Determining the Big Ten’s new football scheduling format for 2024 and beyond meant compromises.
Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith is OK with that — even if it could mean Ohio State and Michigan playing in back-to-back weeks.
“That is a possibility,” Smith conceded in an appearance on the Big Ten Network after the conference announced opponents (but not dates) for the league’s teams in 2024 and ‘25.
Smith said he discussed it with Michigan director of athletics Warde Manuel and they agreed to it “for the betterment of the whole, the betterment of the league, relative to our overall scheduling format, and our television partners. At the end of the day we needed to accept it that as possible.”
It won’t happen in 2023 because the league will maintain its two divisions with seven teams, but the Big Ten is dropping divisions in 2024 when USC and UCLA join the conference.
Then there will still be a conference championship game, but it will match the top two teams in the standings at the end of the regular season.
“It was important to know those two teams demonstrated through their body of work that they’ve earned an opportunity to compete in the championship game,” Smith said of adopting that format after the league used divisional play from 2011-2023. “When you run the gauntlet of the regular conference season and you end up being No. 1 and No. 2 in the standings, you’ve earned that right. So I’m excited about having no divisions. I think divisions served us well in our history and our transition to this space, but now this opportunity to play a kind of semi-round robin is actually better.”
Ohio State and Michigan lead the the conference in championships by a wide margin with Michigan having won 44 and Ohio State 40. Minnesota is next with 18.
Playing de-facto conference championship games was part of the contest developing into The Game.
According to research by the Michigan Sports Information Department, at least a share of the conference championship (or division title) has been on the line 49 times since the teams began playing the last regular season game of the season annually in 1935. That included 24 times they decided the champion between themselves on the last Saturday of the regular season.
Were the current format in place since ‘35, the teams would have had an estimated 24 immediate rematches, including the past two seasons and eight times during the “10-Year War” when Woody Hayes coached Ohio State against his former pupil Bo Schembechler at Michigan (1969-78).
Looking back at the present and future again, each Big Ten team will continue playing nine league games, including protected rivalries for some teams but not all.
Overall, every team will play every other conference opponent at least twice – once home and once away – in a four-year period, a major difference from the divisional format.
To make that happen, Smith indicated the teams were flexible in how many protected rivalries they would maintain, ranging from zero to three. That also led to the elimination of Ohio State and Penn State playing every season, as they have since 1993, first as protected opponents and then as members of the same division.
“I’m okay with it,” Smith said. “You know, Penn State has developed into a competitive rivalry for us, unlike the other 11 protected games in this model where you have some history and tradition around those competitions. You look at the three that Iowa protected or that Illinois protected or the fact that we protected Michigan. Those are historical rivalries, deep-rooted rivalries. But the Penn State rivalry for us was a competitive rivalry, and so in order to meet the balance of trying to make sure that every team, every school had an opportunity over a four-year period to play at every place at least twice, you had to sacrifice some things.”