Thursday September 2nd, 2010

They're breathing sighs of relief in Columbus and Ann Arbor this evening. Ohio State and Michigan's "Big Game" will remain intact, in its regular spot, the last Saturday of the regular season.

But everything else about that rivalry, and the Big Ten in general, is about to change dramatically.

Commissioner Jim Delany stated repeatedly the past several months that the Big Ten would prioritize competitive balance and protecting rivalries in forming its as-of-yet unnamed divisions, and I'd argue the league successfully achieved that. Each side has two of the four "glamour" programs (Ohio State and Penn State in one, Michigan and Nebraska in the other) and one semi-regular title contender (Wisconsin in the former, Iowa in the latter). And nearly every important rivalry will still be played annually, with the notable exception of Wisconsin-Iowa. (The Badgers are the one team with a legitimate gripe about their placement.)

Meanwhile, Nebraska's impact will be felt almost immediately upon its arrival. When the Huskers' 2011 schedule scrolled across the Big Ten Network ticker, the first two games to show up were "at Wisconsin" and "vs. Ohio State." They'll spend their first November playing at Penn State, at Michigan and vs. Iowa. Think those games might get some eyeballs?

But Nebraska is the new kid at this school. Ohio State and Michigan are the seniors, the cheerleaders and the prom kings. And you can't help but feel like they've been bumped from their favorite table.

I still believe the Buckeyes and Wolverines should have been placed in the same division. I may be in the minority, but I don't see the appeal of a possible championship-game rematch a week later. It devalues the first meeting. Delany recalled the "excitement" that surrounded a potential BCS championship rematch following the teams' 1-vs.-2 matchup in 2006. I don't remember it being viewed quite as favorably outside of Ann Arbor.

And rather than creating the opportunity for a winner-takes-the-division scenario -- the highest possible stakes in the league's new era -- OSU-Michigan may no longer even be the most important game on either's schedule. For Michigan, in 2011, that game may well be a week earlier against divisional foe Nebraska. Ohio State may well wrap up its division that week against Penn State.

It's for this very reason, in fact, that the Big Ten actually considered moving the OSU-Michigan game earlier in November. Delany said Wednesday night he initially favored the idea of saving the last two weeks of the regular season solely for divisional games. But then word leaked out, and the fans spoke -- loudly.

"There's no doubt their voice mattered," he said. "... At the end of the day, I was convinced that a mix of traditional games and trophy games throughout the nine weeks was preferred over saving the last two weeks for divisional games."

All of which reflects the new reality of the Big Ten, which is, the Big Ten Championship Game trumps all. Michigan-Ohio State will still matter, but more in the vein of Alabama-Auburn. The Iron Bowl is still a huge deal in the state of Alabama, but to the rest of the country it was a stopover on the way to the far bigger Florida-Alabama showdowns in Atlanta the past two years.

But really, that's the goal of all this. Big Ten fans that got sick of hearing how they've been lapped by the SEC should now get used to a league that's practically modeled after its Southern competitor. Verse yourself, Midwesterners, on things like "divisional tiebreakers" and "crossover opponents."

The SEC also abides by one principal that's easy for anyone to comprehend: East and West. While some may disagree, the Big Ten did the right thing eschewing geography in favor of balance. Some say the league will become like the ACC, where only the diehards know who's in the Atlantic and who's in the Coastal, but the Big Ten boasts too many recognizable brands for that to happen. No matter what the names, the nation will know them primarily as the "Ohio State/Penn State" division and the "Michigan/Nebraska" division.

Of course, it would have been that much easier for everyone if one of them were the "Ohio State/Michigan" division. But hey, it's not 1935 anymore. This is the 21st century Big Ten, where all 12 teams get a shot to play in "the Big Game."

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