It hit me during the Final Four last spring at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. As grand and great as the place was for Butler and the Final Four, there was something greater and grander on the horizon.
This was before we knew the who, what and where of Big Ten expansion. This was before Nebraska joined the conference, Notre Dame didn't and the Big Ten's first football championship game became a reality in 2011 at Lucas Oil. My vision is not that hard to figure out: Keep the game in Indianapolis (most years). The stadium is modern, centrally located and was built for big football events (Colts, 2012 Super Bowl).
|Imagine doubling the dose of intensity and fun that is the Michigan-Ohio State game. (Getty Images)|
The league has a unique opportunity. Ohio State and Michigan must be separated when the Big Ten ADs divide the league into two six-team divisions for the 2011 season. If the conference's two most marketable, high-profile teams win those divisions going forward, they would play again in the first week of December in the championship game. Ohio State-Michigan for the right to go to the Rose Bowl, possibly the BCS title game, would conjure up visions of Bo's and Woody's Ten Year War.
"The second game would be bigger," Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman said, just talking ratings. "As a TV person, it is one of the highest, if not the highest regular-season games out there. I don't think having a second one would impact the TV ratings."
In other words, the nation can't get enough. This is assuming, of course, the rivalry becomes a rivalry again. Ohio State is doing its part this season by chasing what would be a conference record-tying sixth consecutive Big Ten title. Michigan is at one of the lowest points in its history with an 8-16 record under Rich Rodriguez the past two seasons. The process for sorting out the divisions started last week. It could take another month or so to settle on alignments. No one, though, seems to see my logic. They are hung up on increasingly meaningless stuff like travel and state lines and tradition. I say create the possibility, however small, that Ohio State and Michigan meet twice a year.
"I'm fine with that," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said, "in the championship game, in Tuscaloosa. Anywhere."
"I'm sure our fans would be really excited," Rodriguez said. "If you won it the first time, you may think, 'I don't want to play a second time.' But Michigan loves to compete against Ohio State and Ohio State loves to compete against Michigan."
That's two significant endorsements. (Early indications are that Jim Tressel favors separation of the rivals.) If my idea catches on, then everything else is details. Yes, the Buckeyes-Wolverines regular-season game would have to be moved to earlier in the season. Get over it. Texas-Nebraska and Nebraska-Oklahoma are done as conference tilts after this season. Utah-BYU is teetering on the brink with the Utes moving to the Pac-10.
We're merely talking about moving a game. Continuing to play Ohio State-Michigan near or at the end of November makes it more likely that one of the rivals will be eliminated from the championship game.
I say Ohio State-Michigan has to be played no later than Nov. 1. While that might sound like heresy now, there are going to be a lot of traditions lost, or altered, in the new Big Ten. The ACC moved Florida State-Miami to Labor Day night, in part to make a championship game rematch possible. It hasn't happened yet, mostly because FSU and Miami have slumped, but the reasoning is sound. You maximize your biggest TV property. ESPN just paid $1.86 billion, basically, for Florida State-Miami in football, two Carolina-Duke regular-season hoops games and the ACC Tournament.
Corporate types like to call it "monetizing" your biggest assets. You might have noticed the SEC has done a fairly good job of it. Four months from now, Florida and Alabama could be playing in the SEC championship game for the third consecutive year. The first two games have been de facto national semifinals with the winner going to, and winning, the national championship game.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten speculators seem too hung up in geography in the division debate. Forget boundaries and maps for a moment. No matter what division Nebraska plays in, it's closest Big Ten opponent is Iowa. Its next closest is Minnesota, a six-hour drive. Nebraska is going to have to travel, period. These divisions should be more about, as commissioner Jim Delany says, competitive balance. The so-called "zipper plan" more or less separates traditional rivals in opposite divisions. Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News came up with the zipper as a way to divide the Pac-12 beginning next season.
Because there are going to be nine Big Ten conference games -- by 2015 most likely -- the rivalries are mostly preserved in my model below because schools will be playing nine of 11 league opponents each year. The SEC uses a 5-2-1 format in its eight-game conference schedule. That's five divisional opponents, two rotating opponents from the other division as well as one permanent rival from the other division. A 5-3-1 format is possible in the Big Ten: Five divisional opponents, three rotating from the opposite division as well as one permanent rival from the opposite division.
In my Big Ten, these division opposites would play each year: Purdue-Indiana, Illinois-Northwestern, Iowa-Minnesota, Penn State-Michigan State, Nebraska-Wisconsin and, of course, Ohio State-Michigan. Most important, it would take only two seasons for a team to play each Big Ten opponent.
The following divisional alignments achieve my kind of Big Ten heaven -- a competitive balance and a separation of Ohio State and Michigan. The numbers in parentheses are total conference victories since 1993, the year the league last expanded with Penn State. The total represents the division's total conference victories since that year. Note the divisions are separated by only five games over those 17 years. Three "power" teams are in each division -- Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State in the East and Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska in the West.
You're free to shoot holes in any of this. Just make sure you come with something greater and grander.
East (or Hayes) Division
Ohio State (106)
Penn State (86)
West (or Schembechler) Division
Michigan State (63)