- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten is the oldest athletic conference in Division I, and some people have criticized the league at times for being too stodgy and tradition conscious.
Well, welcome to the new Big Ten. The addition of Nebraska is the most obvious change, as the Cornhuskers bring a new, instantly competitive program into the league. That also meant several other changes to the conference that fans will have to get used to in 2011. As Big Ten boss Jim Delany told ESPN.com this summer, "It's natural that people will have an adjustment cycle."
Here are a few things to cycle through while you prepare for kickoff:
Division play. Forget for a moment the goofy division names (Legends and Leaders), and how long it might take fans to figure out who's where. The divisional setup changes the entire culture of the Big Ten race.
Think about it. For more than a half-century, the goal of every Big Ten team, first and foremost, was to make it to the Rose Bowl. Sometimes it even seemed as if the national championship was an afterthought to just finding a way to Pasadena. It didn't really matter if you got there through some convoluted tiebreaker system or over more deserving teams (hello, Illinois in 2008). It only mattered that you got there. And once you fell behind in the conference standings, optimism faded.
Now the way to Pasadena is through Indianapolis, site of the new league title game. Though Lucas Oil Stadium doesn't have quite the allure and certainly not the picturesque views of the Rose Bowl, every team in the conference will be aiming for the Circle City in the preseason. You can't get to Pasadena, or a national title, without Indy.
Division play also gives more hope to teams who drop a game or two in conference play. Beating your division rivals becomes more important than anything. Teams can stay in division races longer, and even if they're not as strong as the champion of the other division, they'll have a one-game shot for the Rose Bowl.
And no more co-champions, either. That's a good thing.
New rivalries. The Big Ten loves trophy games, and now there's a new one with Nebraska-Iowa ("The Heroes Game"). The Cornhuskers should start pretty good new rivalries with nearby Minnesota and crossover opponent Penn State as well.
Division play should make for more heated series, too. All of a sudden, Ohio State and Wisconsin grows in stature, thanks to their placement in the Leaders Division and the Badgers' win over the Buckeyes a year ago. We could see others develop, like Iowa-Michigan or Penn State-Wisconsin. We won't really know until they start playing, and that's the fun of it.
Later kickoffs. The Big Ten isn't moving entirely away from its tradition of noon ET (11 a.m. CT) kickoffs, but with more teams and more games, there are now later start times. Wisconsin, for example, has three night games scheduled in October. Ohio State-Nebraska is under the lights. Other games could start later in the afternoon. There are still no night games after Nov. 1, unless you count the championship game, which will be held in prime time.
The Game as the undercard. Ohio State-Michigan is one of the most iconic rivalries in sports, and the Big Ten season traditionally came to a close on Thanksgiving weekend with the Buckeyes and Wolverines as the featured game. Now, the Big Ten will have an extra week on the schedule, thanks to the title game, and with Iowa-Nebraska claiming Black Friday, the Thanksgiving holiday becomes a broader rivalry weekend.
Ohio State-Michigan is still important and incredibly meaningful for both sides, but the fact is the most significant Big Ten game of the season will be the championship matchup the following Saturday. While it's unlikely to happen this year, the Wolverines and Buckeyes could wind up playing their regular-season finale then meeting again a week later in Indianapolis if they each win their respective divisions.
Back-to-back Ohio State-Michigan games? Now that would take some getting used to. Things are definitely changing in the new-look Big Ten.
5hBrian Bennett and Mitch Sherman