Why the Big Ten Can't Have a Conference Championship Game

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Why the Big Ten Can't Have a Conference Championship Game

How big of an advantage is it to finish your season later rather than earlier?

Jim Delaney and the rest of the Big Ten asked this question this past offseason and decided it would be to their advantage to extend their regular season by one week, adding a "bye week" to each team's schedule.

In years past, most Big Ten teams would play a 12-game schedule that ended by the third weekend in November.  This year, however, Big Ten teams look to finish their regular season a week later, in compliance with the standards the rest of the BCS Conferences have set.

The last two years have seen Ohio State waiting 50-plus days between the Michigan game and the BCS Title game.  Regardless who you are, being expected to play the best game of your life after not playing a game in over 50 days is not an easy task—and it has showed.

Ohio State's underachieving was not the main reason for the Big Ten's decision, but it was the most publicized side effect of the Big Ten's schedule.

While stretching out the season an extra week is a start, some critics argue it is not enough.  In addition to long layoffs between the regular season finale and the bowl game, Big Ten teams have been vulnerable to being leapfrogged by teams whose only true advantage was that they played into December.

After the epic Ohio State-Michigan game in 2006, Michigan was ranked No. 2 in the rankings (Coaches, AP, and BCS) released immediately following the game.  Having just seen an incredible game between two great teams, the computers and humans agreed Michigan was worthy of the No. 2 spot.

The following week, however, USC leapfrogged Michigan after a convincing win over No. 6 Notre Dame, and there weren't too many complaints.  The general consensus was that USC had truly earned their No. 2 spot.

Unfortunately, USC lost the following week to rival UCLA, and their dreams were limited to the Rose Bowl.  Michigan was sure to reclaim their No. 2 spot, right?

Thanks to a win in the SEC Championship Game and some strategic campaigning by coach Urban Meyer, Florida slipped ahead of Michigan in the final BCS Rankings.

Michigan was quite possibly the second-best team of the regular season in 2006.  What, aside from their late loss to Ohio State, proved most detrimental to their ranking?

The fact that Florida, ranked behind Michigan all year, played two games after Michigan finished their season.

Extending the Big Ten schedule one week does help the problem, but critics are quick to point out that the top teams in the SEC, Big 12, and ACC will still be playing a week more than the top teams in the Big Ten.  The absence of a conference championship is ominously haunting the Big Ten, and some wonder if a conference championship game would be prudent.

Before analyzing this idea, let's identify the logistics of the matter: The Big Ten would have to add one more team.

In order to have a Conference Championship—in which two division winners would face each other—the Big Ten would need two divisions.  Unfortunately, conferences need 12 teams to have such a system.  The Big Ten only has 11 right now.

I'm not going to get into the mess of specifically which team the Big Ten would add (Notre Dame?  Rutgers?  Missouri?  Syracuse?  Kentucky?  That's a bigger issue I don't really want to delve into here), but for the time being, let's just assume they have added a twelfth team, hypothetically.

Now what?  You have to divide the teams.

Before you divide the teams, you have to make sure to keep rivalries intact as much as possible.  More than anything, the Big Ten loves to honor historic rivalries (Minnesota and Wisconsin have College Football's oldest rivalry), so this would be an important factor in determining the two divisions.

Here's a look at each team's two most important rivalries (luckily, Adam Rittenberg just did a feature on these rivalries on his Big Ten blog on ESPN.com, so I credit him with the research of this list):

  •    Illinois: Indiana, Northwestern
  •    Indiana: Illinois, Purdue
  •    Iowa: Minnesota, Wisconsin
  •    Michigan: Michigan State, Ohio State
  •    Michigan State: Michigan, Penn State
  •    Minnesota: Iowa, Wisconsin
  •    Northwestern: Illinois, Purdue
  •    Ohio State: Michigan, Penn State
  •    Penn State: Michigan State, Ohio State
  •    Purdue: Indiana, Northwestern
  •    Wisconsin: Iowa, Minnesota

In keeping these rivalries as intact as possible, here is a possible Divisional scenario for the Big Ten.

Division A

  •    Iowa
  •    Minnesota
  •    Wisconsin
  •    Purdue
  •    Indiana
  •    (Notre Dame/Missouri/Syracuse/Rutgers/etc.)

Division B

  •    Ohio State
  •    Michigan
  •    Penn State
  •    Michigan State
  •    Illinois
  •    Northwestern

Wait a second, that doesn't look right.  Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in the same division?  The strength of these divisions is not equivalent.

The rivalries are there, but it is very feasible to imagine a team (Wisconsin probably, perhaps the new Big Ten team or Iowa) dominating Division A, turning it into Wisconsin-and-the-little-five.  That would be very bad.  So let's bag that method of dividing the teams.

Instead of organizing teams by rivalries, let's group them by geographic location.  Here's a quick look at how that could go.

Big Ten West

  •    Wisconsin
  •    Minnesota
  •    Iowa
  •    Illinois
  •    Northwestern
  •    Purdue

Big Ten East

  •    Indiana
  •    Michigan
  •    Michigan State
  •    Ohio State
  •    Penn State
  •    (Notre Dame/Missouri/Syracuse/Rutgers/etc.)

Yeah, that didn't really work either.  Trading Illinois for the new team and Indiana for Northwestern doesn't change the fact that "Big Ten East" would be much harder to win year in and year out than "Big Ten West."

By now, you may see the best solution to this problem is to get Penn State out of the same division as Michigan and Ohio State.  I agree.  Let's see how that would look.

Big Ten West (+ Penn State)

  • Penn State
  • Wisconsin
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Purdue

Big Ten East (- Penn State)

  •    Indiana
  •    Michigan
  •    Michigan State
  •    Ohio State
  •    Northwestern
  •    (Notre Dame/Missouri/Syracuse/Rutgers/etc.)

This seems to be the most balanced of the three scenarios so far.  There's easily the most parity in this scenario, and the rivalries haven't been completely compromised (except Northwestern).

In no way am I saying this is the best scenario the Big Ten could possibly come up with, but let's just accept this for the time being and move on.

Now that we have two divisions (finally), we can have a Big Ten Championship game, right?  Not so fast, my friends.  Let's remember who we're dealing with.

Ohio State and Michigan have to be in the same division, there's no debate about that (or is there?)—but how happy would the Big Ten loyalists be seeing Ohio State/Wisconsin or Michigan/Penn State in prime time television, fighting over the Big Ten Championship?

Like it or not, Michigan/Ohio State is THE rivalry of a conference filled with rivalries, and for years it has served as its own Conference Championship game.  Part of the magic of the rivalry is the fact that it is always the last game of the season, and adding an extra, "more important" game would devalue the rivalry.

Also, adding a Big Ten Championship game would sacrifice something everyone in the Big Ten has enjoyed seven times over the BCS era: two BCS teams.  Each BCS bid represents millions of dollars for the conference.  Could an extra game sacrifice this?

The Big Ten Conference has extended its regular season by one week, and while it may be unusual for Ohio State and Michigan fans to wait until after Thanksgiving for The Game, this move has been well received throughout the league.  Some, however, wonder if the Big Ten could do more to play even later in the season.

While the idea of a Big Ten Conference Championship game seems pretty appealing, logistically it is not a move the Big Ten should pursue.  The conference only has 11 teams, and in order to have a Conference Championship game, they would need to add a team.  Who would be the 12th team?

After 12 teams are in place, the even stickier situation of dividing the conference begins—a process that could not be done without controversy.  How would you split the conference, managing parity and respecting the longtime rivalries of the conference?

While it would be nice to see teams other than Michigan and Ohio State in the mix for the title, wouldn't adding an additional game devalue the biggest rivalry in the game?

The Conference Championship game would bring money to the Big Ten through sponsorships, but is that money worth the automatic exposure and instant profit a possible extra BCS bid could bring?

Until something drastic changes, there are too many question marks for the Big Ten to seriously consider a Conference Championship game.

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