Some die-hard Wolverine fans have argued persuasively that a possible expansion of the Big Ten to include twelve teams and the addition of a conference championship game between the winners of two divisions (similar to SEC and Big 12) would be the death knell to the Michigan-OSU rivalry. I’m not so sure. Their argument goes that Michigan and OSU either will be placed into the same or separate divisions. If they were placed in the same division, never again would they play for the Big Ten Championship.
Decades of history, tradition, and excitement attached to that final game would never be replicated. Alternatively, if they were placed in different divisions, there would be no guarantee that the two teams played each other every year, plus no guarantee that they’d even be playing for a Big Ten Championship.
Now as much as any other fan, I think the atmosphere surrounding “the Game” each November is the best in college football, maybe all of sports. And I think “the Game” has value beyond words, even when both teams aren’t playing for the championship. But I don’t think either scenario under an expanded conference would destroy the rivalry. It would simply change it, and maybe for the better.
To begin with, I think the most likely scenario – for rather obvious reasons – would be to split the two teams into separate divisions. The Big Ten could still preserve the tradition of the game and maintain its importance to the Big Ten Championship by continuing to schedule it every year. This would offer both sets of fans the opportunity to do everything they typically do every year leading up to the big game. Plus, one has to wonder in recent years given Ohio State’s domination of the Game whether there would be more excitement if it were scheduled earlier in the season when both teams are relatively unproven. Of course, there would be no Big Ten Championship on the line, but frankly that hasn’t been the case very often of late with the notable exception of the ridiculously awesome 2006 game.
Either way, if both teams had a very strong year and were in a position to compete for the Big Ten Championship, there is a good chance they’d play each other anyway again later in the year. And THAT game in my opinion would be more hyped and more exciting having had played once already. The only scenario I see this backfiring in is if another Big Ten team in the division of the OSU-Michigan earlybird loser controls the tiebreaker against Michigan. In that case, we’d be left out of a rematch for the championship. But frankly, if we played that same team and lost under our current schedule, they’d control the tiebreaker anyway. Moreover, an earlybird game could definitely play a spoiler role for a team not contending for the title. A mid-season loss would definitely affect the loser team’s chances for a Big Ten title, although it’s clearly not the same excitement if at the end of the year.
One other thing to keep in mind is that the reason the Big Ten Championship has been so important is in part that it guarantees the winner a place in the Rose Bowl. I love that tradition too. But there may be forces beyond our control (see Congress). If the trend or the momentum is to establish a playoffs system, the automatic birth to attend the Rose Bowl is out the window anyway. Big Ten Championships are great (insert favorite Michigan player with rose in mouth), but if it didn’t mean a Rose Bowl birth, I’m not sure it would be the same anyway.
This article can also be read at the Michigan Football Blog: www.michiganfootballblog.blogspot.com.