- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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I used to oppose the idea of the Big Ten increasing its schedule from eight league games to nine.
Although I understood the benefits for fans (in theory, more quality games), players (the chance to play league members more often) and athletic directors (fewer games to schedule), the move seemed to hurt the Big Ten's chances to reach the national title game -- the only metric that matters when judging major conferences. Strength of schedule meant next to nothing in the BCS era, so if the Big Ten had an easier path to play for the crystal football, why deviate?
The College Football Playoff, with its promised emphasis on schedule strength, changed the game. So did an expanded Big Ten. Although I don't agree with everything commissioner Jim Delany has said about expansion, he's right that it's better for league members to play one another more, not less. So I've come around on the nine-game league schedule, which the Big Ten will adopt beginning with the 2016 season.
The Pac-12 has used a nine-game league slate for years, and the Big 12 moved to a nine-game round-robin schedule after reducing to 10 members before the 2011 season. The SEC and ACC each remain at eight league games, although both leagues are considering a move to nine.
The Big Ten already has obstacles to reach the playoff after failing to win a national title since 2002. The league needs the major conferences to align at nine. Go ahead, start the campaign: #alignat9.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive says a resolution on future conference schedules should come early next month, before the league's spring meetings in Destin, Fla. The league has presented its members with several schedule options.
Alabama coach Nick Saban long has supported a move to nine league games, but he appears to be in the minority.
"I think there's a little bit more support for staying with an eight-game schedule and everybody playing a ninth opponent that's in the five major conferences. My thing is I'm for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences, so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games."
Whether you love or loathe Saban, I'm guessing most of you agree wholeheartedly with him. I certainly do. College football fans are among the most dedicated in any sport. They deserve a better overall product, and they would get it from more league games, combined with upgraded nonleague schedules.
Most ACC coaches seem to agree with their SEC colleagues, preferring to keep an eight-game schedule. The ACC approved a nine-game schedule in May 2012 but went back to eight after forming a scheduling alliance with Notre Dame. The big difference with the ACC is that there's strong support for nine-game schedules among athletic directors, who hold more power on this issue. Two ACC coaches, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and Miami's Al Golden, both have stated their preference for nine league games.
The ACC could vote on the schedule at its spring meetings next month in Florida.
The Big Ten should monitor both leagues closely in the coming weeks. If both the SEC and ACC stay at eight games, the Big Ten, along with the Pac-12 and Big 12, could be at a significant disadvantage with making the playoff. Even if the playoff selection committee places a premium on schedule strength, it will have a hard time keeping out any undefeated team from a major conference. Playing eight league games in the ACC -- with or without Notre Dame -- enhances a team's chances of running the table.
Big Ten teams, meanwhile, will have to navigate nine-game league schedules plus, in the case of many, upgraded nonleague schedules. Both elements are good for fans, who are sick of seeing their teams play overmatched opponents from smaller FBS conferences or the FCS. But they could make the path to the playoff even steeper.
The ultimate goal for the Big Ten is to get its top one-loss teams into the playoff. An undefeated Big Ten team will make the field of four almost every year. But it's hard to run the table, and it will become even less likely with the improved schedules.
The playoff is designed to create more opportunities and a true national field for the national championship. If every league plays nine conference games and challenging out-of-conference games, the result should be a group of one-loss playoff candidates in most years. But if leagues are playing different types of schedules, the field will tilt.
It's why the Big Ten needs the other major conferences to align at nine.