The NCAAF Conference Division Structure Debate… Turning Something Into Nothing

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Rivalry is arguably the most fascinating relationship that mankind has ever developed because it is the one relationship that can fuel the two strongest of human emotions – love and hate – at the exact same time.

They have led to our greatest triumphs, our greatest tragedies, and only a rivalry can make a person a hero and a monster at the exact same time.

The greatest of politicians were part of the greatest rivalries – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. And rivalry is the foundation for some of the most well known fictional works – The Montagues and the Capulets, Gryffindor and Slytherin, The Tortoise and the Hare, Superman and Lex Luthor.

Fortunately, as civilization has advanced, rivalry has advanced with it (sort of). Feuds that once were responsible for bloody wars and horrible atrocities have been moved off the battlefield and into more peaceful forms of conflict. The Hatfields and the McCoys, who once ventured across Tug Fork on the Kentucky/West Virginia border to murder and steal from each other, now battle it out in venues such as TV’s Family Feud game show.

But the best stage for rivalries today is undeniably sports, and the one sport in America where that sense of rivalry thrives more than any other is college football.

So, with the Big Ten conference (which boasts some of the game’s greatest and longest running rivalries) undergoing reorganization, officials had to grapple with trying to determine the best way to divide the conference without damaging those great (and very lucrative) rivalries.

The options were to pit rivals in the same division where they would be guaranteed to face off once each season, allowing that game to dictate division/conference standings (similar to how the Big XII has aligned divisions), or to have those rivals in separate divisions, where there is a possibility of having a rivalry matchup in the conference championship (as modeled by the SEC).

Unfortunately, the Big Ten got it WRONG!

I have been very opposed to the Big Ten adding a Conference championship to the format for the reason we are arguing today. In fact, one of my first arguments on our beloved site was about this situation more than a year ago. Nobody listened to me at the time, and now we are in the situation we have today, where some of the best rivalries in all of college football teeter precariously on the verge of irrelevance forever more.

I told you so! *Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

Anyway, conference commissioner Jim Delany, along with the other leaders of the Big Ten, felt that the best way to preserve the integrity of the conference was to position its rival teams in separate divisions.

Now I will concede that an Ohio State-Michigan (since it is generally regarded as the top rivalry in the conference, I will use them as my running example) conference championship would be tremendous to watch. But the possibility of a rivalry matchup being played in a conference championship is not nearly enough compensation for what is going to be lost through the Big Ten’s decision to split rivals up.

Part of what makes rivalry games so special, especially in the Big Ten, is that they often have much more at stake than a simple notch in either the win or loss column. So when Ohio State and Michigan face off in the final game of the season each year, there is almost ALWAYS more on the line than simple bragging rights. In fact, over the last decade it has had conference (and even national) championship implications every single season (1999 was the last season where these two teams played and neither had a shot at the Big Ten title, although Michigan was only one game out of contention).

By putting Ohio State and Michigan in separate divisions, much of the drama from that final week matchup between these two perennial conference powerhouses is lost. Each school’s standings are independent of the other, and this becomes just another non-division game.

Had Ohio State and Michigan been placed in the same division, the programs would still be racing for the division crown each season, as well as a shot at the conference championship. Sure, the stakes would be diminished slightly, but that is a small concession to make in order to preserve the excitement of an entire season spent building up to the payoff of an Ohio State-Michigan game for all the marbles.

Part of what made the game so exciting as the final game of the season was to watch the two teams first battle it out week after week in the standings. Only then could speculation be cast aside when the teams could FINALLY duke it out on the field, each with their own opportunity to punctuate their argument as being the best in the conference.

Instead, what we will see is Ohio State jockeying for position against Illinois or Purdue, while Michigan simultaneously is trying to climb in standings against Northwestern or Minnesota.

Kinda takes away some of the magic from the buildup to the game, doesn’t it?

And here is something else to consider – In order for the two rivals to meet in the conference championship (the alleged payoff), their regular season matchup MUST be completely irrelevant.

Think about it. If Ohio State and Michigan are scheduled to play each other as the last game of the regular season, and then they meet AGAIN in the conference championship, that means that division standings were already locked in and decided BEFORE the regular season finale. One of the teams MUST lose during that regular season game, so if they can STILL make the conference championship after LOSING that game, they didn’t need to play it at all.

So what was the point of having that regular season game?!

Then, when the teams DO play the second time around (one week later), it is only the winner of THAT game that reaps any reward. If Ohio State wins game one, then Michigan wins the conference championship, it is Michigan who gets the title, EVEN THOUGH Ohio State already beat them just one week prior. There is no tiebreaker, even though they split the two games at 1-1, and the championship is awarded not necessarily to the BEST team, but to the team with the better TIMED victory.

What the all too likely outcome of this poor choice for a division structure in the Big Ten will actually result in is that these great rivals will almost never actually face off against each other in the conference championship, no matter how exciting the prospect of that matchup may be. And when they do face off on that grand stage, it will come just one week after they already played each other in a worthless game that was nothing more than a timewaster for everyone involved.

Congratulations Big Ten leaders, you have just made the biggest rivalry/rivalries in sports completely meaningless!

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