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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Everyone loves talking about conference realignment, it appears, but some really hate the idea of a conference championship game taking away some of the luster of Michigan-Ohio State or, worse, regularly pitting the Michigan-OSU winner against some goofy school in the Western half of the conference that may or may not be worth the bid.

I do agree with them, partially: there's no reason to go to divisions. Divisions will either split Michigan and Ohio State, leading to a lot of Michigan-Ohio State title games the week after Michigan-Ohio State non-title games, or keep them together, leading to a lot of Big 12-style title games that aren't fair fights or compelling matchups. Ideally, an expanded Big Ten will add a ninth conference game and continue with the single table for standings. This would make a title game a dodgy, sometimes unnecessary possibility. But since Penn State joined the conference there have been co-championships galore, sometimes without the co-champions even meeting, seemingly random Rose Bowl decisions, and a general feeling of being zo... unsatysfyed about half the time. Let's survey the years since Penn State joined to see if a championship game would be net benefit or detriment.

Ohio State and Wisconsin are co-champions at 6-1-1 in conference; the two tie 14-14. Wisconsin goes to the Rose Bowl because Ohio State has been more recently.
Verdict: Obviously a championship game to break this deadlock is desirable, but this situation will never come up again with the introduction of overtime. Not relevant.
Undefeated Penn State is the outright champion. Nobody else finishes the regular season with fewer than four losses.
Verdict: A championship game would be unnecessary and, worse, would open up the possibility of a K-State-esque fall from glory from a team that had already proven its worth. No.
Northwestern's miracle year. They beat Notre Dame, then lose to Miami (Ohio) and sweep the rest of their schedule. They miss second place Ohio State, whose only regular season loss is to Michigan in the finale.
Verdict: Ohio State missed out on an opportunity to beat Northwestern head to head and claim the title. Yes, they lost in conference and Northwestern did not but in a hypothetical world where OSU got a ninth conference game against the Wildcats, if they won they would have the same record and a head-to-head tiebreaker. It would have been fairer to have the two play. Yes.
Northwestern's second miracle year; this time they tie for the conference championship with Ohio State, who again blow an undefeated season by losing to Michigan. Both teams are 7-1 this year, and the two don't play each other.
Verdict: Obvious benefit here. This, along with the coming Iowa-OSU shared title, are the platonic ideal when it comes to title games. Yes.
Michigan's national championship season. The Wolverines are undefeated. Penn State and Ohio State tie for second at 6-2. Michigan defeats both of them during the course of the year.
Verdict: Two contenders two games back who have already lost to the champion don't deserve a rematch. No.
A three-way tie between Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. All are 7-1. Wisconsin and Ohio State do not play. OSU's loss is to Michigan State, Michigan's is to Ohio State, and Wisconsin's is to Michigan. Wisconsin is chosen as the Rose Bowl representative for no apparent reason.
Verdict: This is an unfulfilling result. Wisconsin plays an easier schedule than Michigan, loses to them, and still goes to the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, Ohio State beats the team that beat Wisconsin and still misses out. But how do you unravel the three-way-tie here? If both teams had beaten the other it's easy to excise the loser, but here we have an incomplete round-robin. If you go by overall record, 11-1 Wisconsin and 11-1 Ohio State win out but that just increases the incentive to fluff your schedule: Wisconsin played SDSU, Ohio, and UNLV out of conference while Michigan played Syracuse, ND, and EMU. Let's just throw up our hands and say maybe.
Wisconsin finally earns a Rose Bowl berth instead of having one handed to them by archaic bylaws by finishing 7-1. Their loss is to 6-2 Michigan, which ties for second with Michigan State. Wisconsin beats Michigan State, Michigan State beats Michigan.
Verdict: We have an outright champion that played the runners-up. Even if it lost to one of them, a championship game here is not necessary. No.
Another three-way-tie, this one between Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue. All are 6-2. Michigan's losses are to Northwestern and Purdue; Purdue loses to under .500 Penn State and Michigan State; Northwestern loses to Purdue and Iowa.
Verdict: This three-way is easy to untangle: Michigan gets booted because it lost to both other co-champions. Then we're left with Purdue and Northwestern, who tied in the standings but also met on the field with Purdue winning. This one is a matter of taste. Personally, it wouldn't be a tragedy if the two had a rematch. Maybe.
Illinois is the outright champion. Their only loss is to second place Michigan; Michigan drops games against Ohio State and Michigan State.
Verdict: Odd situation, this, with an outright champion who lost to a second place team a game behind. A rematch wouldn't be a terrible thing. Maybe. Do you change your mind if reminded that the 2001 Michigan State game was the infamous "clockgate" game? Note than any State fans wishing to make their weak case that they are not filthy cheaters should consider the horrible vengance Angry Michigan Safety Hating God has wreaked on the Spartans: the next year, of course, was the 49-3 meltdown that got Bobby Williams fired and they hired the only guy they could find who was a bigger laughingstock than Williams, who proceeded to lose four straight to Michigan, two of them in excruciating fashion. Yea, you reap what you sow.
Iowa and Ohio State are both undefeated. They don't play each other.
Verdict: Obviously yes.
Michigan is the outright champion. Their only conference loss is to Iowa, but the Hawkeyes end up 5-3. Michigan defeats second place, 6-2 Ohio State on the final day of the season.
Verdict: An outright champion that beat the second-place team. No.
Iowa and Michigan are co-champs. Michigan's only loss is to Ohio State; Iowa loses to Michigan in the Big Ten opener.
Verdict: A matter of personal preference like a few previous years. Maybe.
Ohio State and Penn State are co-champs. Both are 7-1. Penn State's loss is to Michigan. Ohio State's loss is to Penn State.
Verdict: Repeat of last year. Maybe.
Ohio State burns a swath of destruction through the Big Ten, skipping Wisconsin. Second place is a 7-1 tie between the Badgers and Michigan. Michgan loses to OSU; Wisconsin loses to Michigan.
Verdict: Another sticky wicket. We have an outright champ who missed one of the second place teams but putting Wisconsin in the title game over Michigan seems to stupidly reward an easier schedule and ignore head-to-head. But what's the point of replaying a game you just saw? No.

We have one not applicable, five no, three yes, and a whopping five maybes. Your personal opinion on the maybes will influence your stand considerably. Personally, I don't mind if we get a rematch when two teams are tied in the standings.

I have a suggestion that may be logistically impossible, but here goes: the Big Ten should have an optional title game. Outright champion? No title game. But if two (or more) teams end up tied at the end of the year, put a game on in Chicago or Indianapolis between the co-champs. If three teams are tied, break ties like so:
  • If one team has lost to both others, they're out.
  • Eliminate the team with the weakest conference schedule.
  • If one team has lost to another co-champion and didn't play the second, they're out.
  • I dunno, overall record?
The Big Ten will be wasting some money on preparations on years there is no title game but there would obviously be a net profit, and the Big Ten championship would end up more satisfying overall. Year by year, this system would result in the following games:

1994: None.
1995: None.

1996: Northwestern vs. Ohio State.
1997: None.
1998: Michigan vs. Ohio State.
1999: None.
2000: Northwestern vs. Purdue.

2001: None.
2002: Iowa vs Ohio State.
2003: None.
2004: Iowa vs Michigan.
2005: Ohio State vs Penn State.

2006: None.

Six games in 13 years, only one of them a weird "let's play a doubleheader" Michigan-OSU game, and no more stupid co-championships or undeserved Wisconsin Rose Bowls. In this scenario a hypothetical twelfth team has been added; if the number of games does not expand there will be significantly more Iowa-OSU 2002 situations and a title game will happen more often.

Yes, this is all pretty stupid speculation when I really should be previewing Big Ten teams. I'm on it.