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Expansion and the Relevancy of Rivalry Games

Bob Hunter, a columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, has made an argument that with the advent of divisional play and a looming Big Ten Conference Championship Game, that the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan will be lessened, almost to the point of irrelevancy. I've been kicking around a story about rivalries and conference championship games, and Bob's column helped me crystallize my thoughts about it. My focus was on rivalry games within The Big Ten in general, but after reading his column I was able to better respond by just focusing on the OSU-UM rivalry. That said, substitute The Game with any other rivalry game in The Big Ten, and the general viewpoint is the same. My rebuttal to Mr. Hunter after the jump.

Mr. Hunter begins by saying that The Game not being the Be All, End All Determining Factor Towards Deciding a Conference Champion reduces the magnitude:

The idea of an intense, one-of-a-kind Ohio State-Michigan rivalry some call The Game morphing into a still special but less passionate pairing called the The Tune-up or The Semifinal makes some Midwestern stomachs ache.

I couldn’t disagree more. Ohio State-Michigan has evolved into a feeling unto itself, much like any rivalry in The Big Ten. Whether or not they are playing for a spot in a BCS bowl, a conference championship, or pride, a rivalry like this is not diminished. Michigan has been down for a few years now, and it is still The Game. And it always will be.

Would OSU-Michigan have ever become The Big One if it had only been played for a chance to meet Illinois or Iowa in The Bigger One, for a chance to play in The Really Big One, otherwise known as the BCS championship game?

Bob, this is clever subterfuge. I guess I could ask a similar question: Would OSU-Michigan have ever become The Big One if Ohio State had decided to forego a football program? It’s a question that is just as preposterous, because it begs to look at the current situation without taking any of the history into consideration. College football is all about history and tradition, even more so in our conference, and you know that. Rivaries like The Game, and Wisconsin-Minnesota have been built on over 100 years of history and tradition, and regardless of what the landscape of college football is in five months or five years, you cannot look at a rivalry game and ignore either to try and strengthen an already weak thesis.

"I can tell you what the people from Nebraska say," John Hicks said. "They had a nice rivalry with Oklahoma before the Big 12 started having a game for the conference football title game. Then that thing just vanished."

Ah, the classic ‘Let’s Use an Example That Bears Little Resemblance To Our Situation To Scare People Into Our Way of Thinking’. The death of Oklahoma-Nebraska was the result of two things: Weak conference leadership, and one of the schools not wanting to play two big rivals in one season. That would be Oklahoma, not Nebraska, because Oklahoma, with the advent of the Big 8/SWC merger, now would have to play Texas every year as well as Nebraska. Oklahoma officials felt that having to play two powerhouse programs in one season would hurt their chances to get into a lucrative BCS bowl. So yes, although a great rivalry died, let’s contrast that with The Game and the current Big Ten climate:

1) No one, from either school, is looking to ‘opt out’ of The Game. It just won’t happen.

2) The birth of the Big XII was a merger of two conferences with very different viewpoints and ideas on how things should operate, with a ‘Looking Out for #1’ mentality from the outset. The Big Ten is 12 like minded schools operating in unity to maximize the conference for the betterment towards all. Can anyone, in their right mind, imagine the Big Ten saying that the best thing for the conference is for Ohio State and Michigan not to play on a yearly basis? Or Wisconsin-Minnesota? Or Michigan-Michigan State? Or Purdue-Indiana? I’ll let Commissioner Delany allay Mr. Hunter’s fears, in his own words:

"First priority is competitive fairness to me. Second priority is maintenance of rivalries; some of them are very important. They’re part of who we are and they’re not treated lightly. And then I think the third factor, if any: does geography play (a role)?"

Uh, Bob? The commish gets it, as much as anyone with a rooting interest in any conference rivalry. To suggest that he would add a program like Nebraska and then go about dismantling classic rivalries like what happened to Nebraska-Oklahoma is ridiculous on several levels. This is Jim Delany, not Bud Selig.

While there are plenty of natural reasons for OSU and Michigan to be rivals - the border war, their long-standing on-the-field success, the shared history of this game - the stakes were a huge reason why this game grew into what it is. There have been only seven games in the past 42 years where one or the other couldn't earn at least a share of the conference title by winning, setting up a delicious chance for one rival to wreck the other's season.

And how would the stakes still not be huge? Whether or not you ruin a conference championship, or the chance to play in the conference championship, the end result is still the same--you're not conference champion. I look to the SEC as a comparison. They have managed to do a great job of keeping rivalries intact while still drawing a huge interest in their conference championship game. Georgia-Florida is still great, because it goes a long way in determining who wins the East Division...and it's a time-honored rivalry. I used to live in Alabama, both before and after SEC expansion, and it doesn’t matter two hoots in hell to fans of Auburn or Alabama whether or not their game decides the SEC championship or a spot in the SEC championship. It decides who wins The Iron Bowl, and that’s all that matters.

The fact that Michigan hasn't been able to do much of that (winning) lately has probably helped make this move possible.

No it didn’t. Seriously, it seems like you’re trying to blame Rich Rodriguez for this, too. If this had been 2006 and the Big XII looked like it was imploding after a casual mention about conference expansion, Delany would have jumped on Nebraska in a heartbeat. When you can add a program with the luster of Nebraska, you do it, because it makes the conference stronger. This isn’t just about athletics, it’s about academics too, and research money, and growing all of the institutions from two fronts. Looking at expansion through a one or two school athletic prism is a bit myopic, isn’t it?

How OSU and Michigan performed (or didn’t perform, heh heh) had no bearing on whether or not the Big Ten was going to expand. Granted, no one who reads the sports section looks at expansion and thinks to themselves how much more research money universities will get so they can do lame stuff like, you know, maybe find a cure for cancer. But that is a factor that is as important as athletic standing. At least it is in The Big Ten.

Seven years ago, when a 12th team/Big Ten title game was discussed, there was plenty of local opposition to it, mostly because no one wanted to lose a rivalry that had regained its steam after OSU's hiring of Jim Tressel. Now, with the Buckeyes having beaten the Wolverines six times in a row and nine of the past 10, it no longer seems like such a big loss.

Do you seriously believe this, or are you just trying to get to your 500 word minimum here? Or are you just throwing stuff up on a wall to see what sticks at this point? I ask this, because you can’t seriously think that. OSU has had a great decade, so now OSU fans have somehow become bored with a rivalry that has been over a century in the making? Really?

When I look at the SEC and Big XII (or what's left of it), I can't help but notice that their rivalry games have not only remained intact, but they have thrived, even with the advent of the Satanic Conference Championship Game.

With a Commissioner who understands the importance and value of rivalries, and a conference that looks to better the league as a whole, I can't help but think that the great rivalries we have in The Big Ten will continue on, healthier and better than ever.