Ninth conference game could become a reality

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- The movement to add a ninth conference game in the Big Ten appears to be gaining steam.

Big Ten athletic directors have discussed ways to play a nine-game league schedule for several years, and while nothing is imminent, the plan appears to have a good deal of support. League members currently play eight games and have two conference byes that change every two years.

"We talk about that at every meeting," said Michigan athletic director Bill Martin, who added that the drive for nine is getting more support. "As the guarantees [for nonconference games] go up and up and up and the fans want to play our sister institutions in the conference, to me it's a no-brainer. Play 'em."

Martin ideally would want to play a true round robin in the Big Ten, but he admits it's "not realistic" because of the revenue from home games that league members need to sustain their athletic programs. The Michigan AD said he has even tried to schedule the two teams Michigan doesn't play during the Big Ten schedule as nonconference opponents.

A nine-game conference schedule in an 11-team league presents an inherent problem. One team would be limited to eight conference games.

"It is a revenue hit to you," Martin said, "but you have to balance that with the responsibility to give your fans some quality opponents."

There also could be headaches in determining a league champion, a process the Big Ten already struggles with to some degree.

What if two teams finish with one loss but one had an extra victory? What if the team that finished 8-1 loses its only game to the team that finished 7-1 but boasts a better conference win percentage? Which team gets the Big Ten's BCS berth?

Big Ten teams often played an uneven number of conference games until 1983. In 1982, Ohio State beat Michigan in the regular-season finale, but a Wolverines squad that went 8-1 in league play headed to the Rose Bowl ahead of a Buckeyes team that went 7-1.

The league had a true round-robin format for just two seasons, 1983 and 1984, and the 1983 Illinois squad remains the only team in Big Ten history to go 9-0 in conference play.

Despite the potential problems, Big Ten athletic directors are trying to find ways to make the schedule work.

"The majority of us would like to find a way where it would be comfortable for us to play more conference games," Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi said. "I do believe some day that you'll see more games played within the Big Ten."

The league schedule is set through the 2012 season, and Martin is hopeful there will be some action taken by that point.

"By [2012], you'll probably see it," he said. "It's hard, but we all understand the need for it."