Michigan-Ohio State rivalry a century in the build-up; deflated in no time at all

Despite some evidence to the contrary, the guys who run college football can count.

So although there will be 12 teams in the Big Ten Conference by 2012 — and 10 teams in the Big 12 Conference, for that matter — don't be distracted. That's not the kind of math they get worked up over.

What they worry about instead is how many more zeros can squeeze onto the TV rights checks. That's the reason college football looks like a garage sale at the moment.

Everything from longtime conference loyalties to rivalry games that stretch back a century has a tag attached to it as conferences bulk up to make themselves more attractive and forceful presences in a national championship picture that isn't fully developed.

People in the Midwest would argue there's no way to put a value on the Michigan-Ohio State game, but they're wrong.

It's a rite of fall in these parts, a game that's been played more than 100 times, usually as the culmination of the regular season and often with something beyond civic pride on the line. But making it just like any other game on any other fall weekend helps clear the way for realignment and a championship game in the Big Ten — which, with a full house on hand and a healthier TV sports market, could add something like $10 million a year to the conference's bottom line.

"We've had those debates. It's a good one," Commissioner Jim Delany told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week. "The question is whether you want to confine a game that's one of the greatest rivalries of all time to a divisional game."

The answer is almost certainly yes, though Delany won't say so yet.

"We have not discussed this with our TV partners," he said.

But just like all the other conference commissioners scurrying to extend their reach, he knows the day is coming. The Big Ten was already at 11 teams before it made a successful pitch to add Nebraska, which will require expanding to two divisions and adding the championship game in the bargain.

The most likely realignment scenario involves putting the historic rivals in different divisions, then having them play in the middle of the regular season rather than at the end. That way, if they meet in the championship game, it won't feel as much like a rematch.

Never mind that few championship games are as memorable as even the clunkers Michigan and Ohio State have played over the years. When pressed, most coaches would concede they view championship games as necessary evils; they're the price a team pays so that its conference keeps a seat at the table for the Bowl Championship Series postseason galas.

But no one ever looked at Michigan-Ohio State that way. The lore that grew up around the game was testimony to that. Play it twice a year, even if the second time is for the league championship, and plenty of the air leaks out of both.

Just so nobody at Michigan or Ohio State takes it personally, several of the Big Ten's rivalry or trophy games likely will get lost in the same shuffle.

To be fair, it's possible the current conference shape-shifting will produce dividends. Chances of a real playoff will go up, the quality of the product will go up and the money paid out — what college football is really about these days — will go up, up and up.

Plus, we won't have to listen to athletic directors, conference commissioners and even university presidents prattle on about how much they value "tradition."

Everything really does have a price.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org