For many in the Midwest and beyond, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry conjures memories of late-November football games, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Desmond Howard and Troy Smith. “The Game,” as it is simply known, is one of college football’s best rivalries and also extends throughout both universities.
As is tradition, Ohio State will play Michigan in two weeks, Nov. 25, on the final week of the regular season. The game is annually one of the most anticipated of the season and last year’s game was the most-watched regular season college football game of the year.
The rivalry will not be renewed on the diamond this spring, however. As Big Ten Conference schedules have rolled out this fall, one series was conspicuously missing. For the third time in the last six years, Ohio State will not play Michigan.
“If you ask any player or coach on any team or the fans, Michigan and Ohio State should always be playing each other,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said.
“I don’t like not playing them,” Ohio State coach Greg Beals said. “It’s an obvious rivalry that we would like to play annually.”
Despite the preferences of Bakich and Beals, the Big Ten schedule does not make special accommodation for Ohio State vs. Michigan or any of the conference’s other notable rivalries, such as Illinois vs. Northwestern, Indiana vs. Purdue and Iowa vs. Nebraska.
It is a subject that has been much discussed by the conference’s coaches and has been for years. Minnesota coach John Anderson, the longest tenured coach in the conference at 36 years, keeps a file full of ideas from the schedule debates over the years. But, for a variety of reasons, the Big Ten has not been able to come up with a solution to its rivalry problem.
“I miss not playing our traditional rivals on a consistent basis,” Anderson said. “That’s part of being in the Big Ten Conference, the special matchups created by proximity or the history of a rival.”
Big Ten fans have made it clear they want to see the traditional rivalries played. Michigan’s home series against Ohio State last season drew 7,000 fans for the weekend and the average attendance of the series (2,333) was more than double the Wolverines’ average attendance (1,050) for the season. Purdue broke its Alexander Field single-game attendance record last year when it hosted Indiana for the first time since 2011. In fact, the whole series drew so many fans that the average attendance for the weekend (1,882) was more than the previous single-game attendance mark (1,556).
With fans showing that level of interest in these series, the Big Ten is hurting its program’s bottom lines by not ensuring its traditional rivalries are annually played on the diamond. But while the other Power Five conferences have found a way to ensure most of their rivalries are still played following the realignment bonanza of the last decade reshaped the college sports landscape, the Big Ten has not landed on a formula for baseball. It is beset by a series of complications, most of which are unique to the conference among its Power Five brethren.
The root of the conference’s schedule complications is that Wisconsin does not sponsor baseball, leaving the Big Ten with an unwieldy 13 teams. That prevents the conference from splitting into divisions, as it does for football, which would go a long way to ensuring most of the rivalries are played annually. The Big Ten could still use divisions in baseball, but not every team would have the same number of home games, a scenario that doesn’t appeal to the coaches.
The next biggest factor is that the Midwest’s unpredictable March weather limits the number of conference series that can be played. The Big Ten plays eight conference weekends, two fewer than the Atlantic Coast conference and SEC, both of which have 14 baseball members. The Big Ten has explored a variety of ways to add conference weekends. But, as a conference, the coaches have decided to instead allow for additional nonconference weekends in a bid to boost their RPI and improve their chances of making the NCAA Tournament (That strategy has paid off in recent seasons, as the Big Ten has sent a conference record five teams to regionals in two of the last three years).
Academics throws the conference schedule makers one additional curveball, as teams are required to be home during their school’s finals week. That also means the Big Ten can’t craft a conference schedule years in advance, because it needs every school’s academic calendar before it can begin its work.
The conference has also explored protecting certain rivalries to ensure they would be played annually. That practice is more common in football than baseball, but the ACC baseball schedule protects an interdivision rival for every team to ensure rivalries such as Florida State vs. Miami and North Carolina vs. North Carolina State are always played. Determining which Big Ten rivalries would need to be protected would likely be contentious, as many schools have multiple traditional rivals. Iowa, for instance, could be the protected rival of Minnesota or Nebraska. It also would make add more imbalance to the Big Ten’s already not insignificant schedule inequality.
“It’s just the uneven number of teams, only playing eight conference weekends, always missing four opponents,” Backich said. “(The schedule makers are) doing their best I would assume, but until we add that extra team and go to divisions, it’s going to be a bit unpredictable.”
As they wait for the next round of conference realignment or Wisconsin to restart the baseball program it shuttered in 1991, the conference’s coaches are left to examine other creative solutions. Bakich and Beals said they have talked about scheduling a nonconference series against each other in years they don’t play a Big Ten series. The two schools last played a nonconference game in 2012, in Beals’ second year at Ohio State and before the beginning of Bakich’s tenure at Michigan. The game was held on the third weekend of the season as a part of the Snowbird Invitational in Port Charlotte, Fla., and drew 2,125 fans. With the size of both schools’ alumni bases, an early-season, neutral-site series would likely be well attended. But, so far, Bakich and Beals haven’t been able to arrange the matchup.
The responsibility for two conference rivals playing a series shouldn’t fall on their coaches, however. But until the Big Ten finds an answer to its scheduling challenges, major rivalries will continue to fall through the cracks. This season, it is Ohio State vs. Michigan that will be missing from the diamond. And college baseball is worse as a result.