- Associated Press - Saturday, August 28, 2010

A conference was expanding and splitting into divisions, and nobody knew what would happen to its two most bitter football rivals. Would they stay in the same division or be split apart?

No, this isn’t a tale about Michigan and Ohio State. It’s about Alabama and Auburn, which could have ended up in different divisions if the Tigers had gotten their preference.

“Tennessee was a big game for Auburn, and Georgia of course is a natural rivalry,” former Auburn coach Pat Dye said. “We would have had three big games, with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee every year _ and then Alabama.”

Instead, the Tigers went to the SEC West, a move that worked out fine in the long run. Now it’s the Big Ten and Pac-10 that are splitting into divisions _ and dealing with all the usual concerns about geography, competitive balance and protecting traditional rivalries.

Like so many other leagues, the Big Ten and Pac-10 are learning they aren’t going to be able to address every potential concern.

“Either way we go, there’s some school _ us, somebody else, somewhere _ it’s inevitable (they’ll be unhappy) with change,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “Hopefully we can do everything we can to protect Ohio State’s interests in change and we’ll do everything we can with that. But at the end of the day, we have to do what’s best for the conference.”

With the addition of Nebraska next year, the Big Ten is adding a championship game and introducing divisional play _ and the Pac-10 is on the verge of its own divisional split as Colorado and Utah join the fold.

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott says the league could be divided geographically or through some form of a “zipper” alignment in which rivals from the same area _ like Southern California and UCLA _ could meet every year but be in different divisions.

The latter idea could allow both divisions to have a presence in the L.A. market. Scott says it helps that the league’s existing teams are spread out in pairs in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Washington, Oregon and Arizona.

“We’ve got a lot of logic and symmetry to the way our conference is laid out,” Scott said.

In the Big Ten, there’s speculation Michigan and Ohio State could play in different divisions with their annual game moved earlier in the season. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said recently he’d relish the chance to play Ohio State twice in a year, including once in the Big Ten championship game.

But projecting the future is always tricky. When the ACC debuted its football divisions in 2005, Florida State and Miami were kept apart, and it seemed like only a matter of time before they met for the conference championship. Five years later, it still hasn’t happened.

“We all know that success can be quite cyclical,” said Michael Kelly, the league’s associate commissioner for football.

Kelly said Florida State and Miami wanted to keep playing each other but from different divisions, and that’s exactly what has happened. The ACC and SEC both protect certain rivalries across divisions, allowing those teams to keep playing each other annually.

With Miami and Florida State boasting recent national championships, it seemed sensible at the time to separate the traditional powerhouses, but the split ensured that one of the Florida schools would be in a division with Boston College, the league’s northernmost outlier.

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