Pragmatic Opposition to Moving Ohio State-Michigan

Defending the Ohio State-Michigan status quo is not a matter of arguing for tradition for tradition’s sake.

There is certainly some validity to Spencer Hall’s advice to “Beware anyone who defends things out of tradition, since tradition all by its lonesome makes as much sense as changing things for change’s sake, i.e. none.”, but there is more at work here.

While I’m sure there are people who want to see OSU and Michigan continue to conclude the regular season just because that’s the way it’s always been, why stop there?

Moving the rivalry won’t destroy it, per se, but it will fundamentally change it by eliminating half of what has made it what it is, and it will do so for no good, reliably-likely-to-occur reason.

Hence why it’s such a bad idea.

It’s hard to imagine any teams have dominated their conference so consistently as Ohio State and Michigan have dominated the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines have combined for 76 outright or shared Big Ten championships. The other 10 teams who have played in the league (including Chicago) have a combined 89.

Michigan leads the way with 42 while OSU has 34. Sitting third on the all-time list is Minnesota, and the Golden Gophers need to finish atop the standings every year from now until 2025 to catch the Buckeyes.

So while Ohio State and Michigan play for bragging rights like many others, they also almost always play to prove one team or the other is the best in their conference, too, and when the game is over there is no question, unlike when folks like Oklahoma and Texas or Florida and Georgia go at it, so I suppose it makes sense people who know one of those games as their example of an intraconference blood feud would overlook the crux of the problem.

The rivalry won’t die (not sure anyone has argued that it would), but it will be significantly altered for the worse if it is reduced to a simple game for bragging rights as opposed to a chance to ruin a perfect season or derail championship hopes of a national or conference variety.

Playing for a berth in a conference championship diminishes the stakes somewhat, but that is far more palatable than moving it to the middle of season where it’s just another game from a standings point of view as opposed to the last piece of the puzzle in the conference race.

I don’t think anyone lamenting this potential change is arguing there should be no Big Ten championship game. That discussion is over and done. It’s coming, and life will go on.

UT-OU does not make for a fitting comparison because that game has been played in early October at a neutral site for as long as the OSU-Michigan game has been the last game of the season. Therefore UT-OU has never had the immediate and final impact on the conference and national races that OSU-Michigan has. UT and OU both have end-of-season in-state rivalries that serve that role. Florida plays Georgia in the middle of the season, but both schools’ end-of-season rivals are nonconference teams, so again the stakes are not the same.

Thus aside from one week of bluster before the days get too short, Texas-Oklahoma game is just another game that draws a little extra attention nationally. It’s not Auburn-Alabama. It’s not Ohio State-Michigan. It’s not USC-UCLA or the Civil War. All those games have made or broken one of the team’s seasons in the very recent past. Meanwhile in 2008 Texas beat Oklahoma and ended up with diddly squat because of what happened later in the season. The Sooners lost that game and still played in the national championship game because they had time to recover by beating other teams.

Think about that for a second.

How would Ohio State’s history be different if it had the chance to redeem itself after losses to Michigan in 1969 or ’95 or ’96? Seven decades of such games has produced a certain kind of intensity that will dissipate, and that’s how tradition becomes an issue to consider for the future as opposed to just a word to throw up there for the sole purpose of shooting down.

The intensity, the immediacy, the impending-end-of-the-worldness can’t be replaced at any other point in the season. That it’s been there in the past is what makes it relevant to the future impact The Game will have and why tradition is more than a buzzword to be cast aside.

I doubt playing OSU-UM twice will reduce attention for the game from the fans of those two schools.

It will hurt the intensity and the feel of it for all involved if it ceases to be only once a year, but people will still watch.

I contend eventually national folks will lose interest, though, and that matters because that’s who the conference is chasing for TV dollars.

Let’s not give scarcity short shrift here. It’s helped football for as long as the game has been around.

It’s cool when the Red Sox and Yankees play because we see two teams that hate each other in a pro sports world with far too little true animosity anymore, but when  they play again a month later and the same storyline repeats itself, I find it more annoying than compelling.

If they run into each other in the postseason, that is compelling, but that does not translate to the following regular season like TV people seem to think it does based on how they sell it. Of course, MLB regular season matchups are already cheap so that doesn’t matter like it does in college football, and that goes for all of college football, not just OSU-Michigan.

In college basketball, North Carolina-Duke twice a year is cool because each team gets a shot to defend its home court with all the local traditions and charm included. That’s part of the natural course of a basketball season, so it makes sense like divisional double-dips in the NFL. Revenge can be a nice ingredient the second time around, too, and if the game is late enough in the season that a conference crown might be decided – all the better.

But when they play in the ACC tournament, I feel duped for getting geared up for the previous meetings and thinking that was all there would be this year. As a result, I’m less enthused as a casual observer to watch the following year because the curtain has been pulled back on the effect of the overall hype.

“Oh, they’re playing again? What else is on?”

In amateur football, teams play once per year. It’s a nice arrangement given the length of the season and the violence of the game. It means we know exactly how much enthusiasm to pour into each matchup with our rivals, be they from across the street, across the county or across state lines. How much? All of it. All is a convenient amount. It doesn’t even require a measuring cup…

That’s not the only problem, though.

Being overlooked in all this the message the Big Ten is sending about the rest of its schools.

Tearing apart everything in order to gain one possible outcome that isn’t even that likely (and for perhaps a relatively small financial gain that Jim Delany claims he hasn’t even discussed with network partners yet) to come to fruition often is a great endorsement for every other possible matchup, isn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard there are pretty big, passionate fan bases at Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska that make those schools attractive BCS bowl participants. The conference should be growing those brands as part of the league’s overall identity, not ignoring them. That is especially true because Michigan might never be back.

Sure, the Wolverines will return to respectability, but maintaining a superpower in the Midwest has never been more difficult than it is right now. Michigan has (or at least had) an ability to recruit nationally that few schools enjoy, but no school can live on national recruits alone. It must have a solid local base to fill out its roster with solid contributors and the occasional star, too.

Lacking its own talent base, Michigan has done a lot more than just make due by pilfering players from Ohio. For decades, many great Wolverines were born in the Buckeye State – at least until lately.

Jim Tressel’s famed fence around Ohio has helped keep his program among the national elite while at the same time cutting off his greatest rival at the knees.

As long as Ohio State still has a coach who controls Ohio the way Tressel does, Michigan will have a hard time maintaining a roster that is brimming with talent every year like in the days of old.

The best the Wolverines will be able to do without hitting at an unusually high rate of success with out-of-state stars (from unfamiliar enclaves where the competition is unknown and the high school head coaches have no mandate to be honest about what type of kid they’re getting because they may never hear from you again) is hope to be is what Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State are right now (Too soon to know what kind of consistency the new Nebraska will maintain, but they face their challenges positioned in a state with such a small population) – decent regularly with a chance to hit the top 10 every three or four years when a majority of the best players on the roster are upperclassmen.

Those teams could play for a national championship, but only if everything goes right during the regular season – and it happens to be that regular season they max out their talent and experience. And if they make the title game, they could win it but are more likely to find out they don’t have the star power of their likely opponent, be it Texas, Florida, Alabama, USC, etc. That’s what happened to Ohio State in 2006 and ’07, prompting Tressel to take his recruiting to a more national scope while maintaining his grasp on the goings on back home as well (Remains to be seen if that will work out or not but the current juniors are the first class I believe to reflect this change). Ohio State is in a unique position at the center of the best cold-weather source of talent while also maintaining a brand name that allows it to compete with the best of the best in the recruiting world. Michigan has only the latter, and that is tarnished at the moment.

I suppose there is some irony in that the Big Ten is at once trashing its greatest product in order to market it while also turning its back on an opportunity to highlight the potential of its other assets that have a history of their own.

It’s almost as if rather than tradition holding the Big Ten back, it’s biting the conference both coming and going.

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