When the announcement was made in June that Nebraska would be joining the Big Ten for the 2011 season, everyone's attention immediately turned toward how the divisions would be split. When asked at the time, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany insisted that Big Ten divisions would be determined through the following criteria.
1. Competitive balance
2. Protecting traditional rivalries
Now, somewhere in the process of this information getting from Jim Delany's lips through the ears and eyes of Michigan and Ohio State fans and into their tiny brains where they had to process this, they heard the following.
1. Michigan and Ohio State will still play every year
2. Michigan and Ohio State will still play on the last week of the regular season.
3. Michigan and Ohio State will get to be in the same division so they don't have to play a rematch in the Big Ten championship game.
4. Everything else be damned, and if that means shipping Penn State out west to maintain competitive balance, so be it.
For two months everybody operated under the assumption that all of this was a given. Everybody assumed that the entire conference would bend over backwards to the wishes and demands of Michigan and Ohio State. But this isn't your grand daddy's Big Ten anymore. The days are gone where whatever was good for the big two was good for the little eight as well. Now there are two other national powers sitting at the table with just as money and just as much influence. And the explosion of revenue from the Big Ten Network has created a business venture where everyone is considered an equal partner. Suddenly, the Buckeye's and Wolverines see their iron grip rusting away, and it scares them to death.
But believe it or not, I'm not here to gloat about it. My interest is what's good for the Big Ten first, and what's good for Penn State second. I understand the 75 year tradition of The Game and all that it means to the fans of those schools. Traditions are hard to give up, but sometimes it is necessary to do so. This is coming from a fan whose school took a major leap of faith to join the Big Ten nearly 20 years ago. But then, they also wear the same uniforms they have worn since the Hoover administration, so I digress.
If you've ever read the book Who Moved My Cheese, you know it's a story about two mice whose enormous pile of cheese one day runs out. One mouse decides to sit and wait for his cheese to come back, while the other mouse gets tired of waiting and one day decides he's going to venture out to look for new cheese. He wanders through the maze for a long time, he hits some dead ends along the way, and he finds some rooms where it looks like there used to be cheese but it had been gone for a long time. Then finally he stumbles across a room full of the greatest cheeses he has ever seen, and he lives happily ever after while his buddy sticks around in the old room still waiting for his cheese to come back.
The moral of the story is, you can't sit around waiting for things to come back. The Old Big Ten is gone. Simply by adding a Big Ten championship game, the importance of Michigan-Ohio State regular season game is diminished. It will no longer determine the conference champion every year like it did 30 years ago. Frankly, I think this is sad. I want to see the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry mean something. I want to see them play when something is on the line. Playing for a division championship is okay, but who is going to hang a banner in the stadium that says "Eastern Division Champions"?
The answer is nobody. Well, okay, Indiana probably would. I wouldn't put it past Purdue either. But Michigan and Ohio State would definitely not, and they should not.
For my money, I want to see Michigan and Ohio State playing each other when all of the chips are on the table in the Big Ten Championship game (When Penn State is going through one of their rare rebuilding years, of course.) Admittedly, this may only happen once or twice per decade, but what a game for the ages that would be. And what if Michigan returned to their usual self and the two schools had a stretch where they met three or four times in a row? We're talking college football armageddon here, folks.
Would the regular season game be diminished if they played it in October? Hardly. They still hate each other. The fans would still get up for the game. Could you imagine the post game handshakes accompanied with "See you in December"? The drive to finish out the season strong to gain retribution for the wrongs of October? Do you think Michigan players wouldn't show up to practice on Monday foaming at the mouth and busting their asses to win the division so they could get even for a loss in October? Do you think Ohio State players wouldn't do the same?
Would the second game be a letdown after the two teams had already met in the regular season? I don't think so. The revenge factor would be huge, and imagine if the first game was a close one with a controversial ending and heated comments afterward. You could put the SEC and Big XII championship games up directly against it on television, and Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten Championship is going to win in the ratings every single time. I don't care who else is playing. It is the game everyone in America wants to see. And Buckeye and Wolverine fans seriously want to give that up just so they can kick off at noon on ESPN's made up marketing ploy they call "Rivalry Week"?
Please. If you really want to kill the rivalry, put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division and let them play at noon in November. If you want to take the rivalry to the next level, separate them so we all get the game we really want to see.