- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Back in late July, when the Big Ten coaches gathered in Chicago for the league's annual media days, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald proposed something radical.
Just for this season, Fitzgerald said, the Big Ten should use a selection committee to choose which team faced the Legends Division champion in the conference championship game. Fitzgerald saw that two Leaders Division teams -- Ohio State and Penn State -- were on probation and envisioned a scenario like last year's Pac-12 title game, when Oregon played 6-6 UCLA because USC was ineligible.
"I don't know if fans get excited about a .500 team playing in the championship game," Fitzgerald said at the time. "There's obviously a chance of that."
Fitzgerald's proposal was discussed but not for very long. When we asked Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany about the idea, he quickly brushed it aside.
You couldn't blame the league for not adopting the committee idea. Penn State had just received its NCAA sanctions about a week earlier, so there hadn't been much time to mull the consequences. The logistics of the proposal -- who, for instance, would sit on such a committee and how could that not become a political nightmare? -- also presented some problems.
But as we get close to November, Fitzgerald's plan is starting to make more and more sense. His worst-case scenario looks more likely to develop, as Ohio State (9-0) has emerged as easily the best team in the Leaders (and the whole league). Penn State looks like the second-best team on that side. The Leaders' representative in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 could be a .500 team if clubhouse leader Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2) were to lose its final three games at Indiana, versus Ohio State and at Penn State. Or Indiana (3-5, 1-3) could sneak its way to nearby Lucas Oil Stadium after a 0-3 start in league play, if things break right.
If either of those things happened, try explaining to Michigan or even Fitzgerald's 7-2 Wildcats why their teams didn't deserve a shot at the championship game.
November is supposed to be the most exciting month in the Big Ten. Instead, we may get a situation where Nebraska wraps up the Legends title while Wisconsin keeps on backing into the conference championship game. Yawn. How much more exciting would it be if more teams were still alive?
If ever there were a year for a league to think radically about its championship game, this was the one. In fact, I've got an even more radical idea: Why not let Ohio State play in the Big Ten title game?
Think about it: The Big Ten is already allowing the Buckeyes to officially win the Leaders Division trophy, anyway. The NCAA postseason ban is for bowls only; any restriction on participation in conference championship games is strictly a league decision.
Whoever wins the Legends Division isn't playing for a BCS title no matter what. So, fine. Give the Legends champ the Rose Bowl bid. Then let it play Ohio State in Indy for the actual Big Ten championship.
OK, you say, but what if the Buckeyes win that game? I say, so what. Does it really matter if, for example, Nebraska goes to Pasadena at 10-3 instead of 11-2? And wouldn't the Huskers look much more legitimate if they beat Ohio State than if they topped a mediocre Wisconsin or, worse for perception's sake, Indiana?
You can't tell me you wouldn't rather watch a potential 12-0 Buckeyes take on whoever comes out of the Legends than the alternatives. It's not like the Big Ten championship game is some hallowed event, as this is only the second one. And there's an even worse scenario than a team on probation winning the conference title game: A 6-6 team pulling off the upset and stealing the Rose Bowl bid, providing Big Ten critics with their easiest punch line of all time.
I'm mostly being whimsical here. Ohio State certainly earned its title-game ban by breaking NCAA rules and being too shortsighted to not self-impose a bowl ban on last year's underwhelming team. The Pac-12 didn't implode when UCLA made its conference championship game last year, and neither will the Big Ten if a similar thing occurs.
But if we're going to have league championship games, they should at least involve the best teams and be entertaining. That's why some radical thinking was in order for this year's unique circumstances.
7hMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy
1dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy