If the Big Ten hadn’t had divisions, Ohio State would have missed just one Big Ten Championship Game in the last 10 years.
Given that, it probably comes as no surprise that Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith is in favor of Thursday’s announcement that the Big Ten will no longer have divisions in 2024, instead pitting the top two teams in the overall conference standings in the Big Ten Championship Game each year.
“Those two teams demonstrated through their body of work that they've earned an opportunity to compete in the championship game,” Smith said Thursday during an appearance on Big Ten Network. “When you run the gauntlet for the regular conference season and you end up being number one and number two in the standings, you've earned that right. So I’m excited about having no divisions. I think divisions served us well, in our history and our transition to this space. Now, this opportunity to play a kind of semi-round robin is actually better.”
With USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten in 2024, every team in the conference will now play every other team in the conference at least once every two years. The only team Ohio State will continue to play every year is Michigan, who was designated as the Buckeyes’ only protected rival under the Big Ten’s new scheduling model.
Given that some schools have multiple protected rivalry games under the new model, it came as a bit of a surprise that Penn State – who does not have any protected rivals – was not also designated as an annual opponent for Ohio State. Smith, however, said he was fine with Ohio State no longer playing Penn State every year because he did not feel as though that matchup carried the same historic tradition as The Game or the other matchups that were protected.
“I'm OK with it,” Smith said. “Penn State had developed into a competitive rivalry for us. Unlike the other 11 protected games in this model, where you have some history and tradition around those competitions. You look at the three that Iowa protected or that Illinois protected or the fact that we protected Michigan, those are historical rivalries. Deep-rooted rivalries. And the Penn State rivalry for us was a competitive rivalry. And so in order to meet the balance of trying to make sure that every team, every school had an opportunity over a four-year period to play at every place at least twice, you had to sacrifice some things.”
Since Ohio State will still be playing Michigan during the final week of the regular season every year, there is now a very real possibility that the Buckeyes and Wolverines could play each other in back-to-back weeks if both teams qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. That’s exactly what would have happened in each of the last two years after Michigan beat Ohio State in the regular-season finale, and it would have previously happened in 2018 as well had the conference been divisionless.
This isn’t actually the first time that’s been a possibility; it could have happened, though it never did, when Michigan was in the Legends Division and Ohio State was in the Leaders Division from 2011-13, the first three years of the Big Ten Championship Game. While Smith stopped short of saying it’s something he wants to see happen, he said that both he and Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel are comfortable with the possibility of back-to-back meetings between the Buckeyes and Wolverines because they believe it’s what’s best for the conference as a whole.
“We agreed to that for the betterment of the whole, the betterment of the league, relative to our overall scheduling format. And our television partners,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, we needed to accept that as a possibility.”