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Big Ten football likely to shake up divisions

As the Big Ten moves into a new era with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, all indications from its conference meetings in Chicago suggest a league often criticized as a prisoner to tradition is prepared to make fundamental changes, especially in football.

More conference games. More night games – even in November. Divisions rearranged along geographic lines.

All are on the table and gaining momentum, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. 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, Ohio State and Michigan.

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 said. “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 push is to expand the conference schedule, likely in 2016.

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.

“Now that the playoff has come into play (in 2014) – and we have no clue what the nonconference strength of schedule weight factor will be,” Smith said. “It’s easier from a scheduling point of view, and fans love to see conference games.”

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.

Other wishes include more games in prime time – 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 contentious year 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.

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