Ohio State Vs. Michigan Matters, But Not As Much As A Big Ten Championship Game

Moving Michigan vs. Ohio State is a big deal, but the bigger deal is the addition of a conference championship game to put the Big Ten on equal footing with BCS voters. Spencer Hall explains that, and the evil of baseball caps on grown men.

Tradition is cute. In fact, it remains one of my favorite bullshit arguments along with the slippery slope. Sometimes it's fun to combine them into one horrible nonsensical argument that, despite lacking any logic whatsoever, will convince impassioned people of its legitimacy. 


It is a tradition at my house to get drunk and set off fireworks on New Year's eve. My definition of fireworks includes flash grenades I bought from a sketchy army surplus store, Occasionally, those flash grenades land on other people's roofs and set them on fire. This is also part of my people's tradition. 

Now the police are telling me I can't exercise my rights in my family's traditional New Year's Eve fireworks display. I'm sorry--I THOUGHT THIS WAS AMERICA. Where will it end? What's next? Your right to hold sparklers? Your Christmas lights? MAYBE THEY'LL TELL YOU YOU CAN'T HAVE CHRISTMAS. 

Signed, an idiot who believes in slippery slope arguments and tradition above all sense. 

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. Thus we arrive at the Big Ten's door, or more specifically its fans, who lag behind the rather forward-thinking conference by insisting that Ohio State and Michigan should not play more than once a year, that moving them into separate divisions would be a travesty, and that men should take their hats off inside and most especially in the presence of a lady.* 

*I'm actually totally behind this one. Take your hats off inside, especially you, baseball cap dick. Furthermore, grown men should not wear baseball caps, as they join beeper clips, pleated pants, and shirts with banded collars as things that grown men should never wear for any reason whatsoever. 

The only argument behind not having them play more than once a year in conference play (once in season, and then perhaps again in a championship game) is tradition and identity. Unfortunately for the fans, the Big Ten's identity right now is that of a major conference most often identified with the words stodgy, slow, boring, and "last seen being given a pantsless triangle choke by an SEC team in the national title game."

[Cue sound of squealing brakes.]

You and I both know, as intelligent, sometimes sober viewers of college football that this isn't fair. This should all be refuted with a charmingly retro flimstrip of some sort. Here's the Big Ten actually engaging in the most forward-thinking media strategy in college football. (BING!) Advancing to the next slide, here's the Big Ten's respectable bowl record in all bowl games against the SEC. (BING!) Here are the substantial achievements of the Ohio State football program, whose only sin is that they have been the second best football program in the country over the past decade or so. (BING!) Here are the fat revenues, excellent attendance, and consistent rankings of the conference. This filmstrip is a production of College Football Realities, Inc. 

[/end filmstrip] 

Tradition, however, has gotten the Big Ten little traction in terms of national perception. Argue about the existence of the soul of the conference all you like. That is a theological argument, and not the political one we're making right now, the argument about the SEC managing to game the system (accidentally, but effectively) in the age of the BCS. Michigan and Ohio State splitting up into two different divisions may weaken the magnetic bond of hatred between the two teams, but it could also strengthen the Big Ten's profile nationally, which would be better for the conference as a whole, and ...


There is one argument that empirically argues against having Michigan and Ohio State play earlier in the season: the tendency of an early loss to have more of an adverse effect on a team's ranking than a late loss. (No, really: there's data to back this up and everything.) If the two play early the loser will have a harder time recovering in the polls over the course of the season, especially if the loss comes by a hefty margin. 

The one counter to this is the adoption of a championship game, which has a leveling effect in the form of giving voters, the squishy, fallible human element in all of this, a definitive end to the storyline. This effect isn't limited to teams who play each other in the season, mind you. The Big 12 and SEC title games have shown that a team can have a single loss in the BCS era, and perhaps even two, and still make a compelling argument with voters that they belong in a national title game. it's all about the positioning of the loss and the balance that a convincing performance in the title game makes for voters. 

The two most dominant programs in the Big Ten historically have been Michigan and Ohio State. Building a two-division system where they may can recoup an early loss with a rematch later in the season assumes that these two will remain the dominant powers. For the moment this may not be true thanks to Michigan's recent swoon, but historically it is a solid bet given the size of the programs, their ample budgets, and the commitment to football demonstrated by both schools. They're not going anywhere. 

Putting then in separate divisions ensures some future competitive balance, and it also means the possibility of an even bigger rematch down the road when/if they face each other in the regular season. Please remember our traditionalists here: they will claim that this is a zero-sum game, and that there is a finite amount of enthusiasm to go around. This is not how the irrational economics of sports works. See baseball for an example of how teams can play approximately three thousand times during the season, decide definitively who the better team is through repeated trials, and still hook slobbering fans on a rematch in the playoffs simply through different packaging. 

Say you won't care and you lie with your lying mouth, Big Ten fan. Today marks the biannual day when I actually agree with Dennis Dodd on something (other than the value of oxygen and food): this is simply maximizing your most valuable asset as a conference, and creating a hype-covered bit of awesome where once there was none. This will not be the ACC Championship game, since Big Ten fans care about football, and will accept any excuse to get out of the house in early December.*

Please note that if we agree with Dodd on anything else this year, you will see the last of me writing in this space, since it is very difficult to write when you have thrown yourself headfirst off a tall structure. 

The positioning is important for the two teams concerned, granted. More important for the conference as a whole will be the addition of the championship game itself, the underreported story of the offseason in the Big Ten. Rather than lying dormant for a month, the Big Ten will manage to stamp the voting Borg of college football with a final audition. That audition will be regarded as definitive, since championship games do carry additional weight with voters, as the recent string of one-loss SEC title winners shows. In a good year for the conference, a championship game provides a lift in the rankings, and in a really good year it can even sneak a two-loss team into the BCS title picture. (See: LSU 2007.)*

*Is it padding the win total a bit? Sure. Could you get aberrant results in this one-team conference playoff? You bet your ass you can, as Oklahoma losing to Kansas State in the 2003 Big 12 Title Game showed. Even then, though, don't underestimate the insanity of the system currently in place. LSU used the SEC Championship game as an argument for inclusion in the BCS picture; Oklahoma made it to the 2003 Title Game DESPITE the Championship Game. Spin is crucial here, and having a conference championship game can be a boon for your conference either way. If you win it? Demonstrated value of the team. If you lose it? Further proof our conference is the strongest in the nation from top to bottom. Is this deeply and horrifically cynical? Yes. Does it work? With the precision of a Jim Tressel pants crease, sirs and madams, and it's an effect the Big Ten is going to work overtime to achieve in the coming decade. 

In the case that Ohio State and Michigan do meet up in that game, it will have a multiplier effect on the rivalry, not a dampening one--especially beer is allowed to be sold in in the neutral site stadium. (Pepper spray does not deter Ohio State fans, Indy police. it only arouses them.) The winner then catapults with additional force into the national title picture, has a stronger argument for a slot in the BCS title game, and the Big Ten dives not into an unforgiving pool of nickels, but into a warm, forgiving hot tub full of hundred dollar bills. Wins and bratwurst kisses all around. 

Don't flee into the arms of the Texas/Oklahoma rivalry to make a point about how both could prosper in the same division, either. It's true, both Texas and Oklahoma have shared a division in the Big 12 South for 15 years now, and both have made the BCS Title game and kept the national profile of the Big 12 alive despite being divisional rivals. Yet their game, supposedly so significant, doesn't even always decide the shape of the national title picture. The 12-1 Texas team that beat Oklahoma in 2008 ended up missing the Big 12 title game due to the nonsensical tiebreakers used by the Big 12, while Oklahoma advanced to the title game, won, and then was defeated there by Florida. It all depends on the perception of voters, who while unpredictable will grant you one thing: your strength of schedule is stronger with it than without it. 

Meanwhile, the current system in the Big Ten ensures that one loss in the rivalry game means the loser misses a shot at greater glory. If the rivalry game is all that matters to you, the concept of greater glory means nothing, but for the Big Ten that greater glory and the ad revenues for the conference are very, very important indeed. In this instance Jim Delany is more than happy to jettison tradition for innovation, something the Big Ten has done more often than one might think in the past. Its fans should follow suit if they want to join the rest of the college football universe in competing in the BCS era on a regular basis.*

(*Ohio State excepted. You're doing just fine, bad breaks in big bowl games and all.) 

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