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With Every Wish

As Jim Delaney and the Big Ten figure out what to do with Michigan and Ohio State (Keep 'em Together! Split 'em Apart!), it is apparent that the league has learned the lessons of the Big 12. That is, it is not going to rely on one power to be the strength of an entire division (And don't give me K-State and Colorado garbage. A handful of good years doesn't make a power. A handful of decades does.). That's good. No matter what alignment is chosen, it looks certain that the divisions will be balanced. 

The latest rumors have Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin holding down one division (the Woody Paterno Division) and Michigan, Nebraska, and Iowa anchoring the other (the Bo Devaney Division). Assume that each of those teams plays the corresponding opponent as their permanent rival (as I trumpeted here). That's great. What everyone anticipates is that, in most years, we'll see some combination of those six teams in the championship game. That's probably right. What might surprise you is the lesson from the SEC that Jim Delaney may not have learned.

In 1992, the SEC split into divisions. Initially, teams had two permanent cross-division rivals. That changed to one about a decade ago. Much as with the current Big Ten rumors, the SEC had three powers placed in each division. Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida in the East. Alabama, Auburn, and LSU in the West. Each of those teams plays its corresponding rival in the other division. As you would anticipate, these six teams have accounted for 32 of the 36 appearances in the SEC Championship Game and all 18 titles.

In many ways, Michigan and Ohio State are matches for Alabama and Tennessee in 1991. In both leagues, the pair of teams combined to win more titles than all of the conference's other members. In 1991, the SEC, no doubt, envisioned Alabama and Tennessee waging a December battle to add to the lore of those famous third Saturdays in October. And yet, it's never happened. In 18 years, the Vols and Tide have never met for an SEC title. What's more, Auburn and Georgia have never faced each other for the SEC title. Further, LSU and Florida have never faced each other for an SEC title. 

Why? Simple. Each year, one of those teams is going to lose its cross-division rivalry game. And the same will happen when Penn State faces Nebraska, when Iowa hosts Wisconsin, and yes, even when Michigan and Ohio State meet. It's not that a team can't win its division with a cross-division loss (LSU did it in 2001 and 2003). It just leaves no margin for error. 

So, I do expect to see Iowa and Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin, and Ohio State and Nebraska facing off for the Big Ten title. It's also possible that one day we'll see the Michigan-Ohio State battle that all are now anticipating as a twice-a-year event. But I wouldn't expect it too often. The SEC has taught us it'll be a rarity.