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The Big Ten As Game Of Thrones Factions

Slow-moving, overly convoluted, yet somehow fascinating. Am I talking about the Song of Ice and Fire novels or Big Ten football?

Not quite the Iron Throne, but it'll do in a pinch.
Not quite the Iron Throne, but it'll do in a pinch.
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

NOTE: This post is from December 2014, so no Lovie Smith. Illinois would otherwise be House Stark, obviously.


While bored this summer, I wrote a post comparing every Big Ten football team to fast food restaurants. It was ... far more well-received than anticipated. There were a lot of requests, but my favorite one was comparing the fourteen teams to houses from the A Song of Ice and Fire novels/Game of Thrones TV show. I can't remember who originally pitched the idea and I apologize to them. I would not be able to write this post if the lovely ladies of the Vermont Zoo had not introduced me to Game of Thrones two summers back (my first episode was Tyrion's wedding). So Dagmara, Hilary, and Anna: this article is dedicated to you three.

Here is the part where I warn you that this post may be full of SPOILERS. I am writing this as someone who has read all five books and has seen every episode of the show. If you are not fully caught up, THINGS WILL PROBABLY BE SPOILED FOR YOU. READ AT YOUR OWN PERIL.


Illinois- House Greyjoy

I really wish I could compare us to something favorable while writing one of these, but that would be lying. Once upon a time, the Greyjoys were one of the most powerful houses in Westeros. They ruled over the Iron Islands and all of the Riverlands. They were feared and respected everywhere. After King Harren was wiped out though, they turned into the least of the Great Houses. Illinois football claims five National Championships. Two of the greatest college football players of all time played in Champaign. And yet the Illini have not been a truly feared program since the Vietnam War. Both have random moments of brilliance (Balon Greyjoy's Rebellion, Theon's Sack of Winterfell/the 2001 Sugar Bowl team and the 2007 Rose Bowl team), but poor leadership decisions have ultimately stunted their effectiveness. The only thing you can safely expect from either is maddening inconsistency.

Indiana- House Mormont

Bear Island is a small heavily forested island with little to no resources to speak of, making the Mormont's one of the poorer and least valuable noble houses in the North. Indiana is one of the smallest states in the Big Ten and produces very little in-state football talent, starting the Hoosiers behind the eight ball in the Big Ten East. The last competent leader of each unfortunately died early (Jeor Mormont/Terry Hoeppner) and nothing great has happened for either since.

Iowa- House Arryn

Avian-themed weirdos that no one actually likes who rule over fertile farmland? Am I talking about the Arryns or the Hawkeyes? The Arryns aren't as powerful as the other Great Houses, mostly due to a prolonged string of bad luck involving childbirth and premature deaths. Iowa has fallen back towards to middle of the pack lately, with only one 10 win season in the past decade after three straight such seasons. An ineffective leader (Kirk Ferentz/Robert "Sweetrobin" Arryn) has left them in precarious shape and suffering losses to lesser regional foes they should normally have little to no problem defeating (the Mountain Clans/Iowa State, Northern Iowa).

Maryland- House Tully

Never kings of their region, just always kind of there and then given a prime spot at the table mostly due to location and loyalty. Occasionally able to rise up and be worth a damn (siding with Robert Baratheon during his rebellion, marrying into Houses Stark and Arryn/that out of nowhere 31-8 stretch from 2001-2003), but more of a background participant once the real action gets started.

Michigan- House Stark

It doesn't seem like it was that long ago that things were going great for our protagonists. The Starks had been comfortably in charge of the North for as long as anyone could remember. Michigan routinely competed for conference supremacy and were the second to last Big Ten team to win a National Championship. But instead of seizing the throne, they passed due to outdated ideas ("Honor"/"Michigan Man" nonsense) and watched as their rival (the Lannisters/Ohio State) and little brother (Robert Baratheon/Michigan State) left them behind. A series of poor decisions leading to even poorer ones (agreeing to become Hand of the King, trusting Littlefinger, trusting Roose Bolton/hiring Rich Rod, hiring Brady Hoke, having an asshat of an athletic director) have caused both to reach their respective nadirs (house exiled/three bowlless winters in the past seven years). Things are dark right now, but there is always hope it could change (Bran, Rickon, Sansa, and Arya all live/Harbaugh hiring).

Michigan State- House Baratheon

House Baratheon was founded by the Targaryen's as an offshoot way to legitimize a bastard little brother and reward his martial skills and loyalty, making it the youngest of the original Great Houses. After a solid run of dominance in the early 1950s as an independent, Michigan State was invited to join the Big Ten, making it the youngest of the original ten teams (shut up about University of Chicago, no one cares). Formerly paired as the little brother (Robert was Eddard's foster brother/Michigan), as of late the little brother has surpassed the elder in power (the Baratheons are currently the royal family of Westeros/Spartans a top 3 team in the conference and steadily better than the Wolverines). Can they maintain their power despite blows to key leaders (deaths of Robert and Joffrey/Pat Narduzzi leaving for Pitt)?

Minnesota- House Tarly

I can never figure out Minnesota, so this is the weakest connection of the bunch. Sorry Chris. House Tarly is one of the strongest non-Great Houses, loyal to the Tyrells. A house truly on the rise. Led by a balding tactical genius with facial hair (Randyll Tarly/Jerry Kill), somehow stronger than they have any right to be. Might become a major player in the future or might slip back into obscurity.

Nebraska- House Tyrell

House Tyrell has a long and proud history of being one of the richest and strongest houses in the nation and the proud paragons of chivalry. The Cornhuskers have been to 49 bowl games and have won their conference championship 43 times and boast of having the best fans in all of college football. Both have made moves with grand designs towards power (marrying into the Baratheon family and then poisoning the king/jumping ship to the Big Ten), but so far they haven't taken that next step towards total power (still not actually in charge/zero Big Ten Championships).

Northwestern- Maesters

Not technically a house, but a fine enough fit. Where do you go when you come from a wealthy family but they don't really want to keep you around and you aren't strong enough to become a knight or even a sellsword? Oldtown to become a learned Maester. Where do you go when you're wealthy and smart, but not good enough to get offered by Stanford or Vanderbilt? Evanston to spend four years in utter solitude at Northwestern. You're an important part of the nation/conference for sure, but you'll never actually lead anything or have any true power when it's all said and done.

Ohio State- House Lannister

Like the Buckeyes could have been anyone else. The Lannisters have always been one of the most powerful houses in all of Westeros thanks to strong leadership and being stationed on top of veins of gold. Ohio State is located in the heart of the Midwest's strongest state for recruiting and have a long history of brilliant and ruthless head coaches. Both have profited greatly from the downfall of their main rival (House Stark/Michigan) and remain the strongest faction in Westeros/the Big Ten, though nothing is ever promised.

Penn State- House Martell

Dorne was the last of the Seven Kingdoms to officially join Westeros, resisting being conquered for as long as possible before ultimately buying in. Penn State was one of the last great independents, resisting joining a conference for as long as possible before agreeing to join the Big Ten. Both remained happily powerful, unique, and respected until tragedy struck (the murder and violation of Elia Martell and her children/the Sandusky saga and the sanctions that came with it). These incidents left the Dornish/Nittany Lions feeling incredibly aggrieved and angry at the world, though it's yet to be seen if their plans for revenge will come to fruition. Their current leader (Doran Martell/James Franklin is definitely shrewd enough to get them back to glory.

Purdue- The Night's Watch

Blackclad warriors stationed in a barren wasteland and increasingly empty shelters? Check. Cycling through leaders with each one being less successful than the last? Check. Roundly mocked by all their peers and generally believed to be pointless and outdated? It's frightening how similar Purdue and the Night's Watch seem to be. Am I saying that Purdue will save the conference from a terrifying danger that we're all ignoring? No. No I am not.

Rutgers- House Frey

Spineless leadership (Walder Frey/the entire Rutgers Athletic Department) that always acts in its own best interest, drawing ire and disrespect from all others involved. Only relevant and tolerated due to being located in such a crucially valuable place (the Green Fork of the Trident/New Jersey). Seemingly angry at the world and not to be trusted, most hope for their ultimate doom.

Wisconsin- House Bolton

A relatively minor house/football program in the North/Big Ten for decades until a cold-blooded leader (Roose Bolton/Barry Alvarez) with vision stepped up and changed their fate. After overthrowing their former leaders (the Starks/most of the rest of the conference), things have generally been trending up for them. But everything isn't as stable as it appears (Ramsay Bolton is batshit insane/Alvarez can't keep coaches in Madison), so who knows what's coming next.


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