The Michigan-Ohio State game was always going to be the first casualty in a full scale Big Ten revolution. With the drumbeat of expansion at full bore, it was only a matter of time before the mythical Big Ten Championship Game was conjured into existence, and the rivalry would be forced to change along with it.
Change is a dirty word for a game that has been played every year since 1918, and in the final week of the regular season, all but once since 1935. It has become the bedrock of the Big Ten each November. The entire conference has practically been shaped by Michigan and Ohio State.
For a long time, there were only two possible emotions that could follow its culmination: disappointment or glory. Even wiping the slate clean at the beginning of each season couldn't remove the bitterness of a loss until it was played again.
Cynically, perhaps, fans have already come to expect that the rivalry game would be evicted from its position at the tail end of the season by a Big Ten Championship Game.
It also seemed likely that the Big Ten would bifurcate the two teams into two separate divisions. Otherwise, the conventional wisdom goes, it would be an affront to Michigan and Ohio State, both of which are expected to be chosen as the "captain" of each division to even out the power in the league. However, there is already precedence for placing two major rivals in the same division: both Texas and Oklahoma exist mutually in the Big 12 South.
Although the expectation that the Big Ten would strive for perfect fidelity to tradition has now been relegated to the dust bin, it seems somewhat perverse to think that the rivalry could be relocated entirely to a different part of the schedule. That would fundamentally alter the entire dynamic of the game.
It’s one of those ideas, like the 96 team NCAA tournament, that you hope is quickly forgotten about. Unfortunately, this is the least provocative and divided argument to virtually everybody outside of Big Ten officials. It already sound like Delany is attempting to manage expectations. Once the initial anger has passed, fans will probably have resigned themselves to its inevitability.
On the face of it, there is little good that could come out of this. If the Big Ten is worried about diminishment, then it is hard to see what can diminish the rivalry more than a midseason appointment. There would be little cumulative power to the season if Michigan's fate at the end hinged upon a steady rotation of Illinois or Indiana.
Ohio State is a menacing rival because the team lurks at the punctuation of the schedule every single year. If it is moved, then it would merely exist as a game slotted after Iowa but before Northwestern. This lacks the fatalism that makes the rivalry so memorable.
None of the likely outcomes that could result from an intradivisional matchup seem quite so damaging to the rivalry as a succession of uninteresting games, which is what might happen if it ultimately relocated in the schedule.
Fans have a fear born out of sentiment that college football is falling victim to the bland conformity of corporatism. In a recent article, Dr. Saturday called the move "expanding the brand," which is a phrase so evil that it could only be dreamed up in a boardroom of some marketing department.
However, Dan Wetzel cites a television executive who estimates that a rematch would only fetch an additional $2 million to a game that is already expected to earn $15 to $20 million, so there is a limitation to how much the Big Ten could actually wring out of it. And it is unlikely that a championship game rematch would occur more often than once in every four or five years, even if both teams are dominant at the same time.
On the other hand, the rivalry is strong on its own. Only four years ago, the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup drew nearly 22 million viewers on TV. If the move is predicated upon sheer monetary reasons, then it would appear to be the product of the perverse logic of our time.
Of course, there was never any illusion about whether the Big Ten would attempt to preserve the Michigan and Ohio State "brands" by separating the teams. If it is a marketing decision, then it is one based on historical performance, drawing power, and the fact that Michigan and Ohio State have traditionally been cast in opposite roles from each other. It has never been a very vertical relationship, which is how it would seem if they were placed in the same division. But by separating them, the conference may damage the rivalry game itself.
The Big Ten is in somewhat of a bind. With the launch of the Big Ten Network and outward conference expansion, it is obviously trying to become the most powerful conference in the country. Along with the SEC, it already has far and away the largest monetary footprint. At this point, the Big Ten can practically spin gold.
Yet it doesn't always flaunt its power. The Big Ten only has three of the top 25 highest paid college football coaches, and it still places loyalty at a premium. Penn State could never even bring itself to remove Joe Paterno like Florida State removed Bobby Bowden.
In spite of the modernization, the Big Ten is still a conference predicated upon the past. It is partly defined by a profoundly cantankerous distrust for the methods of other conferences, claiming to uphold values upon which it can pride itself.
Much of this is manifest in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. Perhaps there is a lot that can be salvaged from a change to one of the oldest and most intractable traditions still left standing, but it would still be a mistake.