As “What If?” week continues across the SB Nation network, today we are going to take a look at a scenario that fans of the Michigan Wolverines and Big Ten football in general have been looking at. There is no questioning that the conference has gotten decidedly more talented over the last number of years, but there is still a cluster of programs in the East division that essentially make its winner the de facto conference champ when the title game comes along.
The East has mostly belonged to Ohio State, but has also seen Michigan State and Penn State as its winner since the conference went to the divisional route upon expansion. But could the conference be able to spread things out more evenly between the two divisions?
The following exercise sees us scrapping the East-West setup in favor of a North-South grouping of teams.
Here is the proposal with the team’s current division in parenthesis:
Iowa Hawkeyes (West)
Michigan Wolverines (East)
Michigan State Spartans (East)
Minnesota Golden Gophers (West)
Nebraska Cornhuskers (West)
Northwestern Wildcats (West)
Wisconsin Badgers (West)
Illinois Fighting Illini (West)
Indiana Hoosiers (East)
Maryland Terrapins (East)
Ohio State Buckeyes (East)
Penn State Nittany Lions (East)
Purdue Boilermakers (West)
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (East)
The first point that people will bring up is the splitting of Michigan and Ohio State into different divisions. They’ll say, “you’re just looking for an easier path to Indianapolis for Michigan to the Big Ten Championship.”
Yeah, kind of. It is a “what if” scenario, after all.
I don’t necessarily see Michigan’s road through the proposed North division as being any easier seeing as they still have to deal with road trips to Wisconsin and Iowa every other year. Through a protected rivalry matchup, they would still crossover with Ohio State and play every season. So in some ways, it probably is more difficult.
The next thing that fans will point out is they think it devalues The Game. My argument is that is only the case if they were to keep the game on the last Saturday of the year and then play in the Big Ten title game the following week. For scheduling purposes, I would move The Game to October and play Minnesota for the Little Brown Jug the last weekend of the year. If Michigan and Ohio State meet again, so be it. I don’t think we should be locked into playing U-M/OSU on that final Saturday because that is how it has always been.
Regardless of when U-M/OSU takes place or if you even get the rematch, the possibility of more good football is a positive from both an entertainment and dollars standpoint. Given where Michigan currently is at with its performances in some of the tougher games they play, a showdown happening more than once in a season may not occur on a yearly basis anyways.
OSU winds up benefitting from this due to more of a cupcake schedule, but they are breezing through the conference anyways, so it kind of seems like a moot point. They have had some good battles with Penn State, though.
The Big Ten Championship should feel like a playoff game before the College Football Playoff like what the SEC has largely been with Georgia and Alabama. The North-South divisional route feels like the best way to ensure that could happen.
The other thing to do would be to scrap divisions entirely and send the best two teams to the conference title game. The Big-12 does this and it gave us a Baylor-Oklahoma rematch last season. That is easier to pull off when there are only 10 teams in your conference compared to the Big Ten’s 14, but it gave us another great game between two teams who had already played one earlier in the season.
Either way you draw it up, Michigan’s division is fairly tough and all it really does is create the possibility of a second game with Ohio State, which might not be what we want to see given how things have played out recently.
But imagine 2016’s version of The Game being played in October and then you are able to get a second crack at the Buckeyes on a neutral field for a conference title? It could be fun, even if the idea winds up turning off some of college football’s purists.