Football fans at Michigan and Ohio State agree on one thing: Beating their fiercest rival is the biggest win of the season.
In the future, that win could be followed by a rematch a week or two later.
The Big Ten announced its divisional breakdown for football Wednesday night, and Ohio State and Michigan will be in different six-team divisions when the league expands to 12 members in 2011.
The as-yet unnamed divisions break down like this: Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern in one; Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana in the other.
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Commissioner Jim Delany said creating football divisions with competitive balance was the top priority and No. 2 was maintaining a cross-division rivalry game for each team.
"We felt like we could do equal competition and tradition with this move," Delany said.
Michigan and Ohio State will be a cross-divisional rivalry and continue to play each other each year in the Big Ten regular-season finale, as they have since 1943. That means they could wind up meeting again for the conference championship on a neutral field.
"Basically, we decided to go with the final season date because that was a way to maintain the tradition," Delany said. "The conference has a wonderful history of not only rivalry games but also trophy games."
Big Ten teams will play eight conference games the next two seasons, but that could increase in the future.
"The athletic directors have the intention of exploring a ninth conference game in 2015," Delany said.
For now there are no plans for divisions in other sports. Delany said he sees no benefit to basketball divisions, but if conference leaders decide they want them, they would have to be drawn differently.
Nebraska will join the Big Ten as its 12th team next year, allowing the conference to split into two divisions and add a lucrative championship game. The first Big Ten football championship game will be played in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, the indoor home of the NFL's Colts.
The expansion put the conference in a delicate balancing act, trying to add to its coffers without diminishing its rich traditions, none bigger than Michigan vs. Ohio State.
"I'm very pleased that we came out of this with protected rivalries that will go on permanently with Ohio State and Michigan State," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "We'll play Ohio State in the last game of the regular season, following a tradition that has lasted for decades. And if we both earn the right, we can play the Buckeyes again in the Big Ten championship game."
For years, the matchup known simply as "The Game" in Big Ten country has been the conference's signature rivalry, one of the most storied and tradition-rich in all of sports. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have played 106 times since 1897.
Twenty-two times "The Game" has determined whether Ohio State or Michigan won the Big Ten championship.
While "The Game" will never be the same since the title won't be at stake in the regular season, the league is still banking on it to be a big deal. And then there's the tantalizing possibility of even bigger TV ratings if the maize and blue meet the scarlet and gray in the league championship less than a month later.
"I think it's a great opportunity for both programs to win divisions and be in the championship games," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on the Big Ten Network, "and if we do play back to back, and if you look back over history quite frankly it's rare that happens, if it does happen it's great for fans."
Rivalries that took a hit were Iowa and Wisconsin, which play for the Heartland Trophy, and Penn State and Michigan State, which play for the Land Grant Trophy.