The day of reckoning for the Legends and Leaders is soon at hand, and with that change will come a new round of divisional realignment as Rutgers and Maryland join the Big Ten in 2014. There's no particularly artful way to split the Big Ten at this point—if there were, it'd have been designated by the conference by now—but it's safe to say that everyone's divisional relationships are, at the very least, up for discussion.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is also considering his school's divisional alignment, and he told ESPN.com recently that he was open to the idea of sharing a division with Michigan. Here's more:
"I kind of lean toward having us in the same division," he said. "But I'm open to keeping it as it is, based on what my colleagues might share."
Smith said he has had informal discussions with Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon about the two teams being in the same division and that both sides were open to the idea. In an email to ESPN.com, Brandon said, "I would certainly not be opposed to being in the same division as OSU if it was in the best interest of our conference. I look forward to the discussion with my colleagues and our conference leadership."
"Going into the meetings, we would be leaning toward being in the same division," Smith said. "But there might be something that comes up in the [AD meetings] that could change our minds."
This is essentially the right mindset for Smith to be in. Geographically, Michigan and Ohio State are close enough that it makes sense for the two schools to be in the same division. Michigan is currently the third-farthest east team in the Big Ten; Ohio State is second. Once Rutgers and Maryland are in the mix, the two schools will be fifth- and fourth-farthest west; out of 14 teams, that's still pretty significant.
Should Ohio State and Michigan be in the same division?
At the same time, Smith correctly recognizes that this is not a deal-breaker in terms of setting up the new Big Ten. If Michigan and Ohio State are in the same division, great; that not only secures the annual game, it frees up each team's protected interdivisional game if the Big Ten still goes that route. But if they're in separate divisions, okay, fine. It hasn't made anything worse in the first two years of the Big Ten, has it?
Now in terms of whether Michigan and Ohio State should be in the same division, ah, here it gets dicey. Remember, geographically it makes good sense. Unfortunately, any reasonable geography also dictates that Ohio State and Penn State share a division—and PSU's sanctions are going to be over sooner than you think.
So if the starting point of one division includes Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, it's awfully difficult to concoct a similarly strong opposing division—and all of a sudden you're not as concerned with geography anymore.
The other interesting aspect of this debate is that while we're talking about Ohio State wanting Michigan in the same division, it's Michigan that would benefit more from not using its protected interdivisional game on this rivalry, if we're talking about an East-West split.
Name a team from the western half of the Big Ten that Michigan might want to keep an annual game with. Well, that's easy; Michigan and Minnesota have the Little Brown Jug trophy game.
All right, now name a rival like that who's west of Lake Michigan for Ohio State. Not so easy. Games against Nebraska and Wisconsin are fun, but they're not steeped in historical importance, and tragically the Ohio State-Northwestern rivalry has just never gotten off the ground. So Ohio State's not gaining much by opening up its protected rivalry game slot.
What might swing this game the most, though, is the fact that Michigan and Ohio State finishing off the regular season (a date that the Big Ten will probably never change) while sharing the division could become sort of a de facto division championship.
At the very least, one would have to expect that most of the time, one of the two teams will be playing for its way into the Big Ten Championship Game, even if the other school is 7-4 going into the game or what have you. And while the importance of both Michigan-Ohio State games thus far in the divisional era of the Big Ten isn't worth minimizing, tacking on a divisional rivalry just gives the game even more oomph.
So yes, it's easy to see why Ohio State would want Michigan in the same division. It just makes sense.