The day Nebraska was approved as the 12th member of the Big Ten in June, commissioner Jim Delany outlined three factors for splitting the conference into two six-team divisions: a) Competitive fairness, b) Maintaining traditional rivalries, and c) Geography, in that order.
By "traditional rivalries," of course, he meant first and foremost Michigan-Ohio State, the nation's most hyped annual hate-fest and the conference's most bankable national draw for more than half a century. Back when expansion still seemed like an impossibly distant pipe dream, OSU athletic director Gene Smith said at Big Ten meetings in May that he'd "jump on the table" to fight for "The Game" if it ever came down to it. Now that the two-division format is an imminent reality, Smith can save his hamstrings some undue wear and tear: The Buckeyes and Wolverines will go on every year, regardless of whether or not they remain in the same division, or whether or not the league eventually expands the conference slate from eight to nine games. As for the timing, though, it seems the game's familiar place at the end of the regular season schedule – an unbroken ritual for both teams since 1935 – is less of a priority, according to the Columbus Dispatch:
...the timing of some rivalry games might change, and that could include Ohio State-Michigan. "I don't know where we're going to end up," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said.
Smith said his one unshakable objective at the start of the realignment discussion was to assure that Ohio State and Michigan would play every year. There is no danger of that being threatened. Beyond that, Smith said it's wise to let the process play out step by step without trying to insist on further requirements.
He said he has received only a couple of e-mails from people worried about the possibility of moving the Michigan game to earlier in the season. Whether those – and other critical opinions expressed on the Internet – are reflective of the broad fan base is impossible to know, Smith said.
"I know one thing for sure - that we're going to play (Michigan) every year," Smith said. "We may end up playing the last game of the year, or not. I just don't know that yet."
One of the "critical opinions expressed on the Internet" was my insistence last month that the Buckeyes and Wolverines land in the same division, to avoid a championship-game rematch in some spanking new, retractable-roof NFL stadium that threatens the ancient ritual of the regular season finale as the Ohio State-Michigan game. Today, the Dispatch reports the prospect of a rematch may be the deciding factor: If they're slated into the same division, without the possibility of a rematch a week or two later, the traditional position at the end of the regular season should be safe. If they wind up in opposite divisions, however, with the championship game calling both in December, the regular-season date could be moved up to mitigate the obvious complaints – "Hey, didn't we just beat these guys? Now we have to beat them again for the championship?" – that would come with the quick turnaround.
By itself, the potential for that kind of dissonance should be reason enough to nix any possibility of a rematch. If it also means moving the traditional culmination of the season to mid-October for the sake of a few extra eyeballs on the Big Ten title game – a blockbuster that should sell out and dominate television ratings regardless of which two widely-followed, state-sponsored behemoths happen to win their way into it in any given year – it's even more of a no-brainer.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.