September 01, 2010
The divisions are set, the split is on and the schedules have been released for the next two years. The structure for the revamped Big Ten when Nebraska comes about as the league's 12th member in 2011 is in place. Now to figure it out:
• There are no names yet. The divisions will not be called "X" and "O," obviously. And I'm not sure the other ten teams would appreciate the "Woody" and "Bo" thing. Leave suggestions in the comments.
• The divisions are football-only. Commissioner Jim Delany said basketball will "chart its own course," and may not split at all.
• The divisions are balanced. Wisconsin may not like being separated from Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, but it's hard to argue anyone comes out of the divisional split with an overly generous or unfair shake. "Protected" games across the divisional divide (see below) mean Michigan and Ohio State, as well as Penn State and Nebraska, will see one less cupcake every couple years than they would if they didn't have to see each other every year. But ask those fans whether they prefer the marquee rivalry game or a couple extra shots a decade at Indiana and Minnesota.
• Ohio State and Michigan will continue to play on the last weekend of the regular season. As expected. The conference never really considered an October date for "The Game," as widely feared last week. (Tom Osborne said Ohio State and Michigan fans sent hate mail to Nebraska on this point.) The annual rivalry will stay where it's been for the last 75 years: In late November, when there's only the hate and the urine in Mirror Lake to keep you warm.
Besides the Buckeyes and Wolverines, the other "protected rivals" who will play every year across the divisional divide are Penn State-Nebraska, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Michigan State and Purdue-Iowa. Get excited, Hawkeyes.
• Nebraska is going to play Iowa, Michigan and Penn State every single year. That is pretty sweet. Well, unless you're Nebraska and you actually have to play that schedule every year. The 'Huskers are welcomed to the league in 2011 with trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, with Ohio State and Iowa coming to Lincoln.
• So: The rematch thing. Yes, splitting Ohio State and Michigan into opposite divisions opens up the very high likelihood of two or three Big Ten Championship games per decade, which of course is exactly the point. Since they're going to keep the traditional date at the end of one another's schedules, the second game will be held one week after the first. Yes, I've repeatedly opposed the notion of splitting the Buckeyes and Wolverines, on the grounds that the prospect of turning the traditional showdown into merely the first Ohio State-Michigan game threatens to negate much of the urgency that made it great in the first place. Who wants to hear the losers leaving the stadium with promises to exact revenge in the one that really matters a few days later?
Television networks, for one, and the conference bigwigs who stand to profit from their squeezing a few extra bucks out of the prospect of a (presumably) guaranteed ratings blockbuster. Personally, I won't look forward any less to Nebraska-Wisconsin or Iowa-Ohio State or Michigan-Penn State or whatever matchup happens to shake out in any given year. But the divisions are what they are and that's how they're going to be, so we'll have to wait to see how the dynamic plays out. (Predictions: It plays out lucratively for all involved.)
• Goodbye, Governor's Bell. Hello, Penn State-Wisconsin. The rivalry trophies – namely the ancient Little Brown Jug and Paul Bunyan's Axe – are largely preserved, with the exception of the two youngest (and therefore least prestigious) in the set: The Heartland Trophy, awarded to the Iowa-Wisconsin winner since 2004, and the Land Grant Trophy, exchanged between year-end "rivals" Penn State and Michigan State since PSU joined in 1993, will cease to be annual affairs. The season-ending rivalry-of-convenience between the Nittany Lions and Spartans will die an unlamented death, replaced (at least in 2011-12) by a more enticing Penn State-Wisconsin matchup to close out the schedule instead.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.