Expansion problems for Big 10

Published 2:18 am Wednesday, August 25, 2010

COLUMBUS — Since 1943, fans have always known where to find the annual showdown between Michigan and Ohio State: Right at the end of the Big Ten schedule.

With the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams in 2011 and also going to divisional play and a conference championship game, that sacred spot is no longer a certainty.

“I can’t sit here and say that it’s going to be in place, or it’s not going to be in place,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Tuesday of the traditional season-ending rivalry. “We did have meetings yesterday in Chicago and we’ll have more meetings. We’re still looking at a lot of different scenarios. We’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.”

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Wisconsin AD and former football coach Barry Alvarez said every effort is being made to preserve the biggest traditional rivalry game at each school, but otherwise competitive balance will determine how the Big Ten divides into divisions.

“We’re all going to protect one rivalry, we’ve decided that and we’re going right back to what we’ve talked about, competitive equality,” Alvarez said. “If you stick with that, you can get close (to guessing the divisions).”

Many who hold dear the traditions of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry are hoping for something close to the status quo. Most don’t want to let go of the finality of that late-November Saturday. “The Game,” as it’s called in much of the Midwest, was first played in 1897 and it’s been played 106 times since.

“I’d rather keep it as the last game,” said ex-Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, now with the Miami Dolphins. “There’s tradition there, and you always look forward to that last game.”

Moving it to October could make “The Game” feel like just another game.

“I’ll tell you we’ll go to great lengths to make sure that the tradition and rivalries are respected,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said this summer. He then added, “I think the important thing is, that they play.”

And about those divisions? If Michigan and Ohio State are in the same division, they could never meet again for the conference championship as they have so many times, going back to when Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes prowled the sidelines?

If the Buckeyes and Wolverines are in different divisions, that could set up two meetings in some seasons. Wouldn’t that detract from the win-or-else nature of the rivalry?

Michigan AD Dave Brandon believes that it would be enhanced.

“We’re in a situation where one of the best things that could happen in my opinion in a given season would be the opportunity to play Ohio State twice, once during the regular season and once for the championship of the Big Ten,” he told a Detroit radio audience earlier this month.

Fans are loyal to college football because it is built on its tried and true traditions. From Chief Osceola at Florida State to Southern California’s Traveler, from rubbing Howard’s rock at Auburn to Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame, the sport is rich ties to the past.

In the Big Ten, Michigan will continue to wear its winged helmets and Ohio State will still sport scarlet and gray. They just might not play each other once a year on the final Saturday of the Big Ten season.

And it’s not just fans of the Wolverines and Buckeyes who might feel as if tradition is being cast aside.

Purdue and Indiana have fought over the Old Oaken Bucket since 1925. Minnesota and Iowa for Floyd of Rosedale — a bronze pig, no less — since 1935, and Michigan State and Indiana over the Old Brass Spittoon since 1950. And what of Illibuck, the Purdue Cannon, Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and Paul Bunyan’s Axe, all prizes of longtime Big Ten trophy games?

Some of those games might not be played every season.

“We may have 15 trophy games, rivalry games that are in that same number,” Delany said. “We’ll need to do everything we can to preserve those. Whether or not we’ll be 100 percent able to preserve every trophy game or every rivalry game …”

In a conference that has held on to its traditions more than any other, this could be jolting.

“Change is tough,” Smith said somberly. “At the end of the day, I don’t know what change we’ll have. Even if we have Michigan at the end of the schedule, there’s still going to be change. I don’t know what it’s going to be. But I’m looking at a number of different scenarios and there’s change in all of them.”