Though we don't know for certain if the Big Ten will stop at 12 or add two to four more teams to the fold, we can be fairly confident that a championship game will be in place by 2011 when Nebraska begins league play. When Jim Delany publicly admits to presuming something, that something is on its way. This is the second in at least a two-part series examining the considerations and consequences of creating a football championship game in the Big Ten. Previously: Potential Venues.
The goal: Create a conference championship that keeps the conference in the national spotlight, is a television juggernaut, and prepares the winner (and to some degree the loser) for a successful bowl showing. Oh, and make tons of money. The SEC, with its huge ratings, 12-6 bowl record out of the winner, and ascension to the college football mountain has achieved this. The ACC, with half-empty stadiums and and often lousy matchups, has not. So, how do we get to the former?
This is obviously the most critical issue to iron out and thousands of gallons of hypertext have already been spilled articulating the proper direction the conference should take. In so many words, Delany has given us two clues: some rivalries are more important than others (Ohio State-Michigan will be taken care of; Michigan State-Penn State, maybe not) and geography, while a concern, will not override other, more logical considerations.
If you split the conference on geography, you're looking at an "Eastern" and a "Western" conference split at the at the border between Indiana and Illinois. This works out almost too neatly. The Western division is fertile ground for nouveau rivalries, the Buckeyes would be free of a dreaded rematch with the Wolverines, and the states of Indiana and Michigan keep their in-state rivalries. Further, athletic department travel costs are kept down and fans have road trips that do not require an extra a day off of work in most cases (especially in the Eastern division).
The problem with this setup is you now have the three traditional conference powers, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State, in the same division (see the old Big 12 South). This is bad for a host of reasons (the fear of having lopsided games) and almost certainly a situation the Big Ten will not allow. So, the solution would seem simple: move one of the three to the other division. It can't be Ohio State or Michigan, for the previously mentioned fear of seeing the teams play two games in a row to end the season. Michigan State is a possibility, but Little Brother has a pretty esteemed rivalry of its own with the Wolverines and similar considerations must be given to that. That leaves Penn State.
Using Sagarin data from the The Only Colors, MGoBlog points out that we have a 30% chance of getting a better championship game in the last decade if Penn State is shipped west. The move wouldn't be easy. Penn State's travel will double, causing more missed classes for athletes, painful road trips for fans, increased operating costs for the athletic department, and most importantly, fuel for the persecution complex that floats in the heads of all Penn State fans.
THE NEW HAWTNESS
However you slice it, someone from the eastern edge of the Big Ten is not going to be happy. However, Brian does point out an interesting option:
If you want to go straight geography for non-revenue sports, fine by me, but in football I think the Big Ten will align things in a a way likely to avoid the Big 12 problem, and putting Michigan/Ohio State opposite Nebraska/Wisconsin/Iowa/Penn State is the most likely way to get sexy championship games.
Would the Big Ten dare to get creative like that? You could even throw all 12 teams into a single division for revenue sports outside of football. Basketball, baseball, wrestling and every other sport settles its championship with a postseason tournament or meet in which invitations go out to all teams.
The SEC has had tremendous luck, seeing only five rematches of regular season games in the 18 years they've held a conference championship. Last year, the Gators and Tide met for the first time in the SEC Championship Game. This year, they'll meet in the regular season. It's the type of luck that has given Northwestern shares of the conference title when Ohio State rotated off the schedule and is more common than you'd think.
I believe the Big Ten will likely stick with an eight-game conference schedule, meaning teams will play the five teams within their own division as well as three teams from the other side. Tossing out quality and treating the teams in the league as 12 equal units, the chance of a team meeting another team twice in the same season is about 8% 50%. Creative scheduling by the league office can obviously drive this down, but likely won't be employed.
In the rare occasion that a rematch does occur, I think most Buckeye fans would be able to live with it, so long as it's not a rematch with the Wolverines. Which it won't be. Because the two will be in the same division.
The All-Important Tiebreaker
Say goodbye to shared conference championships (which will no doubt please Nittany Lion fans). An interesting side effect of the move to a title game could be a bit of a hit to the wallets of Big Ten coaches. Tressel's contract, for instance, provides for bonuses should the team win the Big Ten championship. In 2011, that will be a little tougher to accomplish (though smart agents will surely get some coin for their coach winning a division). At any rate, the odds of tying atop a six-team conference are higher than an 11-team conference and it's crucial that the league has a sane policy in place to select game participants.
The SEC has a solid model, taking into account only things that come about on the field of play. Hopefully, the Big Ten will borrow from the SEC and avoid promoting their current Rose Bowl tiebreaker, which defaults to BCS rankings after head-to-head and winning percentage are exhausted. You might remember that setup wreaking havoc on the Big 12 South two years ago. Avoid it like the plague.
The Big Ten will accept bids to televise the game and the two players that will be most interested are ABC and Fox. Fox is itching to add more college football programming and ABC suddenly finds itself missing one of its two championship game partners (insert joke here about ABC wishing it could dump its other partner, the ACC). Last season, the SEC Championship kicked off at 4:00pm ET, while the Big 12 and ACC both kicked off at 8:00pm. Whoever picks up the Big Ten's game should be able to plug it into the same slot occupied by the Big 12. Jim Delany wins again.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. As a thank you for reading this post brought to you by TL;DR, here's former running back Maurice Hall, as a news anchor in a Disturbed video.