BEYOND THE SPORTS DESK: Put an end to the division of power in the Northern Sun?

MARSHALL – As we’re approaching another football season in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, there are a lot of questions surrounding the future of the conference.

Many of the current questions surround the uncertainty of Augustana University’s desires to stay at Division II or move up to Division I. It’s been a hot topic on social media for months, and not likely to die down any time soon.

But even if the Vikings choose to stay in the Northern Sun, I think the league should consider making a change. I’m framing this discussion around football, but it could be applied to other sports as well.

I think it’s time for the NSIC to ditch its North and South divisions in favor of a pod scheduling format.

Pods are something that the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) instituted earlier this decade to help with scheduling imbalances. They group together teams for scheduling purposes.

My suggestion would be to have four pods of four teams. In the Southwest pod, Augustana would be joined by the University of Sioux Falls, Wayne State College and Southwest Minnesota State University. The Southeast pod would include Winona State University, Concordia University-St. Paul, Upper Iowa University and Minnesota State University, Mankato. The Northeast pod consists of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State University, Bemidji State University and the University of Minnesota-Crookston. Finally, the Northwest pod would have Northern State University, the University of Mary, Minot State University and Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

In football, these pods could be used to determine the opponents that teams are guaranteed to face every season, much like the divisions currently do. Teams would fill out the rest of the schedule against two of the remaining three pods. In basketball, a school would play the teams in its pod twice every season, with one game apiece against the remaining 12 teams.

One of the things I notice when looking at a map of the NSIC is how stretched the league is. Not only North to South, but East to West, as well. This means keeping divisions isn’t the ideal solution when you might have just as much travel in your division as you have in the opposite division.

For example, two of the three longest conference road trips for UMD are within the NSIC North, going to Minot State (475 miles) and U-Mary (436 miles). The only conference trip longer for the Bulldogs is to Wayne State (509 miles). In football, UMD faces Minot State and U-Mary every season and MSU Mankato (246 miles) every other year.

However, when you look closer, travel within divisions isn’t as bad if the current divisions are split in half, which is what the pods would do. And in many cases, going to the opposite end of the division is somewhat comparable to the travel to the other division.

Using the Mustangs as an example, going to the Eastern half of the North Division (UMD, BSU, SCSU, UMC) is only about 25 miles farther on average than going to the Eastern half of the South Division (WSU, UIU, CSP, MSU).

Additionally, UMD is only just six miles closer to the Western half of the North Division than it is to the Western half of the South.

This all means that schools aren’t saving as much money as they could on the travel budget.

Divisions are supposed to help ease travel for teams, but the current setup doesn’t do that. And maybe more importantly, the talent disparity in the NSIC is heavily slanted to the South.

It has been from the very beginning.

Since the conference expanded to 16 teams in 2012, South football teams are 127-65 (.661) against the North. Take away the North’s lone powerhouse from Duluth, and the South’s advantage climbs to 122-46 (.726). At this point, you can almost always pencil in most NSIC South schools for wins against the North.

For large conferences like the Northern Sun, I think you need clear geographic division separation. The teams in opposite divisions want to be in the same conference, but it doesn’t make sense to be in the same division.

You don’t quite have that in the NSIC, because there isn’t a clear geographic separation between North and South divisions.

As currently constructed, SCSU actually makes more geographic sense in the South. In fact, the Huskies travel an average of almost 60 miles more to other North campuses than they do to campuses in the NSIC South. And three NSIC South campuses (CSP, MSU Mankato, SMSU) are closer to the SCSU campus than the Huskies’ closest in-division opponent, UMD (149 miles).

Simply dropping a struggling UMC program wouldn’t solve the geography problem, either. In a scenario where Augustana leaves for Division I, you’d need to either drop a second school from the South (which is highly unlikely) or add another school in the North in order to create an improved geographic balance.

If Augustana stays in the NSIC long term, this pod scheduling model should be considered. Not only would it improve travel for many schools, but I believe it would also improve the competitive balance of the league.

Earlier, I referenced how one-sided the conference has been on the field. Moving to the pod system probably wouldn’t eliminate the imbalance completely, but it would separate the three football programs that have arguably been the strongest year in and year out. In this model, Sioux Falls and MSU Mankato wouldn’t have to face each other every year while UMD has an easier schedule. USF, MSU Mankato and UMD would each have its own pod.

Conference alignment is a topic that seems to be discussed every season by fans, but nothing has happened because there hasn’t been a suggestion that worked across the board. While this concept isn’t perfect, I believe the Northern Sun should consider it because it would ease the travel budget for many schools while making the NSIC a more competitive league.