Fri Jul 02 04:20pm EDT
The day Nebraska was approved as the 12th member of the Big Ten last month, commissioner Jim Delany outlined three factors for splitting the conference into two six-team divisions: a) Competitive fairness, b) Maintaining traditional rivalries, and c) Geography, in that order. In practice, we can boil those criteria down to two specific priorities:
1. Splitting up Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan, easily the most successful programs in the conference over any significant span of time since the mid-sixties, including the 18 years since Penn State began Big Ten play in 1992. They're also responsible for eight straight conference championships/automatic BCS berths and twice as many overall BCS appearances (14 of 21) as the other eight schools combined since 1998.
2. Preserving the prominence of the Ohio State-Michigan game in the regular-season finale.
Those two priorities can easily accommodate one another, along with the Big Ten's other rivalries (Indiana-Purdue, Illinois-Northwestern, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Iowa-Minnesota, Michigan-Michigan State), which figure to have far less impact on the "competitive balance" between divisions in most seasons. The annual Michigan-Ohio State hate-fest has stood as the conference's most bankable national draw for half a century; it has no reason for the new alignment to interfere with that tradition.
It's obvious to me (and not only me) that splitting Michigan and Ohio State into opposite divisions interferes with that tradition: Either the Wolverines and Buckeyes don't play each other every season (obviously, no chance), they move the game up from its position at the end of the schedule (obviously, no chance) or they run the risk of an immediate Buckeye-Wolverine rematch in the Big Ten Championship Game a week or two later. To be fair, not everyone seems to think that's such a bad idea – see CBS Sportsline's Dennis Dodd, who's positively giddy about it:
The key to any lineup, though, is that Ohio State and Michigan play in different divisions. That allows for the possibility of two Buckeyes-Wolverines games in any given season.
Repeat, it's a good thing that the teams could play twice in a season. That game -- The Game -- remains the Big Ten's most important television property. The image came to me during this year's Final Four: An Ohio State-Michigan rematch from the regular season in the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with the winner going to the Rose Bowl.
Think that might generate some interest?
The Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein echoed that sentiment Thursday for the "beauty" of a Michigan-Ohio State rematch. I mean, if the Michigan-Ohio State game is so good, then the prospect of two Michigan-Ohio State games must be even better, right? Who wouldn't want even more of the most hyped rivalry in the country?
I suspect most Michigan and Ohio State fans, for starters. One of the elements that makes the rivalry – or any major rivalry – special is its status as the Michigan-Ohio State game. The winner claims bragging rights for an entire year. (Ohio State fans literally count the days since Michigan's last victory in the series: As of toady, the tally is at 2,414, with another 148 to go until Nov. 27.) For most of the last 40 years, the winner has also claimed the satisfaction of securing the conference championship, or at least of spoiling a dream season for the other. It's always carried a make-or-break atmosphere that usually defines both teams' entire seasons.
The prospect of that year-end battle ever becoming the first Michigan-Ohio State game is a needless blow to that ritual, mainly because a quick-turnaround rematch for the conference championship would negate it. How important can "The Game" really be if the result can be overturned seven days later? This was the logic that animated the opposition to an Ohio State-Michigan rematch in the 2006-07 BCS Championship Game, when the Wolverines held onto a solid claim on the No. 2 spot in the final polls despite losing an epic 1 vs. 2 showdown with the Buckeyes for the Big Ten title. There is no place here for redemption.
The fact is, Michigan-Ohio State is a unique, closely-held tradition that means (or should mean) more to the Big Ten than splitting into divisions or establishing a blockbuster championship game. It's the Big House and the Horseshoe and the Toledo War and mindlessly splashing in the urine-filled waters of Mirror Lake; it most definitely is not a rematch in a new, fully Starbucksified NFL venue with a retractable roof.
Of course there would be interest in a Wolverine-Buckeye rematch in that setting, but not as "The Michigan-Ohio State Game" – there's going to be outsized interest in the Big Ten Championship Game, period, no matter who's playing in it. Outside of its traditional context, Michigan-Ohio State doesn't carry much more value as a prospective championship matchup than a winner-take-all game between Penn State and Ohio State, or Nebraska and Michigan, or Iowa and Wisconsin, or whichever two widely-followed, state-sponsored behemoths happen to win their way into the game in any given year. And whatever extra value it does carry isn't worth the risk of permanently devaluing Michigan-Ohio State in its traditional context at the end of the regular season, where it still carries enormous value that goes beyond a slightly larger television audience a week later. Preserving that value and ensuring a competitive, profitable championship game are both priorities, but there's no reason they should conflict.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.