Big Ten Realignment: Michigan and Ohio State, Gone From November?

Throughout the Big Ten conference realignment discussion, we've always sort of taken it for granted that Iowa would be firmly ensconced in a "West"-like substance of a division, containing neighbors like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and maybe Illinois and Northwestern--though that seemed like less of a mutual geographic necessity, considering those schools' proximity to the more eastern conference members. But those first four teams would be a natural grouping of teams to build the western division around, yes?

Well, no; Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez--who, oddly, has turned into Jim Delany's designated trial balloon during this whole process--told Madison.com that Wisconsin and Iowa will be in separate divisions when the new alignment is announced next month:

Alvarez confirmed Wednesday that when a two-division format for football is unveiled by league officials next month, UW and Iowa will be separated.

Alvarez implied that it shouldn’t be hard to figure out how the 12 schools will be arranged in the two divisions. He said there are four distinct tiers of teams, led by the four that have won national championships in the past 25 years: Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State.

The next level has UW and Iowa "within a hair" of one another, according to Alvarez.

This is an instance of Delany trying to divide the conference along the lines of "competitive balance"--the wisdom of which we'll get to in a second--but it's also a harbinger of doom for the Big Ten's best tradition ever.

After all, what's really at stake here is the historic Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which traditionally ends the Big Ten's regular season. Jim Delany sees the success of one OSU-UM game and wants two, comparing the two teams to Duke and UNC:

"If Duke and North Carolina were historically the two strongest programs and only one could play for the right to be in the NCAA tournament, would you want them playing in the season-ending game so one is in and one is out?" he asked. "Or would you want them to play and have it count in the standings and then they possibly could meet for the right to be in the NCAA or the Rose Bowl?

"We've had those debates. It's a good one. The question is whether you want to confine a game that's one of the greatest rivalries of all time to a divisional game."

His point isn't entirely invalid, but he's clearly pining for two UM-OSU matchups a year. That's called counting your chickens before they hatch, and four-year-olds are taught to know better.

And if the Big Ten does so, they would also ignore the real lesson of the ACC, who gerrymandered their divisions in pursuit of an annual Miami-FSU championship game that hasn't happened once (and probably won't this year, either). Also, Nebraska-OU, that historic-turned-historical rivalry that helped beget the Big XII, has happened precisely once in the title game.

Further, we're willing to wager that even if Michigan bounces back from this rough patch, the odds of them meeting Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship are less than 50%, year-to-year; not only does college football require a certain amount of luck and health, after all, but they're going to have to win their division despite having to play each other every year. Everyone will have other inter-divisional games, of course, but think of it this way. With eight conference games a year (which Delany confirms will be the case until at least 2015), that makes five divisional games, one protected interdivisional rivalry, and two rotating interdivisional games. In other words, Michigan will have to play Ohio State every year, and the other teams in their division have a 60% chance of missing OSU that year. Bit of a stacked deck against a UM-OSU rematch, isn't it?

Also, though a UM-OSU rematch could very well be appealing to advertisers, fans will be unlikely to support the game the closer it comes to the first. Very few Big Ten fans want to see them play two games in a row. Therefore, for ratings' sakes, it would behoove Delany to move it to the middle of the season, which is exactly what whispers from the conference have been indicating.

So.

With the swift, gruesome demise of Nebraska-Oklahoma as a yearly event, Jim Delany now has the most iconic rivalry game, firmly entrenched in tradition at the end of the college football regular season. And now he wants to strip it of the end-of-year designation because of an unlikely potential matchup in the championship game?

Pardon our bluntness, but that sounds insane.

What this means for new divisions in Part II, later today.

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