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Thursday, January 31, 2013
Earlier B1G games may be on the table

By Adam Rittenberg

The Big Ten is the last major conference to organize its schedule into two distinct sections: nonleague games and league games.

Aside from a few exceptions, Big Ten teams in recent years have completed all of their nonleague games in September before beginning league play in late September or early October. Conferences like the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC, meanwhile, all have scheduled league games for season openers in recent years. In 2009, Big East members Cincinnati and Rutgers kicked off the season against each other.

All the other major conferences sprinkle in league games throughout September, while the Big Ten typically has only nonleague matchups in the first four weeks. One downside of the Big Ten’s setup is the potential for Saturdays lacking compelling matchups. Typically, one Big Ten Saturday in September is a total snooze fest.

Former Big Ten coaches Bret Bielema (Wisconsin) and Ron Zook (Illinois) have advocated for the Big Ten to schedule some league games earlier. Wisconsin last summer announced it would move a 2013 game against Purdue from Oct. 26 to Sept. 21, to accommodate a nonleague game against BYU for Nov. 9. The Badgers and Boilers will open Big Ten play a week earlier than the other 10 teams this fall.

Could we see more of these games in the future? Big Ten athletic directors seem open to the idea.

Although sorting the “how” question -- how many league games the Big Ten will have in the future -- will be the priority when the ADs convene in the coming months, the "when" question also should gain some attention.

"You have the ability to do it now, it's just never been a priority," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "By going to nine or 10 [league games], it pushes it even more realistically. If you go to 10, you will be playing in September. I would like to see more neutral sites in those scenarios

Smith mentioned Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and new stadiums near Rutgers and Maryland as potential destinations.

Earlier league games hardly are unprecedented in the Big Ten, which paired its teams for season openers and other September contests in the 1970s and early 1980s. Wisconsin, for example, opened 11 consecutive seasons against league opponents from 1972-82.

Iowa athletic director Gary Barta noted that earlier league games have both pros and cons and must be weighed in the context of the total number of conference games played. A schedule featuring eight, nine or perhaps 10 consecutive conference games can take a toll, even with an open week, and Big Ten teams, like their counterparts in the SEC, could benefit from having an easier game later in the season.

On the flip side, many coaches view the nonleague schedule as the time to prepare and build their teams for Big Ten play. A change in philosophy means Big Ten teams would have to be ready for league play a lot earlier.

"We've played Notre Dame the first game of the season, and that's no different than a conference game, in my opinion, in the order of magnitude and importance,” Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "To me, the more challenging the opponent, the less problems you have with kids overlooking the opponent."

I’ve always liked the idea of earlier league games. A full Big Ten slate on Sept. 10 isn’t necessary, but 1-2 league games the first few Saturdays would make the overall slate a lot more appealing.