Big Ten schedules need an upgrade

September, 4, 2012
9/04/12
11:10
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Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans didn't make a huge deal out of beating Boise State on Friday night. They know there is still a long way to go in a season for which they have high aspirations.

Still, Michigan State did something that Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia all failed to do the previous three seasons: take care of the Broncos in the opener.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Mike Carter/US PresswireThe win over Boise State by coach Mark Dantonio and Michigan State could turn out to be the Big Ten's top nonconference victory of 2012.
"They are used to winning, confident and very well coached," Dantonio said after the game. "To get a win is an accomplishment."

It also might stand as the biggest accomplishment of the Big Ten nonconference season.

Week 1 saw the Spartans play Boise State, which was ranked No. 24 heading into the game by the Associated Press, and Michigan lose to then-No. 2 Alabama. That's about it as far as high-profile opponents for the league, with the exception of Notre Dame, which was ranked No. 24 in the coaches' poll last week. The Irish host Purdue this week, play Michigan next week and then go to Michigan State.

But even if you believe Notre Dame's blowout win over Navy in Ireland signals a resurgence for the Golden Domers, how much cachet does beating Notre Dame really carry anymore? After all, South Florida and Tulsa are among the teams to do so the past couple of years. And if the Irish go 1-2 or worse against the Big Ten teams, they won't be ranked for much longer anyway.

There are some recognizable names on this week's slate, including UCLA (vs. Nebraska), Arizona State (vs. Illinois), Virginia (vs. Penn State) and Oregon State (vs. Wisconsin). Yet none of those matchups will create much of a national buzz.

Football schedules are often mapped out years in advance, and it's difficult to know how good any program will be that far into the future. Yet it's clear that nonconference schedules lack sizzle this season. Even Ohio State, which typically plays at least one marquee opponent, has Cal as its top out-of-league opponent. The same Cal that just lost to Nevada.

The Big Ten can do better than this. That's why Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez's comments on Friday were encouraging.

During a taping of a local TV show, Alvarez said that Big Ten schools have been urged by the league office to play two BCS AQ teams per year starting in 2014. Alvarez later amended that to "Division I schools ... that can compete with anyone," perhaps acknowledging the Badgers' upcoming series with BYU. There will be no such thing as the BCS or automatic qualifiers come 2014, when the new playoff system begins.

It's that new playoff system that is driving the league to schedule more aggressively. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said that he wants conference teams to win the strength of schedule argument when they are considered for inclusion in the four-team postseason event. That was a big key in the league's decision to stay at eight conference games instead of going to nine.

"That [playoff selection] committee is going to have to look with the eye test at conferences," Delany said at Big Ten media days this summer. "But it's also going to have to look at competitive results between conferences, members from conferences, and we think going forward that's the best way to prepare for the new postseason model."

So hopefully in the future, that will mean stronger out-of-league schedules throughout September, and not just a couple of marquee games on opening weekend. And that could ensure that the Big Ten's best nonconference accomplishment doesn't come before the first Saturday of the season.

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