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COLUMBUS — Imagine this: It is the 2014 Ohio State-Michigan game at Ohio Stadium.
The lights bathe a bone-chilled primetime crowd as the rivals clash on the final weekend of a grinding 10-game conference season. The winner will represent the Big Ten East in the league’s championship game.
OK, maybe the skies are gray.
"I just can’t see that one at night," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said.
The rest of the scenario may not be far off.
As the Big Ten moves into a new era with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, all indications from this week’s conference meetings in Chicago suggest a league often criticized as a prisoner to tradition is prepared to make fundamental changes.
More conference games. More night games — even in November. Divisions rearranged along geographic lines.
All are on the table and gaining momentum, including from Smith. He favors the proposals, including, yes, Ohio State and Michigan in the same division.
The leading option appears to be two seven-team divisions split between east and west. While concerns of competitive balance separated Ohio State (Leaders Division) and Michigan (Legends) in the current set-up, an eastern grouping likely would include Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers, OSU and UM.
For Ohio State and Michigan, that would only heighten The Game’s stakes and eliminate the prospect of back-to-back rivalry showdowns in the regular-season finale and the league title game — a novelty with potential diminishing returns.
"That's where I’m leaning, and that's where I think [Michigan athletic director] Dave Brandon is leaning," Smith told The Blade. "We always go into these meetings listening to what's best for the league, but our preference at this time is to be in the same division."
The other major push is to expand the conference schedule, likely beginning in 2016. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the Chicago Tribune the existing eight-game slate "is not even on the table right now," so the debate centers on nine versus 10 league games.
A 10-game schedule would eliminate the home-road imbalance inherent to nine league games and maximize the value of the Big Ten’s next national TV contract. (The current deal with ABC/ESPN that pays the league $100 million per year expires after the 2016 season.) An Ohio State-Iowa game is naturally more attractive than one between OSU and Alabama-Birmingham, and a 10-game schedule with 14 teams would raise the number of conference games from 48 to 70.
Smith favors the 10-game model because it would help fill — and strengthen — Ohio State’s schedule.
"Now that the playoff has come into play [in 2014]— and we have no clue what the non-conference strength of schedule weight factor will be, although we believe there will be one — we felt like it will be easier if we could all say, ‘We'll play 10 conference games, we'll all play one major nonconference opponent and then a bye game so-to-speak," Smith said. "It's easier from a scheduling point of view and fans love to see conference games. They want to see that Texas and that Oregon and Oklahoma game but they also want to see conference games, so that's why 10 interests me. I just don't know if we can make it work. The conference is looking at models for that."
The drawbacks of an inflated league schedule include the competitive demands — no BCS league plays more than nine conference games — and school-specific economic concerns.
Brandon said the business models at Michigan and OSU are driven by the programs playing seven home games annually.
"If we were to get into a circumstance where we were playing six home games that would be very problematic," Brandon said after a recent lecture at the University of Toledo. "The consequences are that in a world where we go from eight to nine conference games, we would still have the ability to schedule three non-conference games. You could schedule two at home and schedule a home-and-home and make that work. If we were to go to 10 conference games, which some people are suggesting with 14 teams, and certainly there is merit to that, you avoid the five and four imbalance.
"But now you’ve only got the flexibility of scheduling two non-conference games, and if you want to play seven home games, both of them have to be at home. When you do that, you really put us in a position where we really can’t go on the road to play a big BCS opponent because they aren’t going to schedule you on a one-and-done."
Other wishes include more games in primetime — the Big Ten is open to previously off-limits November night games while Smith said he wants to play two home games per season under the lights — and more collegiality among coaches.
A 2012 calendar year that featured its share of contentiousness came to a head after Ohio State’s victory at Michigan State. The schools publicly traded accusations, with MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi complaining that OSU doctored the scouting film sent to the Spartans while Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said his staff sent the league office tape of an alleged eye-gouging incident from the game.
Afterward, Delany sent the league’s coaches a polite but firm email.
"In a highly competitive and successful enterprise such as the Big Ten Conference, with millions of interested and passionate followers, it is difficult to consistently deliver the right message under the pressure of competition and emotion," Delany wrote in the Oct. 5 message, obtained through an open records request. "However, I'm confident that you possess the intelligence, discipline and experience to excel in these areas.
"In every one of life's meaningful endeavors whether it be business, political or sports entertainment, conflict and competition dominate. This is not new and it will not change. Historically, we have had leaders who more often than not were successful in meeting this challenge. Meeting this challenge is incredibly important, difficult and is basic to building on traditions of fair play and mutual respect."
Delany declined comment on the letter through a spokesman. Smith said the message was not out of the ordinary.
"There’s been different incidents over the years between different schools where the commissioner sent out an email reminding everyone of what's protocol," he said.
Still, this week’s Big Ten meetings had a surprisingly amiable feel.
A week ago, fresh off signing one of the top classes in the country, Meyer set off a firestorm after saying he planned to address the league’s recruiting struggles at the Big Ten meetings.
"All our conversations need to be about ‘How do we recruit?’" Meyer told 97.1 The Fan in Columbus. "When you see 11 of the SEC teams are in the top 25 [nationally] in recruiting, that’s something that we need to continue to work on."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPN.com, "A lot of that was taken out of context. It was more, 'How can we continue to further our brand?’"
Welcome to the new Big Ten. Bigger ... and nicer?
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.