Although an official announcement isn't expected for at least another couple of weeks, speculation is running rampant over how the Big Ten will align its teams into two divisions. While speculation about this topic has been produced a number of debates ever since Nebraska joined the conference back in June, it has been taken to a new level this week with it becoming more and more obvious that Michigan and Ohio State will go their separate ways.
The mass panic for Michigan and Ohio State fans all started a week ago when Dave Brandon talked publicly about how he would not want the two teams in the same division, as it would mean that they could never play for a Big Ten title. What's more, if they were to be split up, chances are the game would be moved from the last week of the season (where it has been played since 1935) to earlier in the season.
Those not directly involved in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry have shrugged off the news, but fans of the Wolverines and Buckeyes have expressed their anger and have even come together to petition this possible change. While Michigan and Ohio State would still play every year in a scenario where they are in separate divisions, the prospect of not playing at the end of the season is not at all intriguing. Many (myself included) believe it will take away from the tradition of the rivalry and diminish the importance of the game, especially if the two teams end up rematching in the Big Ten championship, as the first game could be rendered meaningless.
Although Brandon's comments got the panic started for Michigan and Ohio State fans, comments from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany set the panic level into overdrive this week. While Delany stressed that nothing was finalized yet, what he said certainly sounded like he was trying to prepare the Michigan and Ohio State fan bases for news of a split between the teams and a move of "The Game" to earlier in the season. This has set off a slew of columns that are either for or against the change, but it may very well be too late, as Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said on Wednesday that it has already been determined that the Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes will be in separate divisions.
Going into the process of aligning the divisions, it was clear which teams were in the top six of the conference and which teams were in the bottom six going back to 1993, which is when the Big Ten started evaluating records and things like that to evenly divide up the conference. The top six without a doubt is Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa. To evenly split up the conference, three teams have to go to one division and three have to go to the other. With the news that Iowa and Wisconsin will go their separate ways and all signs pointing to Michigan and Ohio State doing the same, the Big Ten's divisions are starting to take shape, for better or for worse. Splitting up Penn State and Nebraska is simply the final piece of the top-six puzzle, leaving the bottom six teams to be divided up before everything is finalized.
Finalized or not, one thing that does seem certain in all of this is that Michigan and Michigan State will be in the same division no matter what. That should come as no surprise, but this rivalry could undergo a change as well. With the Michigan-Ohio State game likely to be moved to earlier in the season so there isn't the potential for an immediate rematch, speculation suggests that the Michigan-Michigan State game could be moved to the last week of the season. For the Spartans, that would be a huge positive, as a game against Michigan to close the season is much better than continuing their fake rivalry with Penn State. For Michigan fans, however, continuing the tradition of playing Ohio State in the last week is much more appealing than closing out the regular season with the Spartans.
People can argue all they want about the pros and cons of splitting up Michigan and Ohio State and potentially moving their annual rivalry game, but at this point it seems like change is coming whether we like it or not. Will it be idiotic if the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is messed with? Absolutely. But in this day and age, it should come as no surprise that money will trump tradition, even if that tradition involves the greatest rivalry in sports.