Back in 2006, the Michigan and Ohio State football teams each won their first 11 games and were ranked 1-2 in the nation going into their climatic season-ending game. Ohio State prevailed 42-39 in one of the most thrilling games in the rivalry’s storied history, sending the Buckeyes to the national title game and "relegating" Michigan to the Rose Bowl.
Should the Big Ten go down the current road it’s exploring, we will never see such a spectacle again.
Michigan and Ohio State at the end of the year is as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. When those two teams play, you know that college football season is almost over. If you suggested moving the Michigan-Ohio State game five years ago in Columbus or Ann Arbor, you probably wouldn’t have made it home in one piece.
But recent developments have put The Game’s placement at the end of the schedule in jeopardy. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon publicly said he wouldn’t want the two teams both in the same division, as it would mean they’d never play in the championship game.
If you’re looking for someone to blame, look no further than the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Until the Huskers got with the program, the thought of moving the Michigan-Ohio State game was about as popular as "Gigli." In fact, there was never even a discussion about it. Now with 12 teams, the Big Ten needs to split things up, and everything appears to be on the table.
The conference is set to see some big dollars coming its way with the impending prospect of a Big Ten championship game now that the conference has 12 teams. In years past, Michigan and Ohio State has effectively served as the title game itself, with Michigan and Ohio State winning or sharing 16 Big Ten championships since 1990.
But Michigan has fallen off in the past two years, diminishing the appeal of The Game on a national stage. Back-to-back losing seasons by the Wolverines has left the conference firmly in the hands of the Buckeyes, who have won at least a share of the conference title every year since 2005.
It doesn’t help that Big Blue has its own personal struggles against the team down south. Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2003.
There are pros and cons to splitting up Michigan and Ohio State in a divisional sense. If they stay in the same division, the schedule would almost certainly stay right where it is. Michigan and Ohio State at the end of the year, as always has been and should be. On top of that, it means the two would only play each other once, leaving the game as a winner-take-all affair.
But that would also mean the two would never play each other in the championship game. That will immediately sap interest, as Michigan and Ohio State are the two premier programs in the league. Imagine if Florida and Alabama were in the same division in the SEC. Viewership for the title game would be significantly lower if there was no chance those two would be in it.
The SEC has it easy with Florida and Alabama, however. Although they’ve played each other seven times in the SEC Championship game since 1992, they’ve never had an annual rivalry on the scale of Michigan-Ohio State.
The way around this would be to put the two in different divisions, but this also increases the likelihood of The Game being moved to earlier in the season. In a divisional format, you want divisional teams playing each other at the end of the season to hype the upcoming title game. It certainly wouldn't take place at the end of the year, as there would then be the possibility of the two playing each other the very next week.
Would the Big Ten trump that way of thinking to save one of its own traditions?
As a Michigan fan, some of my most memorable college football moments have come from watching the Michigan-Ohio State game. I will never forget Charles Woodson’s punt return for a touchdown in 1997 that sent the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl or Desmond Howard "striking the pose" in 1991.
Had those games been held in the middle of the season, those moments would never have gained the legacy that they have today. Michigan and Ohio State in the middle of October just doesn’t have the same appeal.
But the landscape of the conference has changed drastically since then. The reason those moments gained fame was because the Big Ten didn't have a championship game. Michigan-Ohio State was the closest thing we had.
The rivalry's importance will be diminished no matter what the league decides. Take 2006 for example. If the league had a title game back in 2006 and Michigan and OSU were in different divisions, Michigan would have gotten a rematch in the title game the very next week, like many thought they deserved anyway. Nobody would have even remembered the previous week.
Had they been in the same division, Michigan wouldn't get their second chance. Ohio State moves on to a title game that doesn't include their storied rivals. The league loses either way.
There is no perfect solution to divisional alignment. Even if they "save" The Game, other rivalries are sure to be split up. Whatever the league decides, someone’s tradition is going to have its toes stepped on.