If Michigan played Ohio State in a divisional rivalry at the end of each season, there would be no chance of a rematch in the title game. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
Uh-oh. The Big Ten is thinking hard again, always a scary proposition.
The last time it happened? Rutgers and Maryland showed up on the doorstep. The time before that, an all-night scotch binge (that's my guess) led to the Legends and Leaders monikers.
Now the conference has another batch of tricky issues, and it begins with realignment. Thankfully, I have the ideal plan to handle it without too much rancor and bloodshed.
With the impending expansion to 14 teams — and possibly 16 — division shuffling will happen. And yes, this is a top priority: Michigan and Ohio State must be in the same division. Give me a moment and I'll explain why that would send Michigan State to the other division.
Am I overly obsessed with Michigan-Ohio State? Not really. As the Big Ten's football cachet dwindles, the rivalry remains its biggest national selling point. The conference already said divisions will follow loose geographical lines, and that makes sense, with no need to slap happy names on them.
By 2014, the divisions should be East and West, and should look like this:
East: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana, Purdue, Rutgers, Maryland
West: Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern
Michigan and Ohio State still would play on the final weekend, so a spot in the Big Ten championship game could be at stake without fear of a rematch. If you put them in opposite divisions, The Game could be one Saturday, and THE Game could be the next.
That would be very dumb. Also, officials would face a health crisis with all those bloated Buckeye livers after a two-week bender. One argument against this alignment is that the East would be a tad thin — at least until Penn State bounces back. Fair point, and if you flipped Northwestern and Purdue (or Indiana), I could live with it.
In my scenario, the Spartans would continue to play the Wolverines in a protected rivalry game early, and could meet again later in a championship showdown. And does Michigan State, Wisconsin or Nebraska really want to be in the East with Ohio State? The way the Spartans and Badgers have battled lately, that could become the West version of The Game.
Besides, with the Big Ten reportedly instituting a nine- or 10-game conference schedule by 2016, each team would face three or four opponents from the other division every year. That should mitigate any competitive balance concerns, which brings me to the next issue facing Jim Delany: Nine or 10 conference games?
I'm sure Urban Meyer has the absolute perfect plan for the Big Ten to compete with the Southeastern Conference, and he'll enlighten us at his leisure. In the meantime, it's fairly obvious the conference schedule should be 10 games, again because of competitive balance. If you go with nine, half the teams would play only four conference games at home, creating a squabble abut unfair races. As much as I like squabbling, that would be too noisy for me.
With the four-team national playoff launching after the 2014 regular season, strength of schedule will be important. So if you force the big boys to play another Big Ten opponent instead of, say, Massachusetts, that's a good thing.
The downside to 10 conference games? It would push Michigan, Ohio State and others with humongous stadiums to host both nonconference games, to ensure seven big-money gates. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon and Ohio State's Gene Smith have said the financial hit of only six home games would be too large to ignore.
Unfortunately, if you play both nonconference games at home, you're not going to line up prime opponents on a regular basis.
The Big Ten is expected to stop scheduling smaller FCS teams, which is good, but it reduces options. Notre Dame and others require home-and-home agreements, theoretically putting nonconference showdowns in jeopardy.
Michigan State already has long-term plans to face Oregon, Alabama and Miami. Michigan has Arkansas, Oregon State and BYU on its docket, although Notre Dame opted out after 2014, for now. In college football's ever-shifting environment, you'd hate to lose intersectional clashes, but wouldn't you also hate to determine a conference champion with an unbalanced schedule?
I can hear the shrieking already, and it will ratchet up when the Big Ten starts poking around for two more teams. North Carolina? Georgia Tech? Iowa State? Appalachian State?
This will get messier before it gets clearer. But with the big-boy table for the national championship about to grow to four teams, it'll be harder for the SEC to hog all the spots. To have any shot, the Big Ten needs to produce a worthy champion, or at least as worthy as possible.