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Tuesday, September 2, 2014
B1G schedules enter new, exciting phase

By Adam Rittenberg

Some of you will be sad when the lights go out Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. The Michigan-Notre Dame series will go to sleep, and no alarm clock has been set to rouse a rivalry that exists more for some than others.

College football fans born in the past 40 years, especially those living in the Midwest, have grown up with Michigan-Notre Dame as a September staple. Since 1978, the two teams have played in all but six seasons, and every year since 2002.

If you're among this group, it's not easy to see the series go away for a while.

But you should also know a few things about the Michigan-Notre Dame series, and Big Ten future scheduling as a whole.

Notre Dame/Michigan
Even though Michigan will no longer play Notre Dame, the Wolverines will face other teams that can bolster their resume.
First, while there have been several memorable games in the series, especially in recent years, wins haven't meant much in the bigger picture. Michigan victories in 2009, 2010 and 2013 didn't springboard the team to great heights. Although Notre Dame's win in 2012 was part of a run to the national title game, other victories (Stanford, Oklahoma) provided the real momentum.

Schedule strength is paramount in the playoff era, and every game against a major opponent should be a résumé booster. This game hasn't been.

More important, nonconference schedules throughout the Big Ten are improving and diversifying, and Michigan is a prime example. The Wolverines lose Notre Dame after Saturday, but look what they're gaining: Florida (2017), Arkansas (2018-19), Washington (2020-21), Virginia Tech (2020-21), UCLA (2022-23) and Oklahoma (2025-26), not to mention both Oregon State and BYU in 2015. If Notre Dame remained an annual opponent, forget about many of these other contests, especially with the Big Ten adopting a nine-game league schedule in 2016.

So focus on the end of the Notre Dame series if you'd like, but there are many exciting beginnings for Michigan and its Big Ten brethren.

"It has picked up," Mark Rudner, the Big Ten's senior associate commissioner for television administration, told me. "I've seen a lot of games that are in discussion, haven't been approved or announced yet. Over the next 15 years, Big Ten football fans will be very pleased with what they see in how our schools are scheduling."

Even the games already announced should get fans excited.

Here are some:
Michigan State and Purdue will continue to play Notre Dame -- the Spartans resume their series in 2016, while Purdue and Notre Dame play again in 2020 and beyond -- but both also have plenty of new opponents. Variety is a great thing, especially for teams trying to reach the playoff.

It's why Michigan could get much more national mileage without Notre Dame on its schedule every year. (It's also why I worry about Iowa and whether having the annual game with Iowa State could prevent playoff runs.)

Wisconsin might be the best example of the Big Ten's schedule upgrade trends, thanks in part to the playoff and its emphasis on who you play. The Badgers' opener Saturday against LSU marked their first regular-season game against an SEC opponent since 1972 (also LSU). Counting Saturday, Wisconsin will open three consecutive seasons against top-flight SEC foes. The Badgers have gone from Week 1 light bites (UNLV, Northern Iowa, Massachusetts) to porterhouses.

Those are national showcase opportunities and games with playoff implications. The Big Ten needs these, especially until its league games carry more currency with the committee.

"Our schools have become a lot more serious about nonconference scheduling," Rudner said.

Last spring, the Big Ten began having quarterly conference calls with each school's football schedule coordinator. During these calls, each school reports its scheduling agreements or potential agreements. The idea is to keep everyone in the loop. If there's a series one conference member can't schedule with a marquee opponent, another might make it work.

Previously, the schools only shared schedule plans in specific situations. But things are changing, thanks to the playoff and other factors like declining attendance.

"[The playoff] factors in to the extent that it's all about strength of schedule," Rudner said. "Who you play matters. It's important that we all report to each other, that we're all accountable. Because in order for this to work, we all have to be paddling in the right direction."

That direction is the playoff, the only relevant barometer for teams and leagues.

"With the format being what it is, strength of schedule being a factor," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood told me, "you don't want to leave a shadow of a doubt about whether you belong."

Saturday marks the end of one traditional nonleague matchup, but there are plenty of new beginnings that can help the Big Ten show it belongs in the field of four.