G.
Even if we look at the most profitable B1G programs from 2008-2013, four out of five are from the East. Nearly the same holds true if we look just at what the athletic programs spent, from 2008-2013, as four of the top six teams came from the East.
When all else fails, just take a look at the historical precedent set by the East teams.
Over the last 25 years, only one team from the West – Nebraska – is among the B1G’s four winningest programs. If you just look at the B1G’s five all-time winningest programs, the number grows to four coming from the East. The West just doesn’t seem to have an advantage anywhere in this department.
Even what’s perceived as the East’s bottom three teams (Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland) has been in just as many bowls since 2011 as the West’s bottom three (Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue). And, sure, Maryland and Rutgers might have had an easier path when they were in another conference – but they both at least landed in bowls last season and, with facility improvements on the horizon, are on the rise.
So any way you look at it here – recruiting, money, tradition – the East has the advantage. Now, that doesn’t mean Wisconsin and Nebraska are doomed and the East is going to triumph every year. The Badgers and Huskers both have a lot going for them. But they’re forced to overcome some obstacles – such as recruiting – that the East just doesn’t have to deal with.
As a whole, the East is the stronger division. And thanks to variables that the West can’t control, it sure looks to be that way more often than not.