Big Ten must give a little in scheduling
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I wanted to see the good in the Big Ten's nonconference schedule.
There was the annual Illinois-Missouri opener, which has gone from irrelevant to must-see faster than a Jeremy Maclin touchdown return. Michigan State started off on the road against a Pac-10 foe (Cal), and Oregon State makes the reverse trip Saturday when it visits Penn State. Week 3 brings a bunch of appetizing matchups sure to make people forget about games like Iowa-Florida International and Indiana-Murray State.
But the longer I looked at the Big Ten scheduling landscape, I came to the same conclusion many others reached before the season. It stinks. Take this coming Saturday. Penn State and Northwestern are the only teams facing BCS foes, and Northwestern barely qualifies with Duke (though the Blue Devils beat the Wildcats last season).
From my mailbox, I can see many of you are also thinking about the scheduling issue. Non-Big Ten fans are united in their criticism for the league's soft scheduling. Big Ten fans are somewhat torn, a bit like me.
I understand the reasons why teams from the Big Ten and many other BCS schools schedule the way they do. Home games keep athletic budgets afloat. The Big Ten has three mega stadiums -- Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State -- and several other sizable venues that can rack up revenue. Even though the price of guarantee games is rising, teams would rather go that route than consent to the increasingly dreaded home-and-home series with a more competitive team. Penn State doesn't have to return its game against Oregon State, but that's a rarity between two BCS teams.
As e-mailer Chris from Philadelphia writes:
I am a Penn State alum and it does not matter if Coastal Carolina or Miami are in Beaver Stadium, they will still get at least 105,000 fans packing the place regardless. With the huge cash cow a big time football program has become that feeds the smaller programs of a university, ADs need to schedule a minimum of 7 home games to hit their budget goals. ... All of my friends from Penn State wish we institute regular games every year with West Virginia, Pitt and ND but that will never happen because it will cut into the amount of home games per year Penn State needs. People get too caught up on the wins when the bottom line is really the dollars.
I get it, but it'd be nice if Big Ten teams stepped up a bit for the sake of better competition. I would like to see each Big Ten school schedule two of the four nonleague games against BCS teams (Notre Dame included, of course). Only five of the 11 Big Ten teams did so this season, and neither Indiana nor Minnesota face a single BCS foe outside the league. I'm a huge non-BCS fan and enjoy seeing Big Ten teams face strong squads like Utah (Michigan), Fresno State (Wisconsin) and Central Michigan (Purdue, Indiana), but beef it up a little more.
When I asked league commissioner Jim Delany about scheduling in late July, he identified four programs -- Minnesota, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue -- that don't have lengthy postseason histories and benefit greatly from any bowl appearance, regardless of status. After covering Northwestern for several years, I understand what it means for that program and its fan base to get to bowl games. Northwestern fans are much more inclined to attend a bowl game than nonleague home games, which draw poorly. Finding any way possible to the postseason becomes paramount, even if it's four wins against weak teams and a sub-.500 record in Big Ten play (hello, Minnesota). But coaches always talk about striving to be great, to be champions. They never say, "Let's just get to seven wins, men. The Motor City Bowl beckons!" Shouldn't the schedule reflect a better message?
I'm not suggesting Big Ten teams should follow Washington, which continues its get-our-coach-fired tour Saturday against BYU. That's just stupid. And as much flak as the Big Ten takes, other leagues are just as bad (Pac-10 excluded). This week's Big 12 slate features one matchup with a BCS foe (Oklahoma-Cincinnati). Same goes for the Big East.
If the Big Ten just gave a little, it could go a long way.
Will things change next season? Here are the nonleague games we know about for 2009 (as you'll see, some schedules are incomplete).
vs. Missouri (at St. Louis)
at Iowa State
at Notre Dame
vs. Western Michigan (at Detroit)
CaliforniaSouth Dakota State
vs. Toledo (at Cleveland)
New Mexico State
at Northern Illinois