Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Earlier B1G games? It's up to the teams
By Adam Rittenberg
When the Big Ten schedules for both the 2015 and 2016 seasons are released later this month, they'll look familiar. Conference play once again will kick off on the last Saturday in September or the first Saturday in October.
There had been interest from some Big Ten coaches to have league games earlier in September, most likely in Weeks 2, 3 and 4. Leagues such as the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 begin conference play earlier than the Big Ten, which has gone with a model featuring four or five weeks of nonconference games, followed by eight or nine weeks of conference games. The 2013 and 2014 schedules feature two start dates for Big Ten play -- there will be two games on the final Saturday of September in both years and four games on the first Saturday of October -- but the conference games will take place after most of the nonleague games are complete.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said last summer that he proposed playing at least one league game on each Saturday of September, saying, "You can have a showcase game every week."
Bielema's plan would prevent sorry slates like Week 4 in 2010, when no Big Ten teams faced opponents from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Week 4 in 2011 featured only one such matchup (Colorado at Ohio State), and Week 4 this coming season is rather uninspiring aside from Michigan-Notre Dame under the lights. The Big Ten is usually irrelevant nationally one Saturday per season.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany sees the potential value, telling me last summer, "I would be open to that. ... Early-season games are something that deserve a lot of consideration and study."
Yet in 2015 and 2016, the Big Ten schedule will maintain its structure. That is, unless the teams want to move games earlier.
"If two schools want to move a game already scheduled to earlier in September, that'd be fine," Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner told ESPN.com.
Rudner, who creates the schedules in conjunction with the teams, said if two teams both have the same available date in early September, they can propose a switch to the league's athletic directors. If they gain approval, which they should, they can reschedule the game. The Big Ten's television partners wouldn't stand in the way, either, Rudner said.
The challenge is finding dates that work for both parties.
"Trying to make it work is really, really difficult because schools are reticent to change nonconference contracts we already have," Rudner said. "They all have different preferences."
Six Big Ten teams have three nonconference games finalized for 2015 and two -- Purdue and Iowa -- have all four set. Other teams are close to finalizing all four games for 2015. Nine of the 12 teams have at least two nonconference games scheduled for 2016.
It doesn't mean games can't be moved. For example, both Ohio State and Illinois have Sept. 26 open on their 2015 schedule. The Buckeyes and Illini both are in the Leaders Division, so they'll play every year. If interested, they could try to move their game.
It's also possible for teams to move nonconference games to October or November to make room for league games. Some nonconference opponents, especially FCS teams and small-conference teams looking for big paydays, will be willing to do what it takes to get those guarantee checks.
"It's not impossible," Rudner said.
But it's up to the schools to make it work.