There’s Only One Way To Preserve The Michigan Ohio State Football Rivalry As We Know It
The Big Ten, as is the case for much of high-level college sports, is undergoing an era of massive change.
This coming season will be the last for the league's 14-team format. The conference has annexed Los Angeles, making Hollywood part of Big Ten Country, with UCLA and USC set to join in 2024. That's also when the league will abolish its divisional format for football and instead begin sending the teams with the two best records to the Big Ten championship game every season.
And that change could prove to be the most impactful one, even amid this time of previously unthinkable conference realignment, unprecedented player movement, and virtually unregulated player compensation. Why's that? Because it could effectively ruin the rivalry that has been the Big Ten's most valuable commodity for 50 years, one of the sport's greatest traditions, and one of the best rivalries in all of sports.
The Michigan-Ohio State football game has served as the traditional regular-season finale all but four years since 1935. The Big Ten championship has been decided between the two teams in "The Game" 25 times, and the result of the Wolverines' and Buckeyes' annual rivalry game has had a hand in determining the Big Ten title on 37 occasions.
The last two seasons, Michigan-Ohio State has been the de facto Big Ten title game and a veritable College Football Playoff play-in game.
All of those details paint a pretty clear picture. This rivalry, which already defines two of the biggest brands and most historic programs, is one of the most singularly important games in all of sports.
But that significance — sanctity, some would say — is going to be irreparably tarnished by the Big Ten's new format.
If the league had operated without divisions over the last two seasons, the Michigan-Ohio State game at the end of the regular season would have been rendered completely meaningless. In both cases, the two teams would have rematched the following weekend in Indianapolis to determine the Big Ten championship.
Imagine the deflated, ambivalent feel The Game would have taken on in those scenarios. Or don't, because you won't have to imagine it for long. It's likely to be reality very soon.
An unintended consequence of a division-less Big Ten is a Michigan-Ohio State regular-season finale played at the Horseshoe or the Big House between two teams that have already clinched Big Ten title game appearances and, because of that, rest their best players, essentially forfeiting the game, in anticipation of the real showdown a week later in Indianapolis. The thought of the Wolverines or Buckeyes giving anything less than absolutely everything they have to etch their place in the long history of this rivalry was unthinkable forever, but now it's an eventuality.
But there is a way to avoid this absolute travesty, a solution that would prevent this blasphemy against college football from ever occurring. The problem is, though, that the pompous megalomaniacs in Ann Arbor and Columbus would never accept the change necessary to preserve the integrity of their precious rivalry.
The Michigan-Ohio State game has to be moved up by at least a month.
If you're someone who has normalized the outright worship of a khaki-wearing man with an undiagnosed personality disorder, or you're someone who thinks it's not only reasonable but in fact fashionable to wear nuts around your neck, your brain probably won't allow you to read the prior sentence. But if you really think about it, it's the only way to save The Game.
Many of college football's great rivalry games are played before the end of the regular season. Florida-Georgia, Notre Dame-USC, Texas-Oklahoma — they're all played plum in the middle of the college football calendar. Michigan-Ohio State could do the same.
But that wouldn't satisfy the egos of the Michigan and Ohio State fanbases, because their beloved rivalry game could never deign to be played on a random, anonymous fall Saturday. That's why it should be played as the Big Ten opener. It's the next-best thing to being the finale, and it would invariably lead to a summertime of hype every season if The Game was always the fourth week of the season.
The irony is that Michigan and Ohio State are downright intractable about moving their rivalry game because, they say, that would ruin the tradition and meaning. Meanwhile, leaving The Game in its outdated place at the end of the regular season actually would ruin the tradition and meaning.
Sometimes, you get what you deserve.