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August 20, 2010

The Madness of Moving The Game

With the Big Ten rumored to be contemplating a split of Michigan and Ohio State into opposite divisions, I have a few questions I'd like to pose to commissioner Jim Delaney: 1) Are you out of your mind? 2) Really? 3) No, really?

While we ponder the sanity, or lack thereof, of the conference higher ups, let's consider the fundamentals of the situation. It's a given that dividing the Big Ten into two divisions will adversely effect Michigan-Ohio State. In a two division setup, you obviously cannot have a regular season game on the last week of the season that potentially determines the conference champion. So, when it comes to protecting the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, which is synonymous with Big Ten football around the country and is probably the most valuable brand the conference has, you're already in a second-best world.

Assuming you plan to keep the game as an annual affair - and you do plan that, right, Mr. Delaney? - you have three options:

1. Put Michigan and Ohio State in the same division, and have them play on the last week of the season as always, only this time the prize will be a berth in the conference championship game rather than a conference championship.
2. Put Michigan and Ohio State in opposite divisions, protect the rivalry, and play the game in the middle of the season in order to put some distance between potential rematches.
3. Put Michigan and Ohio State in opposite divisions, and still play the game on the last week, running the risk of occasionally playing rematches one week apart.

Option 3 has gotten little traction, and for good reason. Playing a rematch in back-to-back weeks, however seldom it may happen, would be a demoralizing and cheapening experience. Even if it happened once a decade, it would make a farce of the whole season structure.

So consider Option 2, playing The Game sometime earlier. You lose the climactic, season-ending quality that is so integral to the game. You also lose some of the sensory feel that is woven into the tradition. The Game has always taken place in late November. The sun reflects on the field a certain way that time of year. The timing of the game is part of the feel of familiar ritual that connects each edition of The Game to prior ones.

Of course, the upside of this arrangement is its implicit promise of a rematch. It is the classic logic of any commercialized enterprise: If one edition of The Game is great, two will be even greater!

The problem, of course, is that such rematches won't happen very often. Suppose Michigan and Ohio State, over the long run, are just as likely as every other team to make the championship game. That would mean each team makes it one year out of six. One-sixth times one-sixth would mean Michigan and Ohio State meet up for a championship-determining final game once every thirty-six seasons. That's not much.

Of course, Michigan and Ohio State have a long record of success that suggests they'll make the championship more frequently than most other teams. So let's assume each team makes the championship once every three years. That would mean that Michigan and Ohio State meet in the championship once every nine seasons. That's still pretty rare. And that would mean that The Game would be, overwhelmingly, a mid-season matchup played largely for pride.

Now, compare that scenario with Option 1, which is putting the two teams in the same division. The Game would still be at the end of the season. It would never be the final game that determines the Big Ten champion. But it would almost always be a very meaningful game, and a reasonably close approximation of the traditional arrangement.

Splitting up the rivalry boils down to a straightforward trade: You move the game to early in the season, and diminish its luster. In return for that, once every nine years or so - maybe a little more, maybe a little less - you add on another, bigger Michigan Ohio State rematch. Is it worth diminishing the value of The Game every regular season in order to occasionally create a season-ending showdown?

I don't see how that trade-off could possibly make any sense. You are tarnishing the most special event in Big Ten football, and the thing considered by many the greatest rivalry in sports, for a payoff that will be infrequent at best and a commercialized abomination at worst.

The heart of college football is tradition. If the last couple decades of change have taught us anything, it's that you can't manufacture tradition. You can take Michigan State and Penn State and tell them, "You two start having a bitter, season-ending rivalry! Here's a trophy!" And you can clump together a bunch of teams in the ACC into a super-conference, or try to meld Nebraska in with the Texas schools. But it doesn't take because it's inorganic. An arrangement determined on the basis of television footprint or commercial revenue is eventually going to fail even on its own terms.

The classic Michigan-Ohio State season-ending bout is gone, just as the classic Big Ten-Pac Ten Rose Bowl is gone. The Rose Bowl sold its birthright for a spot in a BCS rotation that ha stripped away much of its value with little benefit in return. If we find ourselves, one day soon, settling down for a middle of the season interdivisional bout between Ohio State and Michigan, with positioning for an at-large postseason berth on the line, we will be asking ourselves what the men in charge were thinking.

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