I am reticent to put this post up, because part of me wonders if this is all smoke and no fire. The season-ending Michigan-Ohio State game is the conference’s trademark game, giving us great stretches like The Ten Year War, the slew of mid-90s soulcrushers for Ohio State fans and the 2006 epic showdown. A conference maligned for much of the past 50 years for being the “Big 2, Little 8/9″ was at least able to tout this game as a classic hatefest deserving of a regular season finale. So much of college football has advanced beyond the regular season to include conference championship games cash cows. The Big Ten is now following suit with a divisional format and conference championship game, but common sense dictates that the Ohio State-Michigan series will remain as is. It will follow the Iron Bowl path. Both teams will be in the same division, play at the end of the season with only one of the teams, by design, being able to matriculate to the conference championship game.
It only makes sense, right?
There is serious momentum building to, get this, not only split Ohio State and Michigan into separate divisions, but have them play in October. The idea is to make sure Ohio State and Michigan are eligible to play against each other in a conference championship game. In that event, both teams should play earlier in the season to avoid the “hey, didn’t we just play and beat these guys?” sentiment toward a hypothetical rematch. Michigan’s athletic director mentioned — and is rightly being skewered by Michigan fans for — the following:
When asked if he were making the decision, would he put Michigan and Ohio State in the same conference division, Brandon paused and then answered, “No.” He continued: “We’re in a situation where one of the best things that could happen in my opinion in a given season would be the opportunity to play Ohio State twice, once during the regular season and once for the championship of the Big Ten.”
On the Michigan-Ohio State game, Brandon said: “I think there’s a distinct possibility that that game will be a later game in the season, but not necessarily the last game of the season. And that’s simply because … I don’t think the coaches, or the players, or the fans, or the networks or anyone, would appreciate that matchup to happen twice within the same seven-day period.”
The implications of Dave Brandon’s comments and Ohio State AD Gene Smith’s intentionally vague comments are clear. This is very likely going to happen at this pace and fans are being informed now to brace themselves. I guess the idea is to assuage Ohio State and Michigan fans for what’s coming next, ultimately forgetting that these are the same two fanbases that bitched a storm when SBC wanted to put their name on the game and rebrand it accordingly. We were outraged then, and I think the reaction now will be all the more vehement.
Objections to this possible change come in all directions. It really boggles the mind why this is being seriously considered. Again, I am reticent to put this post up because it is so harebrained that it defies belief.
First, adding Nebraska resolved one of the bigger obstacles to Big Ten expansion. The previous candidates for expansion (Syracuse, Rutgers, and so on) did nothing to rectify the eastern tilt in the conference. Adding Nebraska adds an important “western” dimension to a conference where Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State have been the conference’s heavy hitters. Further, Nebraska’s rich tradition and commitment to the sport would make a strict west/east split in the Big Ten fairly balanced. We can hate the SEC all we want (and we do), but they have a good formula for this: keep it simple, geographical. The Only Colors rightly belabored this fairly obvious point in order to drive it home. To summarize: Delaney emphasized that the Big Ten divisional format will take the following three points into consideration: competitive fairness, rivalries, and geography, and in that order. There are obvious tradeoffs here, but attempting to maximize competitive fairness (while simultaneously broadcasting into an uncertain future) creates significant distortions in the other two categories under consideration. The gains in competitive fairness are marginal at best.
Second, the idea being put forward by the conference’s brass significantly overstates the extra revenue that an Ohio State-Michigan game would garner. This is not an exponential increase in potential ratings. There would be a huge audience for, say, a Michigan-Nebraska Big Ten Championship game or an Ohio State-Iowa Big Ten Championship game. A Big Ten Championship game pitting Ohio State against Michigan would be a huge draw, but not enough to offset the huge damage done to the rivalry by hiding it in the middle of the season. Brian Cook rightly makes this point. Remember: the Big Ten “regular” season is being extended a week into Thanksgiving weekend, when the other big conferences like the Big XII and SEC conclude before their respective conference championship games1. You want your tradition-laden bell cow, your decades-long trademark on TV to compete with whatever game the SEC is pushing on CBS and ESPN. If you’re in the decision-making circle for this inside the Big Ten, I should not have to stress this point to you.
Third, the infatuation with an Ohio State-Michigan conference championship game overpredicts its occurrence. In the past 17 years, it would have occurred no more than five times. You would be losing your signature season finale for something highly unlikely to occur and unlikely to generate as much revenue as imagined. This is no longer the 1970s. Woody and Bo are long gone and the other conference members are not as uncompetitive as they once were.
Fourth, imagine for a moment that the Big Ten elites have something going. Ohio State and Michigan are split into separate divisions, Rich Rodriguez turns Michigan around (bear with me) and the Wolverines become the 50pt a game juggernaut that Michigan fans thought they were getting when they hired Rodriguez from West Virginia. Ohio State continues its dominant ways and the Buckeyes, Wolverines frequently meet in the Barbasol Big Ten Championship Game Sponsored By Ro-Tel ™. Purposely manipulating the new Big Ten to meet this objective is patently inegalitarian and unfair. It assigns a privileged status to these two schools that is unlikely to sit well with programs like Penn State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
I struggle to believe that something so deleterious, odious to the conference’s two largest fanbases would be under serious consideration. It apparently is. Keeping it simple, and preserving the Ohio State-Michigan series while gradually cultivating Iowa-Nebraska out west would make the most of the new Mercedes that the Big Ten got when it added Nebraska and allowed itself to have a conference championship game. I guess we’re pleading with the Big Ten now: don’t be Charlie Sheen; don’t wreck that car off the side of a cliff.
Michigan fans on MGoBlog are already discussing using the new social media like Facebook and Twitter to register discontent with this proposal en masse. I am definitely willing to throw my lot in with them to meet that end.
- This no longer holds for the Big XII, but bear with me. [↩]