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Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Big Ten prepping nine-game schedule

By Brian Bennett

The Big Ten unveiled its 2015 conference schedule this month, which was basically just a mirror image of the 2014 schedule that came out in May.

While those schedules are noteworthy for their inclusion of Maryland and Rutgers for the first time, the real intrigue will come with the 2016 Big Ten schedule. That, of course, will be the first year of a new nine-game conference schedule. Teams will find out their crossover opponents and how parity-based scheduling will work, which could have a huge impact on how they schedule nonconference opponents.

So when can we expect to find out how the '16 slate shakes out? Commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com that league officials are "working to visualize" how those schedules will work.

"We want to see them as soon as we can," Delany said. "There are some real challenges when we move to nine and try to implement it. My hope is that we get an eyeball on them in the coming months. I don't know when they would be made public or if they'll need to be tweaked."

Delany said one issue with the first nine-game schedule is placing conference games earlier in the year. Of course, conference play will likely have to begin in September for all teams with nine league contests, and Delany said Big Ten games could be played even earlier on an annual basis. The league also has to work around previously scheduled nonconference games.

When the Big Ten goes to nine games, it will join the Big 12 and the Pac-12 as the third of the "Big Five" conferences to play nine league contests. The ACC scrapped plans to play nine games. The SEC debated the idea during its most recent spring meetings and could eventually go to nine.

I asked Delany whether he would like to see some uniformity when it comes to conference games, especially since teams with different schedules will be judged against each other by the college football playoff selection committee.

"I really do think each conference is different and has its own set of objectives," Delany said. "It's not easy to get from eight to nine; we didn't get there overnight, and I'm sure some of our coaches wish we were at a lesser number.

"But I think they understand that we're trying to build a competitive product our fans enjoy. There is no doubt, based on some Big Ten Network polling we did, that people by a huge majority want to see more conference games and more quality. To be honest with you, everybody has taken that 12th game and probably used it in a way that hasn't necessarily been good for college football."

The Big Ten has committed to upgrading its schedules, not just by going to nine conference games, but by encouraging its schools to play tough teams out of league action and to discourage FCS opponents. The hope, of course, is that those moves will impress the selection committee. But there's no guarantee.

"We'll see how the committee handles it," Delany said. "For those of us that are upgrading our schedules, there would be a lot of disappointment if we're not rewarded for that."

Delany hopes the rewarding strength of schedule will have the same impact it does in college basketball, where teams know they have to schedule strong opponents in order to avoid the NCAA tournament bubble. Of course, it's entirely possible the opposite could be true, that the selection committee rewards teams that go undefeated against lesser schedules rather than those that have one or two losses against much tougher sledding. Only time will tell. But we do know that beginning in 2016, the Big Ten will be entering a new world.