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Thursday, July 11, 2013
Big Ten game as opener? Yes, please

By Brian Bennett

Normally, an Ohio State-Indiana game wouldn't stand out too much on a composite Big Ten schedule. But the 2017 game between the Buckeyes and Hoosiers was one of the first things that caught my eye when the league released its 2016 and '17 slates today.

The reason? The date of the game: Sept. 2. That's right -- opening weekend.

A conference game on the season's first Saturday? It may sound revolutionary, but it's not unprecedented. Michigan played Illinois and Purdue faced Michigan State in Week 1 of 1996. Minnesota and Penn State opened the 1993 season against one another. Before that, you have to go back to Illinois-Northwestern in 1984, though it was a fairly common occurrence in the late 1970s/early '80s.

Still, for almost two decades, the Big Ten has usually waited until the first four weeks were done to open conference play. The arrival of nine-game conference schedules and a push to be more relevant early in the year is changing that.

"We're committed to it," senior associate Big Ten commissioner Mark Rudner told ESPN.com. "It's something our coaches have wanted and our athletic directors have wanted, and we're not opposed to it. We've just got to make it fit."

For now, the 2017 game in Bloomington remains an anomaly. Because teams had their nonconference schedules already set for September in 2016, the first Big Ten game that year doesn't come until the familiar date of Oct. 1. But there are two Big Ten games in Week 3 of 2017: Rutgers at Nebraska and Michigan at Purdue. Rudner said the Rutgers-Nebraska game was originally planned for Week 2 until the conference realized that Nebraska already had a nonconference game scheduled for that day.

"There are some constraints in that nonconference games are already scheduled and they have to be protected," Rudner said. "Then we have to see who's available, who they're playing and match it up. Ohio State-Indiana is probably as good as we can get right now."

There could be a lot more early September Big Ten games after 2017, including more on opening weekend. And to that I say: Bring it on.

Sure, teams may not quite be at their best in the first Saturday of the season, which could lead to some disjointed play. But to those who may oppose a conference game as the opener, let me present the following counter arguments:
These are some of the "compelling" openers in the Big Ten in 2013. You wait nearly nine months for football to return, get super excited for kickoff and then suffer through one of these snoozers? Makes no sense.

The SEC has staged conference games as openers in recent years, and the ACC has done the same. Those matchups build more buzz for your league leading up to the games, and the Big Ten doesn't need to sit in the shadows throughout September.

The league probably doesn't want its marquee games in Week 1, and you're never going to see Michigan-Ohio State on Labor Day weekend. But a game like Ohio State-Indiana, which might get buried in the middle of a conference schedule anyway, makes perfect sense as way to raise the curtain on the season. After all, it's never too early for some Big Ten football.