- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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One quirk of the recent Big Ten expansion is that Penn State and Rutgers already had scheduled a pair of September nonconference games. Thus, their meeting in Week 3 this season functions as a league contest.
Outside of that exception, however, the Big Ten schedule is following a well-worn path: Teams take on out-of-league competition throughout September, and then conference action begins in October.
That will soon change. Thanks to both the arrival of the nine-game conference schedule in 2016 and a desire by the league to get its most-desired games front and center, the Big Ten is planning to stage more conference games early in the season, including opening week.
The league has already released its schedules through the 2019 season, which include two opening-week conference games: Ohio State-Indiana in 2017 and Purdue-Northwestern in 2018. At last month's Big Ten joint meetings, athletic directors were presented with models for September conference games well into the 2020s, including the possibilities for two or more Big Ten games in Week 1.
"We're trying to find some weeks early in season where we can fit conference games in there," Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner said. "It's something that really bubbled up from the coaches several years ago, and I think administrators supported that. We want to join the crowd, like everybody seems to be doing."
The SEC has made a splash in recent years with Week 1 conference games, like last year's Texas A&M-South Carolina clash, though the first SEC game this year doesn't arrive until Week 2. The ACC has also had Week 1 league games recently.
Big Ten athletic directors support the idea but want to know when exactly those games will be at least a decade into the future, so they can schedule their nonconference games -- which almost always happen in September -- around them.
This is where things get a little complicated. Because schools schedule so far in advance -- some teams already have games lined up in 2027, for example -- the Big Ten office has to find holes to make those early-season games work. Rudner noted that seven Big Ten teams have non-league games scheduled for Week 1 in 2020 and five do in 2021, limiting the availability of possible matchups.
The Big Ten would also prefer those early games, especially in Week 1, to be cross-division contests and not the marquee intra-division showdowns or rivalries that it likes to keep for the back end of the schedule.
"So it becomes a real puzzle," Rudner said.
That puzzle didn't have a solution last month, at least not one to the athletic directors' liking.
"We saw a mock-up, and we sent it back to the drawing board," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "I think what they did helped spark us to ... take a look at home and away, how quickly can you cycle through, so that you try to create some balance."
Rudner said there's not much debate on which opponents teams will play, as that's pretty well known through the division setup. But there are other concerns, like having teams play their first conference game on the road several years in a row. Or avoiding a team playing a conference game on the road in Week 1 followed by a road nonconference game the second week.
The league is in no particular hurry to get this all figured out; it's already well ahead of most other conferences by forming its schedules through 2019. Rudner said another schedule proposal will be presented when the athletic directors meet next in October.
"We'll keep after it until we hit that sweet spot," he said.
But it's clear that the league is committed to scheduling more and more conference games in September, and that we're not far away from an opening-week Big Ten game (or games) becoming the new normal. That's not an entirely revolutionary phenomenon, as Week 1 league contests happened fairly regularly in the late 1970s and early '80s. But the last time it occurred was in 1996, when Michigan played Illinois and Purdue faced Michigan State to kick off the season.
By the time the 2020s roll around, the Big Ten should be keeping September stuffed full of league action, including a Week 1 with conference race implications.
"It's probably not a bad idea, because other conferences are doing it and conference games historically have great audiences," Rudner said. "Our fans love to go to conference games, so why not have a season of them?"
5dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer