The post-expansion rumblings from Big Ten headquarters are troubling because they indicate that conference officials may decide to mess with The Game. The latest article quotes Michigan’s Athletic Director as making comments that raise serious questions about whether Ohio State and Michigan will continue to play their end-of-season showdown game. Michigan’s AD says he would not place Ohio State and Michigan in the same conference, because if they are in different divisions they could play, again, in the conference championship game. If that happens, he argues that the teams logically should not play in the last game of the regular season, because then they could conceivably have to play back-to-back games.
My concern about Big Ten expansion all along has been that it will wreck Big Ten traditions like The Game. The Ohio State-Michigan game is generally recognized as the single greatest rivalry game in all of sports. It is hard for me to believe that Big Ten officials would be so idiotic as to tinker with their annual marquee match-up, but the comments of Michigan’s AD certainly suggest that possibility.
Big Ten officials and others need to realize that a Big Ten championship game played at a neutral site cannot possibly supplant The Game. Sure, the winner of the Big Ten championship game will go on to the BCS, but that game will be missing what makes the Ohio State-Michigan game so special.
Much of what makes college football the greatest sport of all is the history underlying the match-ups, the storied venues like The Horsehoe and The Big House where the games have been played for decades, the home field traditions, and the collective memories of the joys and heartbreaks that true fans have experienced in the games against their arch-rivals. Sports fans elsewhere understand the deep feelings at play in these rivalry games. They watch the Ohio State-Michigan game because they recognize the strong emotions, they appreciate that the players on both teams are playing their guts out because they so desperately want to beat their despised (yet respected) opponents, and they identify with heavenly highs experienced by the fans of the winners and the crushing despair inflicted on the fans of the losers. The Big Ten Championship Game will have none of that.
Rather than messing with The Game, Big Ten officials should be doing whatever they can to avoid making The Game into just another game.