So will the Big Ten have a championship game?

Now that the Big Ten Conference will have 12 members come 2011, there is a “presumption” that the conference will go the SEC route and split into two divisions with a blockbuster football championship game at the end of the season.

But Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany – on record saying a title game is not the motivation for expansion and if they wanted one they could have done it 20 years ago – said yesterday that conference alignment and championship definitions will be up to conference presidents. Surely the topic has come up before. Delany saying there’s a “presumption” of a championship game would seem to indicate it’s not a sure thing.

So will we see a proper championship game in the Big Ten next year? There are reasons to suspect we won’t.

- Most importantly, it’s a poor assumption to think the 2012 Big Ten will be the same as the 2011 Big Ten – or even that the 2011 Big Ten will only have 12 teams. Before any division alignment or championship game decisions are made, the conference will need to know its membership is not likely to change anytime soon. Within a couple of weeks we may see a Big Ten that will be 14 or 16 teams come 2012.

But assuming for a moment they will be the 12 teams we know about:

- Division play is the key to the championship game format. In a 12-team conference, the standard model is that you play each of the other five teams in your division and three teams from the other division. But the Big Ten has a problem with geography and power bases. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are undisputedly the football powers of the conference, and they also happen to be the three easternmost schools in the (current + Nebraska) Big Ten. They can’t put all three in one division, and East/West divisions won’t work. They could go Northish/Southish with Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska in the Northish Division and Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois and Northwestern in the Southish Division, but though Michigan would be 70 miles from Michigan State, they would be 400 miles from its second-closest division rival and 750 miles from their farthest (Nebraska).

But that seems like the most likely kind of division split – if the presidents could sell Michigan on it. The three powers can’t be in the same division with a championship game. None will go for “beat the other two conference powerhouses and you get a chance to beat the best team from the other side to be the champion!”. There’s no chance Penn State is aligned with teams all on the other side of Ohio and Michigan. Ohio State is the only current Big Ten team within 400 miles of State College. So it seems likely that Michigan is the odd man out here.

Will Michigan – down on its luck but still one of the two biggest dogs in the conference – go for “OK, you’ll just have to get past Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska … and Ohio State because obviously we’re keeping that … then beat Ohio State again or maybe Penn State at some neutral indoor site (sure, you’ve just played one game indoors in the past 25 years, but you’ll love it!) for a chance at the BCS!”? This to a program that went to Rose Bowls in 2003 and 2004 after losing two regular-season games. The bar has been really low for Big Ten achievement; do they want to raise that?

And how excited will Ohio State – which slid into three national championship games and four other BCS bowls in the past eight years sitting happily by as the SEC and others played championship games – be to have more of a hurdle put in front of them each year? Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa are probably very interested in a conference title game, but I’m not convinced Michigan and Ohio State will buy in to it.

- The Big Ten, of course, isn’t interested in increasing competition; they are only interested in increasing revenue. And the addition of a Big Ten Championship Game is seen as a financial windfall – which is the only reason it’s even being discussed. But does the addition of a championship game fit into the Big Ten revenue model?

The SEC Championship Game brings in $14.5 million in “profit” to be distributed to schools. Let’s be generous and say a Big Ten Championship Game would bring in $18 million. So you have one game with two teams playing on the final weekend of the season. That means the Big Ten is leaving 83% of its football inventory on the shelf and off the air on the most important Saturday of the year. What will the Big Ten Network show that day? Reruns of that season’s games?

The Big Ten could do nothing but add a ninth conference game (yes, they still only play eight) and shift some rivalries to the first weekend in December to create a non-event event weekend that might be as valuable as a championship game – without the ugly matter of one top conference team guaranteed to hand another a loss and knock them down the bowl ladder. Spreading the season out by another week would lead to more open dates, which means a less-crowded Big Ten Network schedule each week, which means more games on TV … which is the whole point of the Big Ten Network.

The Pac-10 has done this; USC/UCLA, Stanford/Cal, Oregon/Oregon State and Washington/Washington State and Arizona/Arizona State (Thursday this year) are all on “championship Saturday” now. That conference has recognized the value of playing on “championship Saturday” even when you don’t have a championship game. Yes, weather plays a much bigger factor in the Big Ten when you start talking about scheduling December games, but that’s the market the Big Ten Network plays in.

If the combination of TV money from a big “rivalry” weekend and stretched season with one more higher-value conference game each plus the revenue protected by not knocking the loser of a championship game down a notch in the bowls comes anywhere close to the revenue from a Big Ten Championship Game, I don’t think a title game happens.

And I think the Big Ten will wait to see what happens with the Pac-10 in the coming week or so before they even settle on an expansion strategy. If the Pac-10 goes to 16 and the Big 12 folds, there is already talk that the conference will try to get two automatic BCS berths instead of creating a championship game. Great for revenue; bad for football. But the Big Ten no doubt has their eyes on this strategy. And I’d be shocked if the Pac-10 hasn’t already raised the question with its BCS pals and feels pretty confident it can make it happen.

In that case, the Big Ten would have all the motivation in the world to raid the Big East (Rutgers, Pitt), put them out of the football business and their BCS bid up for grabs. Then add Missouri and answer the calls of a nervous Notre Dame and you’ve got the Pac-10 model. And God would the Big Ten love that.

So it’s way premature to think the Big Ten will be only 12 teams going forward. And before the presidents are asked to vote on a championship game, they’ll likely be asked to vote on more applications to join the conference. If there’s even a hint that more expansion means more guaranteed BCS money, the idea of a Big Ten Championship Game will be quickly forgotten.

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