The 2017 season is a long way off and the Big Ten could look dramatically different by then, but the league decided earlier this month to move forward with a decision on future conference scheduling.
Beginning in 2017, each Big Ten team will play nine conference games per season, up from eight. The move has both pros and cons for the league, and while most coaches opposed the move, the athletic directors approved it by a "strong majority," according to Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez.
I recently checked in with three ADs -- Alvarez, Purdue's Morgan Burke and Northwestern's Jim Philips -- to get their thoughts on the scheduling switch. All three supported the increase to nine league games but weighed in on the pluses and minuses.
Why did you like about the move to a nine-game Big Ten schedule?
Burke: I want to make sure every kid on our roster has an opportunity to play at every campus in the Big Ten. When you only play eight [league games] and you go to 12 [teams], you really make it harder for them. Our fans speak by whether they're in the stands or not. Even though you may have stadiums that are sold out, I'll bet there's a lot of empty seats in September. I don't particularly care for that. And then thirdly, the Big Ten brand that does better when you play the Big Ten more. At the end of the day, it's good for the student-athletes, it's something our fans will resonate with, and it's better for the brand.
Phillips: It's going to create some greater races. It's going to improve everybody’s 12-game schedule. From a fan standpoint, from a ticket sales standpoint, television, corporate sponsorship and more, it's going to be very well received. Everyone will benefit from the gate and from the interest and from the fan base, excitement and attendance.
Alvarez: It’s better to play more conference games than less. It'll be good for our fans. Our fans want to see those games. In our case, we weren't able to protect Iowa [as a crossover]. Now we'll play them six out of 10 years. Same thing with Nebraska. The guarantees some of the [teams] were commanding from us are way out of line, but we’re backed into a corner and we have to pay ‘em. All those things were important considerations.
Most coaches opposed the move and it hasn't exactly worked out great for the Pac-12. How do you respond to the arguments against the nine-game schedule? What about the likelihood of having fewer teams become bowl-eligible?
Phillips: You have to ask the head coaches what they want. But this is a decision that's made at the directors' level; it's not made at the coaches' level. There are times when decisions are made at the presidential level that the athletic directors weigh in on and might feel a little differently. But in the end, I think all the coaches will support it and embrace it.
Burke: I’m sure if you’re in the coaching fraternity, it makes it more challenging. If your preseason schedule were fairly easy, you're thinking, 'Hey, I can be 4-0 and if I go 2-6 in the league, I’m going to be bowl-eligible.' A lot depends on the nature of the 6-6 team. Is it a 6-6 team that's rising? Last year, if we hadn't gotten so banged up and won some games down the stretch we were leading, we might have been a 6-6 team people might have been excited about, just because of the adversity we faced. But if you look at a team that got off to a 4-0 start because you played people who really aren’t on the same competitive platform and then you get shellacked in the Big Ten, it backs you into a bowl game. If you play nine conference games and you go 6-6, that makes a little bit more of a statement than if you go 6-6 with eight conference games.
The new schedule leaves you one fewer nonconference game. What type of non-league game will be removed from the schedule beginning in 2017?
Alvarez: A lot of the schools have a protected game. Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue play Notre Dame every year. I would think everyone probably would play at least one other BCS [team]. This locks you in with one more solid game.
Phillips: We'll have to wait and see, but relative to those three nonconference games, people are going to continue to be aggressive. We're going to have Notre Dame on the schedule in '18. We're certainly not going to change that or look to downgrade the nonconference schedule. With Stanford coming up, Boston College, Cal, I don't know if it's necessarily true that you're going to see the nonconference take a hit. Overall, the schedule is going to get a bump in strength because of us playing other members within the conference.
Burke: You’re going to lose some of the lower-level games. If we go to nine conference games, I’m not sure you’ll be able to schedule I-AA opponents like you did in the past. During my tenure, we did a home-and-away with Oregon, a home-and-away with Arizona. I've always tried about every four years to spice it up, so your class that comes in knows they’re going to play a major BCS team besides Notre Dame once or twice in that four-year stretch. That may change a little bit. We're going to work hard with the schedule so we’ve got Notre Dame and two other games, and those two other games, if we're playing reasonably well, they would be home and you’d like to think you can win 'em.
A lot of Big Ten teams say they need a minimum of seven home games per year. How much of a burden will the nine-game schedule place on this requirement?
Alvarez: You don’t like to have five away games in the conference, but it’ll alternate. You’ll have five away and then you’ll have five at home. Everybody wants to have seven home games, you have to do that for your budget. So you really have to be on top of your scheduling and get that taken care of.
Phillips: Football coaches and ADs are going to have to work even closer together to get the schedule in a place where everybody’s comfortable. It's going to take more effort and more foresight as we look into the future.
Was there any discussion of protecting a second cross-over game?
Alvarez: We didn't discuss it at all. I don't mind playing all the other schools. We'll play [Iowa] six out of 10 years. I don't know if everybody needs to protect another one.
What about future Big Ten expansion before 2017? How could it impact the conference schedule?
Phillips: We didn't really even address that. We could look exactly the same in '17, and we could look different, but you can’t wait to make these kinds of decisions. We had a lot of schools, us included, that need to get busy again on nonconference scheduling. We've been on hold because we weren't sure where this was going to go. We all have to get back at it.