Change, whether we like it or not, is coming to the Big Ten Conference. Jim Delany announced earlier this week that in the next 120 days (and maybe way sooner) the conference will look to finalize divisional alignments and select a location for the first ever Big Ten Championship Game. While the actual alignments and location are the subject of debate for all 12 of the teams that will play in the conference next year, only two teams can quarrel about history being changed.
Those two teams are Ohio State and Michigan, who take part in the greatest rivalry in the sport each and every year. Historically, "The Game" usually serves as the deciding factor in terms of who will take the conference crown, who will earn a trip to the Rose Bowl, and sometimes, who will either get a chance to play for the crystal.
"The Game" has been the season finale for both teams since 1935, and that is about to change. The Big Ten Championship will be held a week after this gridiron classic and will forever change the impact that the rivalry has on the conference in one way or another. Until we know the divisional alignments, and even then, the impact the game will now have on the conference will not be cut and dry, but what we can speculate is the different effects certain alignment options will have on the rivalry.
Rob Oller did a great job yesterday of breaking down the various options for "The Game" in the new-look Big Ten, but today we'll take a shot of putting forth our own analysis of the possible scenarios the rivalry will take on in the coming years. We'll look at the pros of each option, the cons of each option, and finally give you our pick for which situation we feel is best to keep the tradition and history alive in the Ohio State-Michigan Rivalry.
OPTION 1: Same Division and Play the Last Game of the Year
Pros: Just like in past years, the game remains the last regular season game, giving both teams a chance to find themselves throughout the season and bring their best football to the table. The game will still have a large impact on the conference as it will have a good chance of annually deciding the Big Ten East (or whatever they will call it) winner and send one of the two teams on o the league championship game.
Cons: The game will no longer be the season finale and won't outright decide who the conference champion is right then and there. After beating each other up on the field, the winner will have to come out again the next week and play a solid Nebraska, Wisconsin, or Iowa team for the conference title. After giving it their all, emotionally and physically, on Thanksgiving weekend, will the winer have enough in the tank to avoid a championship game upset?
OPTION 2: Same Division, but Play the Game in the Middle of the Year
Pros: Texas and Oklahoma are in this model and it seems to work out OK for them. A loss in this game allows either team to rebound and come back to win the conference, and possibly even salvage MNC hopes.
Cons: This model takes away from the importance of the rivalry, as the unknown of the effects of the result diminishes the stakes at hand. The fact that a team can lose this game and still make the championship or win the conference is a bit bothersome and the place of this rivalry being the greatest in sports history will slowly fade away. Look at the rivalry games played mid-season compared to the rivalry games played at the end of the season. Which ones are on that pedestal of great rivalries in your eyes?
OPTION 3: Different divisions, but Play Annually, Anyway
Pros: The game would be played yearly and would still have an effect on conference record, thus still possibly determining the participants of the championship game. The possibility is also there for the teams to play again in the championship game, as winners of each of the two divisions. This can be both good and bad (more to come in the Cons section), but it would be really cool to see these two teams go at it twice in one season and the 2011 Buckeyes could be the first team to earn two sets of gold pants in one year.
Cons: The potential to play twice in one season takes away some the importance of the regular season game between the two. While one or both of the teams may be in a must-win situation in the regular season classic to earn a spot in the championship game, the chances are also there that the division winners already clinched a spot in the finale. Another problem with this scenario is the unfairness of a possible championship game re-match. If OSU beat Michigan in Ann Arbor and then a week later lost to them on neutral turf, is that fair to the Buckeyes that Michigan gets to go to the Rose Bowl? I certainly don't think so and neither does the BCS committee, thus the reason they chose Florida to play the Buckeyes in the MNC a few years back.
What's the Right Call?
If it were up to us (and Delany said he'd call us), we would somehow find a way to kill off divisions and let OSU and Michigan determine the conference championship every year. That just isn't feasible and if we have to choose one of the options, we might as well pick the lesser of three evils. The first option allows for the game to remain the regular season finale, sets up the best chance for this game to determine the winner of the division, and is the best choice to retain as much of the history and tradition of the rivalry as possible. Further, we'd avoid the awkward situation where the teams could potentially meet twice to end the season. If we had to guess today, this is the way the Big Ten will go, with Option 2 taking away the importance of "The Game" and Option 3 potentially causing a ton of controversy.