One of the biggest issues the Big Ten will have to consider when coming up with divisional alignment in 2014 is whether to keep Ohio State and Michigan in separate divisions or place them together.
They are unquestionably the league's two biggest brand names and have the most storied rivalry in the conference. When Nebraska joined the league to bring about division play, Michigan and Ohio State were split up. But many, including yours truly, believe the two teams should play in the same division, in part to avoid the possibility of the two playing their traditional game on the season's final weekend and then having a rematch a week later in the Big Ten title game.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com on Friday that he's in favor of the idea of the Buckeyes and Wolverines competing in the same division, though he's not taking a hard-line stance on it. Big Ten athletic directors will meet next month to discuss division alignment and other issues for the 2014 season, when Maryland and Rutgers join the league.
"I kind of lean toward having us in the same division," he said. "But I'm open to keeping it as it is, based on what my colleagues might share."
Smith said he has had informal discussions with Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon about the two teams being in the same division and that both sides were open to the idea. In an email to ESPN.com, Brandon said, "I would certainly not be opposed to being in the same division as OSU if it was in the best interest of our conference. I look forward to the discussion with my colleagues and our conference leadership."
"Going into the meetings, we would be leaning toward being in the same division," Smith said. "But there might be something that comes up in the [AD meetings] that could change our minds."
Smith said "there are pros and cons both ways" on the Michigan-Ohio State issue. Having both in one division could hurt the league in years where the Buckeyes and Wolverines are the top two teams, as one would not play for the conference championship. But rivals like Alabama and Auburn and USC and UCLA compete in the same division of their conferences, and the division title could often be on the line when the two teams meet in their rivalry game, adding even more drama to the mix. And there would be no back-to-back rematches, as we saw in the Pac-12 last season when Stanford and UCLA played on consecutive weekends.
The Big Ten put Michigan in the Legends and Ohio State in the Leaders division two years ago in large part for competitive balance purposes. But geography is expected to play a much larger role in re-alignment with two Eastern programs coming on board.
"The first time, we really focused a lot on competitive balance, and I think that's still important to do," Smith said. "But with Rutgers and Maryland and Penn State in the East, we may need to rethink and sacrifice some competitive balance in order to make sure we integrate those two new teams in the East the right way."
Smith said he would prefer that Ohio State be placed in the same division as the Eastern teams, both for travel purposes and to give the Buckeyes a presence in that region. But he also said that Ohio State would agree to whatever is in the best interests of the league overall.
League athletic directors are scheduled to meet several times this spring to discuss issues such as division alignment, division names, bowls and whether to expand to a nine- or even 10-game conference schedule. They will give their recommendation to Big Ten presidents in June.