Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told me Tuesday that the league is about 80 percent done with the division alignments, and he hopes to make an announcement by mid September. But he can confirm one part of the plan right now: Ohio State and Michigan will play every year.
"We're not losing the Ohio State-Michigan game," Delany said.
That's nice, but the big uproar right now relates to when The Game will be played. Momentum has been building since Big Ten media days that the archrivals could be placed in different divisions and have their matchup moved off of the final regular-season Saturday. A lot of folks aren't happy about this at all.
Like athletic directors Dave Brandon (Michigan) and Gene Smith (Ohio State), Delany kept the door very much open to an Ohio State-Michigan divisional split. He told me he wasn't aware of Brandon's comments last week to WTKA Radio, so I filled him in and asked him several questions about the future of The Game.
Here's the interview:
Jim Delany: Dave [Brandon] played at Michigan and he played in that game. So as much as any fan knows the significance of that game, Dave understands that. Number 2, the reason the Big Ten is great is because of our fans. We had five and a half million fans come to games [in 2009]. Whether it’s the Rose Bowl or Ohio State-Michigan, we welcome that, and there’s an awful lot of discussion of, generally speaking, how our fans feel about what we do. We're not fan-insensitive, we're fan-receptive and are only interested in doing what is going to grow our fan base. We saw the loss of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game as not only a loss for Nebraska and Oklahoma; we saw it as somewhat of a loss for college football. Where Ohio State and Michigan end up in divisions and when the game is played is consequential and important, but I’ll tell you this: that game will be played."
What are your feelings on when it should be played?
Delany: Because we're working on schedules, that's to be determined. I can tell you, though, that you could make an argument in favor of them being in the same division and playing it late. You could make a good argument that Michigan and Ohio State should never really be playing for a divisional crown. If they're going to play, play for the right to go to the Rose Bowl.
So that would create the potential for a rematch?
Delany: What I'm saying is when Tennessee and Florida play, when Auburn and Alabama play, only one of those teams is going to go to the championship game because they're in the same division. I hear the argument in favor of having a showdown historically because often times, it has been for the conference championship and the right to go to the Rose Bowl. But for those who argue for [Ohio State and Michigan] being in the same division, they're really arguing that they should be playing to go to the divisional championship game, not to the Rose Bowl.
But they're also arguing for that game to stay in the schedule, too, where it's always been, aren't they?
Delany: Yeah. Nobody is really suggesting that the big games shouldn't be in November; they should be. The argument is not necessarily where the game is. It was always late, but it was always potentially for the [Big Ten] championship and the Rose Bowl.
But you can't play that game the week before the championship game if they're in different divisions, can you?
Delany: We've yet to cross the bridge, but I think you could have them in the same division, or you could have them in different divisions. If you have them in the same division, they're playing for a spot in the [championship] game. If you have them in different divisions, they’re playing potentially in the championship game for the Rose Bowl. So it depends on what you want. They're people in [two] camps. We get mail on both sides, we listen to both sides, we try to respect the tradition. There are other rivalries that are also pretty intense. It could be Michigan-Michigan State, could be Purdue and Indiana.
I know this: it will be there. I don't know exactly when it will be, and I don't know exactly the divisions. That's to be determined. Our presidents haven't seen it, our AD’s haven’t finalized anything, and we haven’t done the schedules yet. I understand the sensitivity and I understand the point of view. I played in three Duke-North Carolina [basketball] games and they were late, and sometimes they’re for the ACC championship and sometimes they're not. But the most important thing is that they're played. If you have them in the same division, one of those teams is going to the playoff and one of them is not. If you split teams, whether it’s Purdue and Indiana, or Illinois and Northwestern, or Michigan-Ohio State, or Nebraska and Penn State, if you split them, they can both go. If you don’t split them, only one can go.
Would you lose anything by taking all your rivals and saying, 'We want to see if these teams can meet with the right to go to the Rose Bowl,' and then not have a Saturday in November that is Rivalry Saturday?
Delany: A lot of it has to do with [momentum]. You’ve got one portion of the schedule which is about nonconference. You've got another portion which is about divisional games. And then you're going to have cross-divisional games, and then you’re going to have build toward the teams playing mega games in late November, leading to the championship. That's in the process of being determined, discussed and agreed upon. I would just tell you there's strong arguments on both sides, and we're trying to listen. I would put Michigan-Ohio State among the top five events in all of sports for rivalry. It'll get played. Now the question is, how best to play it? Are they in the same divisions or are they not? Do they play in the last game, the second-to-last game, the third-to-last game? How to do that is still under discussion.