NCF Nation: Gene Smith
The two men hugged. Meyer then walked several feet in each direction, pumping both fists in the air toward the elated Buckeyes cheering sections. There was joy, but also a release.
The 59-0 blowout win over Wisconsin on Dec. 6 clinched a title for Ohio State and also culminated a climb back from a dark place for the program. It's a journey that became even more poetic when the Buckeyes found out hours after that victory that they'd be returning to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal.
The program's last championship of note (not counting division titles) came on Jan. 4, 2011, when it beat Arkansas at the Sugar Bowl. But at least officially, that win never happened. Ohio State vacated its Sugar Bowl crown -- and all other 2010 victories -- as part of its self-imposed NCAA penalties in July 2011. In the team's media guide and around its facility where other bowl games are celebrated and acknowledged, it's like the game didn't exist.
The school thought vacating that season would be enough to placate the NCAA in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, even after five players implicated in scheme -- Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas -- were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl while accepting five-game penalties to start the 2011 season.
Of course, little went as Ohio State planned in that ordeal. Then-coach Jim Tressel was discovered to have known more about the scandal than he had told his superiors, and he was forced to resign on Memorial Day 2011. The Buckeyes would go 6-7 in the 2011 season, their least successful campaign since 1999. The NCAA decided in December, after more infractions leaked out, to ban Ohio State from a bowl in the 2012 season while taking away nine total scholarships over a three-year period.
The stench of an NCAA scandal -- especially one that includes a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a forced coaching change -- can set a program back for years. Yet the Buckeyes went 12-0 in their year of postseason purgatory in 2012 and are 36-3 in the three seasons since 2011, including a perfect 24-0 in regular-season Big Ten play.
"There are probably very few programs that have the level of support that allows them to come back from a challenge like that," Smith said. "Things aligned for us, and we were able to come out of that challenging time pretty well."
The No. 1 reason why the Buckeyes bounced back so quickly is obvious. They replaced one legendary coach -- Tressel -- with another one in Meyer (though Luke Fickell deserves credit for keeping things together as the interim during a trying season). Smith said the timing was fortunate for Ohio State that Meyer had taken a year off coaching in 2011, allowing Smith to put together a deal with Meyer without having to worry about luring him out of another job.
Meyer's track record all but ensured success. But it happened even more quickly than Smith imagined.
"Everybody expected him to do extremely well," Smith said. "No one expected him to do so well so fast, to have an undefeated regular-season [Big Ten record]. No one could have predicted that. He's exceeded our expectations in so many different ways."
Smith noted that even with the probation and the scholarship cuts, Meyer hardly arrived to a bare cupboard in Columbus. Ohio State, as always, had talent. But Meyer had to build depth, reshape the team for his system and add the speed that he wanted.
"Coach Tressel did a marvelous job of recruiting nationally," Smith said, "but Urban took it to another level."
In some ways, the tattoo scandal seems like a long time ago. Maybe it's how several other off-the-field controversies -- the Sandusky case at Penn State, the North Carolina academic fraud, just to name a couple -- made Ohio State's missteps seem minor by comparison. The issue of player compensation has also become a hot topic in ensuing years. At a time when players have sued to retain their image and likeness rights, when power schools are changing the very structure of the NCAA in order to give their athletes more money and benefits and when we're arguing whether a star like Georgia's Todd Gurley should be able to profit off his autograph, is anyone really offended by the notion of trading team-issued merchandise for some body ink?
Yet in reality, that dark time for the Buckeyes wasn't long ago at all. Ohio State only officially came off NCAA probation on Friday. The seniors on this year's team played during that difficult 2011 season. Starting offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin is a fifth-year senior, meaning he was around for Tressel's last season in 2010.
Smith said Meyer got emotional during a team meeting the day the playoff pairings were announced as he thanked the seniors for their perseverance.
"He knows they were the class that went through the significant trials and tribulations and got this program where it is now," Smith said. "He was so happy to get them a championship."
Now, they're taking the Buckeyes back to New Orleans, where in many ways this journey began.
The Buckeyes completed their building inspection late in the third quarter with a run-fueled scoring drive. They closed on the property with 7:12 left in the fourth quarter on Ezekiel Elliott's second touchdown run.
Soon after, the Buckeyes collected the keys from the unit's reluctant tenant, the Michigan State Spartans. Late Saturday night, after singing "Carmen Ohio" in Spartan Stadium, they moved back into their old pad: the Big Ten penthouse.
Michigan State barged in last year, evicting Ohio State during the Big Ten championship game. But Ohio State is back after Saturday's 49-37 win.
The penthouse is a nice place: big rooms, fridge stocked with meat and beer, view that stretches from New Jersey to Nebraska.
There's only one problem: a low ceiling.
See, the Big Ten penthouse isn't Ohio State's dream home. You don't hire Urban Meyer for such a provincial purpose.
Ohio State wants to move on up to the playoff apartment in the sky, but it might not have the chance, partly because of its own shortcomings. Other than No. 19 Duke and No. 11 Nebraska, Ohio State is the lowest-rated one-loss team from a Power 5 conference in the latest AP Poll. It's unlikely the Buckeyes will be slotted above Oregon, Alabama, TCU, Baylor or Arizona State in the next College Football Playoff Rankings, issued Tuesday.
Ohio State looks like the Big Ten's best, but it will need a lot of help to be acknowledged as one of college football's best four.
A bad night in September still haunts Meyer's team. A 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech is the lone blemish, yet a very visible one, on Ohio State's résumé. Virginia Tech's steady decline in a weak ACC -- the 4-5 Hokies sit in last place in the Coastal Division -- continues to puncture the Buckeyes' playoff push.
The good news is that the playoff selection committee seems to prioritize who teams have conquered ahead of their conquerors. Ohio State's victory over Michigan State should resonate all the way until selection Sunday, as long as the Spartans don't slip up again.
But how much credit will Ohio State get from beating an improved Minnesota team this week? Would a Buckeyes victory over Nebraska or Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game resonate with the committee?
Ohio State obviously must win out to have a chance. Nebraska winning out until the Big Ten championship game would help.
Arguably the bigger lifts must come elsewhere: Florida State slipping up in the ACC, possibly this week against Miami; TCU and Baylor stumbling against inferior Big 12 foes; Arizona State falling to rival Arizona and then handing Oregon its second loss in the Pac-12 title game; Mississippi State or Alabama -- ideally, both -- suffering their second losses.
It's quite a wish list for the Scarlet and Gray, but this has been the season of giving.
"The last two weeks [of the season] are most important as clarity will emerge from a level of chaos this [past] weekend represented," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told me Sunday. "We will see upsets again. I do believe this committee is going to objectively look at who's the best team at the end of the year, not the most deserving.
"I'm counting on the football people on the committee to give consideration to teams that got better over the course of the year."
The thrust of Ohio State's argument is that the current team doesn't resemble the one that lost to Virginia Tech. Meyer, appearing Monday morning on ESPN's "Mike & Mike," said this team is the "most improved" he has ever coached.
Smith recalled that while serving on the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee, discussions between teams often boiled down to this simple question: Who would win if they played right now?
Smith also thinks the Big Ten is better than its perception, still warped by the Week 2/Week 3 struggles endured by Ohio State, Michigan State and others.
"The top of our league is very strong, just like in other leagues," Smith said. "You're always going to have X number of teams at the top who are pretty darn good and are getting better as the year goes along. That's what we have now.
"Those teams who have gotten better are really starting to perform."
Ohio State is one of those teams.
"You beat Michigan State and did what they did offensively," Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told me Sunday, "they're very, very, very, very good."
Perhaps top-four-in-the-country-good. But they might never rise to that level.
The Big Ten ceiling looks awfully sturdy.
Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop can still remember sifting through thick stacks of manila recruiting folders in the mid-90s and reaching for a shelf of VHS tapes hanging above his desk.
There were no real recruiting support staffs to speak of. He'd pop a recruit's game tape into a VCR and then ready himself with a notepad. Fast forward, fast forward. There's the recruit. Fast forward, fast forward.
As technology has evolved, so has recruiting -- and recruiting budgets. In just the past six seasons, according to a recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," recruiting budgets encompassing all sports have increased at 13 of 14 Big Ten schools and risen by at least 30 percent at eight of those. Higher gas prices, increased postage and other variables have undoubtedly played a role but several coaches and athletic directors also stressed how bigger staffs -- a result of newer technology -- have inflated those numbers.
At Penn State, Shoop can now rely on two full-time staff members, two graduate assistants and a team of 30 students/interns to help with recruiting. At Northwestern, the recruiting staff has tripled in just the last six to eight years. And, at Ohio State, one full-time position was recently added, in part, to help with recruiting presentations.
"Our technology has increased quite a bit," OSU athletic director Gene Smith said. "That's a big number for us."
That technology, such as online game film, has placed a bigger focus on immediacy. In an age where a top prospect's highlights can be filmed today and broken down by college coaches tomorrow, staffs can no longer wait until the offseason to evaluate players. And they can't drop everything on a Friday night in October, either, to give up game plan tweaks in favor of digesting film from a high school junior.
"Your coaches are doing this thing in the football season called coaching," said Chris Bowers, Northwestern's director of player personnel. "The time allocation a position coach would spend in March, he's not going to allocate that same amount of time in December or October. He can't. So, yes, there's been an increase in staff for sure.
"I would say at most universities -- I can't speak for everyone -- the recruiting staff is probably two to three times bigger than it was in '06."
In September of 2012, the Wildcats were able to jump early on the Clayton Thorson bandwagon because of that extra staff and technology. The ESPN 300 quarterback, who signed with Northwestern in February, hadn't started under center prior to 2012.
So, when he was due in Evanston, Ill., for a Saturday night game, Bowers noticed his high school coach uploaded his film to the Hudl website that Friday evening. Bowers contacted a GA, requested he cut-up some highlights -- and then forwarded the finished product to the coaching staff. Thorson received an offer that Saturday, partially based on something that was filmed less than 24 hours before.
And if this had all happened just a few years before, then how long would it have taken to make that same judgment call? Months?
""Yes!" Bowers said. "… Even if you were an aggressive recruiting staff, the high school coaches would still need to bring you a DVD or mail it to you -- and they might not do it until the end of the season."
You're investing to recruit good people." -- Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop
Nationally, recruiting budgets have risen across the board, so it's hardly limited to the Big Ten. Still, the conference seems to be outpacing the competition. Between 2008 and 2012, Big Ten teams placed within the top-10 nationally in recruiting spending on just five occasions. In 2013, four conference teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State) placed within the top 10 -- and Illinois wasn't far behind at No. 12.
But coaches and athletic directors were slow to label last season a turning point. After all, it's not as if the staffs had all doubled overnight. Instead, they cautioned, there were other variables that needed to be taken into account. At Wisconsin, for example, the budget is artificially low because the Badgers are provided a private plane and don't need to charter flights as much. At Iowa, a booster donation wasn't included in the recruiting numbers until a few years ago -- which could account for part of the jump. And at Minnesota, due to the campus location, increased flight and hotel expenses impacted the budget more than schools elsewhere.
"We can't drive as much as others," Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague added. "So we've got to keep building the budget and being aggressive."
Regardless, the trend of spending more on recruiting each season appears to be a difficult one to stop. Whether it's an increased staff or costs elsewhere, few universities take a step back in spending.
But, on the bright side, it could be worse -- at least the era of "Be kind; please rewind" is long gone.
"That required a significant amount of manpower hours," Shoop said with a laugh. "And in some ways, now, it's a pro model. It's not like you have an entire scouting department, but I'm sure we're getting closer to that model now than ever before now, as far as people whose sole responsibility is player evaluation. ... It's incredible how the process has accelerated."
He jokingly offered a possible reason for his escape.
"It seems like every vote we take," Hollis said, "costs us $100,000."
Expenses are rising for major-conference schools, especially with the welfare of college athletes in the national spotlight. One area that continues to get more expensive is the cost of home games, and the prices will continue to rise.
While Big Ten schools make millions from football games in their campus stadiums, they also are paying large guarantees for opponents to show up and play. According to recent analysis from "Outside the Lines," Big Ten teams paid nearly $42 million to visiting teams in all sports during the 2012-13 season (this includes Rutgers and Maryland, but not Northwestern, a private institution that doesn't report figures). The Big Ten, with its big football stadiums and broad-based athletic programs, paid more to opponents than any other conference. It's not a surprise considering many Big Ten teams make more than $3 million per football home game.
In 2012-13, Ohio State led the nation in money paid to opponents ($7,999,881), followed by Minnesota ($4,799,383) and Wisconsin ($3,987,864). Two other Big Ten teams -- Michigan State ($3,650,864) and Indiana ($3,375,562) -- finished in the top 10, and 10 schools finished in the top 25.
Ohio State has spent more on visiting teams in each of the past six years, averaging $7.4 million per year. Its total spent since 2007-08 ($44,418,002) is more than double that of the next Big Ten school, Indiana ($21,576,798). The simple explanation for the disparity: Ohio State is the league's largest athletic program with 36 varsity sports, and with a massive, often sold-out football stadium, it spends because it can.
"We’ll net north of about $7 million off of each [home football] game," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "That's why we can afford to pay that guarantee. If you're over 100,000 seats -- you look at Michigan, us, Penn State, Tennessee -- you have to look at their average ticket price, which is typically north of $75. Then, you're probably looking at $5-7 million that those stadiums are netting individually.
"So when you take out a $1-million, $1.2-million, $1.3-million guarantee, you can handle it."
According to the Associated Press, Ohio State will pay more than $2 million in guarantee money to its three home nonconference opponents this season (Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Kent State). The Buckeyes also will receive an $850,000 guarantee for playing Navy in Baltimore.
These fees aren't new to college football. Many major-conference schools with big stadiums have been spending $800,000 or more on guarantees since the latter part of the last decade. In 2008, both Ohio State and Michigan State paid more than $5.5 million to road teams, finishing first and second nationally, respectively.
"We're in the market, we're part of that market because we’re a large stadium," Smith said. "It's just what you have to do today to get the mix."
The problem going forward is inventory, a word used by several Big Ten athletic directors at last week's meetings. Although the Big Ten moves to a nine-game league schedule in 2016, which reduces the number of nonconference games to schedule, the demand for nonleague home games remains high, if not higher. Big Ten teams will have five conference road games every other year, so to get the seven home games most need to meet budgets, all three nonleague games must be at home.
The Big Ten also has placed a moratorium on scheduling FCS opponents, a route many Big Ten teams have taken because FCS schools don't require return games and have relatively lower guarantee fees. So Big Ten teams in many cases must find FBS teams willing to play on the road without requiring a return.
"The issue with nine is inventory," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "You're trying to schedule all [FBS] schools. The inventory becomes questionable. People don't want to go home-and-home. You try to stay at seven games at home, it's very difficult to do that in the year that you have four Big Ten games at home. So there are some issues."
One of them is cost.
"As the supply shrinks," Hollis said, "those that are in the window of who you want to play have the ability to ask for more."
Like many college football observers, Smith had hoped both the SEC and ACC would join the Pac-12, Big 12 and, soon, the Big Ten in adopting nine-game league schedules. But he didn't see it as a competitive balance issue.
The problem: inventory.
"If they'd gone to nine, obviously there's a lot more inventory out there because they would only schedule three [nonleague games]," Smith said. "Everyone is trying to schedule the same types of nonconference games in the same window of time, September. It's challenging."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, while reiterating the need to avoid scheduling FCS opponents, says he will assist member schools with the scheduling dilemma. Some schools are exploring neutral-site games, which are lucrative and have gained greater popularity in recent years. Penn State AD Dave Joyner, who will watch the Nittany Lions open the 2014 season in Ireland, said, "It's almost like having a home game."
But Big Ten ADs also have been resistant to move games -- and the money they generate -- away from local markets.
"I don't know about the neutral-site thing," Minnesota AD Norwood Teague said. "We just built a stadium on campus, a beautiful new 50,000-seat facility. That was built for a purpose, and $150 million of that stadium was paid for by taxpayer dollars."
Hollis also has stiff-armed the neutral-site trend, but he acknowledged last week that MSU and longtime rival Notre Dame are discussing a neutral-site contest, possibly in Chicago.
"Some of us aren't traditional thinkers," he said. "You can come up with some creative ways that make sense for student-athletes, fans and … that you can meet your financial challenges."
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- When Big Ten athletic directors and administrators gather each spring, they normally look in the mirror and explore internal issues.
In 2010, expansion buzz consumed the league's meetings in Chicago; weeks later, Nebraska became the conference's 12th member. In 2011, the athletic directors and coaches discussed the new football divisions and heard pitches from both Chicago and Indianapolis to host future football championship games. The 2012 meetings brought more national discussion, particularly about a potential college football playoff. Last year's gathering featured presentations about the Big Ten's new bowl lineup and its format for assigning teams to certain locations.
Athletic directors -- along with senior woman administrators and faculty representatives who form the Big Ten's joint group -- gather Tuesday and Wednesday at the Big Ten's swanky office just east of O'Hare Airport. Although this year's meeting site is more private -- previous meetings had been held at Chicago hotels -- the participants will spend most of their time looking beyond the Big Ten's walls and exploring national issues, particularly the proposed NCAA governance changes that would give more autonomy to five major conferences (Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).
Burke and his Missouri counterpart, Mike Alden, have represented the 351 Division I ADs in discussions with the NCAA about the likely seismic changes in how business is done. The movement to improve conditions for college athletes has gained unprecedented momentum in recent months, spurred not only by the unionization push at Northwestern but by several antitrust lawsuits filed against the NCAA, the Big Ten and other major conferences.
Big Ten attorneys will brief the ADs this week.
"There are some things where autonomy makes a lot of sense if you’re being attacked," Burke said. "Right now, you've got to have some freedom to try to address the issues."
One of those issues is increasing the value of scholarships up to federal cost-of-attendance figures. The Big Ten discussed a cost-of-attendance proposal three springs ago at its meetings, but the plan never was approved nationally as schools with smaller budgets, but equal voting power, voted it down.
"That's a very significant issue that needs to be resolved," Burke said.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has proposed a voting model that would make it easier for the major conferences to approve major changes. If three of the five conferences approve a proposal, 60 percent of all schools (39 of 65) would need to vote yes for an item to go through. If four of five conferences approve, only a simple majority would be needed.
Delany believes a stricter voting bar -- two-thirds or three-fourths required for approval -- would be "damaging to all of us."
He likely won't get opposition from Big Ten ADs this week.
"We've been pretty good about that as a conference, trying to make sure we have solidarity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Sometimes we may have some differences on different pieces of legislation, but on this one, we've been pretty aligned all along. So I think we'll come out of there with some recommendations, probably on the voting, probably on the autonomy legislation."
The ADs also will discuss the final steps with integrating new members Maryland and Rutgers, who officially join the league July 1. Last week, the Big Ten announced basketball initiatives in both New York and Washington, D.C. Delany will spend much of the next six weeks on the East Coast promoting the new arrivals.
While leagues like the SEC and ACC recently announced football schedule models -- both are staying at eight conference games -- the Big Ten last year approved a nine-game league schedule beginning in 2016.
"I don't see us backing up on that," Burke said.
The ADs will discuss the upcoming four-team playoff and hear from Delany, who attended an FBS commissioners meeting last week in Texas. Both Delany and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, a member of the playoff selection committee, can provide more details to the group.
"We've been more interested in how is it going to work," Smith said. "If you're playing in the first game, who's coordinating a lot of the logistics? Are they scheduling the flights for you? How are the tickets going to work for families? All that type of stuff, nobody's really talking about."
The ADs also will discuss football non-league scheduling, which remains a challenge despite the selection committee stating it will value schedule strength in picking the top four. They also will be briefed on the league's new bowl selection process, which uses a tiered system rather than a traditional order and gives the league more power to determine who goes where.
Although past spring meetings have produced some newsy items, this week's get-together could be quiet.
"I don't see any real major issues," Smith said. "This might be a pretty boring meeting."
But for much of this century, when it came to football coaching diversity, the Big Ten lagged behind the rest of the nation.
Thankfully, things have begun to improve. Two of the last three head coaches hired in the Big Ten -- Purdue's Darrell Hazell and Penn State's James Franklin -- are African-American.
"That's great news, to have that diversity," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Now we just need to give them time and let them be successful where they are and develop their programs. I'm glad there is progress, and we need to continue to do more across the country."
There weren't a lot of opportunities, period, for head coaching jobs in the Big Ten during the recent diversity drought, as schools like Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State remained mostly stable at the top. But coaching turnover has increased in the league in the past few years; Penn State, for instance, just hired its second coach in three years after going nearly a half-century without a transition.
Was improving diversity a league-wide priority? Conference officials say no.
"What our schools try to do is hire the best coaches in their pool," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "We've had plenty of African-American basketball coaches.
"It's more about a commitment to opportunity and a fair process, and as long as our people are hiring the best people in processes that are open, you would hope and think that it would be sort of a broad representation of people. Whether you hire James Franklin or a new coach at any place, I'm not sure race should be the factor. Certainly people wouldn't want it to be a factor. It's really an outcome."
Still, it's hard not to note the importance of Penn State hiring its first African-American head football coach. More so than Dennis Green or Francis Peay at Northwestern or even Williams at Michigan State, Franklin is leading a flagship, blue-blood program. The timing was fortuitous, as the Pennsylvania native was ready for a new challenge after proving himself at Vanderbilt and the Nittany Lions needed a dynamic new leader.
“It’s a lot of significance," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "We hired James because of the kind of person and coach he is. The fact he’s African American is great. It’s a great testimony to opportunity. A hundred years ago, that wouldn’t have happened in this country."
"That's critically important," he said. "Historically, the opportunities in general that have gone to African-American coaches have been at programs that have been really down, and the opportunities to turn them around have been very problematic. Let's hope [Hazell and Franklin] are successful, because they will help create more opportunities for other African-American and Latino coaches in FBS conferences."
The next step for the Big Ten is to continue to develop and identify the next wave of minority head coaching candidates. Both Franklin and Hazell, who led Kent State for two seasons before Purdue hired him, had already established themselves as winning head coaches elsewhere, though Hazell was also a well-regarded assistant at Ohio State. The Big Ten sent several African-American assistant coaches to the annual minority coaches' forum between 2006 and 2010, and some athletic directors see it as their job to mentor young black coaches.
Smith saw Everett Withers leave the Buckeyes staff this winter to land the James Madison head coaching job and said he is spending time this offseason with running backs coach Stan Drayton to get Drayton accustomed to non-football issues like university budgets and policies.
"We want to have guys who are trained to hopefully win in the interview process," Smith said. "Sometimes, those are beauty contests. You've got to be able to answer the questions the right way and demonstrate an ability to lead."
That's the ultimate goal, to have more minority candidates who are ready when those opportunities do arise. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said that wasn't the case a few years ago, but the pool of potential coaches is increasing.
"We’re starting to see more and more diversity among the coaching staffs and up-and-coming diverse candidates in all various positions in the sport," Brandon said. "Now, we're seeing more representation at the head coaching level. That was bound to happen and important to have happen, and I'm glad to see that trend evolve."
The message back then: We can do this, but we probably won't any time soon.
Last year, Big Ten coaches and administrators expressed greater support for night games, including those in November. League commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com he wouldn't stand in the way of such games.
Will 2014 be the year we see Big Ten football kick off under the lights after Nov. 1?
We won't know for sure until ESPN/ABC and BTN announce their prime-time schedules this spring, but there's momentum for more night games and later night games, and talks are underway.
"We're more amendable to that first November Saturday," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith recently told ESPN.com, "and I think some of us will be willing to look at that second Saturday in November if the contest is right."
Weather is still a potential deterrent for Big Ten schools to schedule night games later in the season, as it creates possible logistical problems for all involved (fans, game operations staff, police/security). But the temperature difference between late October and the first portion of November often is negligible.
The 2014 season includes Saturdays on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8.
Here are the schedules:
Indiana at Michigan
Maryland at Penn State
Illinois at Ohio State
Wisconsin at Rutgers
Northwestern at Iowa
Purdue at Nebraska
Byes: Minnesota, Michigan State
Penn State at Indiana
Michigan at Northwestern
Ohio State at Michigan State
Iowa at Minnesota
Wisconsin at Purdue
Byes: Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois, Nebraska
The bad news: The Nov. 1 schedule doesn't feature too many big-time games, which could decrease the likelihood of a prime-time contest, especially on ESPN/ABC.
Michigan wants its night games to be major events, and facing Indiana doesn't exactly qualify. Iowa hosting Northwestern is a possibility, especially since the Hawkeyes play only one other home game (Oct. 11 against Indiana) between Sept. 15 and Nov. 1.
The Nov. 8 schedule includes arguably the Big Ten's marquee game of the year in Ohio State visiting Michigan State, a rematch of the 2013 league championship. I'd absolutely love to see this at night, and what a way to kick off November prime time in the league. It's definitely a possibility, but the game also could fill the 3:30 p.m. ET window, which many Big Ten athletic directors prefer (Purdue's Morgan Burke recently called it "the sweet spot").
The Penn State-Indiana game is another potential prime-time kickoff, mainly because Indiana has been so open to night games (six in the past two seasons, nine since the 2010 season).
"We've probably had more night games than most of our colleagues in the conference," Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said. "We think it's a good thing for us, it helps our attendance. We're certainly open to that, and my guess is that will be more of a trend."
Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas echoes the support for night games, noting that several Big Ten ADs and coaches previously spent time in the Mid-American Conference, where playing at night and on weekdays, especially late in the season, is common.
"We experienced all of that in our past lives," said Thomas, who served as Akron's athletic director from 2000-05. "We talk about the opportunities for the prime-time windows and where we are as individual schools and as a conference in having that kind of exposure.
"I would certainly support it."
Many of Thomas' colleagues seem to be on board. Smith said the athletic directors last week spoke about moving up the timetable for prime-time selections so they can begin promoting games. Prime-time schedules typically have been announced between April 20 and May 15.
"We're putting in lights because we've realized that we can handle night games," Smith said. "In 2006, we were a little bit skittish about it. We know our fans love it, so we've shared with the conference that we're amenable to having more. There's a novelty to it. That helps us with our atmosphere.
"It makes things really exciting."
America's two largest football venues -- Michigan Stadium and Beaver Stadium -- sit on Big Ten campuses, and three of the seven football stadiums with six-figure capacities are in the league (Ohio Stadium is the other). Michigan has led the nation in college football attendance for the past 15 years, and the Big Ten occupied three of the top five spots and seven of the top 23 spots in attendance average for the 2013 season.
So what's the B1G deal? Eight of the 12 league programs saw a decline in average attendance last season. Some have seen numbers drop for several years. Student-section attendance is a growing concern, and the Big Ten is tracking the troubling national attendance trends.
"We've been blessed because we haven't been hit with the significant drop-off that many other conferences and schools have experienced," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "However, we've seen it in certain games, or in not necessarily ticket sales but people actually coming to games.
"So we're concerned."
The league is taking a proactive approach, starting last season with the formation of a football game-day experience subcommittee, which Smith chairs. The committee in August announced that Big Ten schools would be allowed to show an unlimited number of replays on video boards at any speed. Schools previously could show one replay at no less than 75 percent of real-time speed.
The move drew positive reviews from fans and no major complaints from game officials.
"If people can see the replay at home on TV, you can't give them a lesser experience in the stands," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said.
A "more robust" replay approach is on the way for 2014, and Big Ten leaders are looking at other ways to bolster the stadium experience, which, as Burke noted, seems to have reached a tipping point with the couch experience.
Here are some areas of focus:
Cellular and Wi-Fi Connections
In August, the subcommittee encouraged each Big Ten school to explore full Wi-Fi in stadiums as well as Distributed Antenna System (DAS) coverage to enhance cell-phone functionality. A fan base immersed in smartphones, social media and staying connected demands it.
"Everybody realizes improvements have to be made," said Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee. "People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren’t there but are watching."
Penn State installed Wi-Fi throughout Beaver Stadium in 2012 but is the only Big Ten school to have complete access. Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said he hopes to have total Wi-Fi in the school's football stadium by the fall, if not the 2015 season. Nebraska's regents last month approved a $12.3 million Wi-Fi project for its stadium, and Wisconsin hopes to have full stadium Wi-Fi this season.
Most schools are focused on boosting cell service, which is more feasible and widespread. Ohio State installed more than 200 antennas in Ohio Stadium to improve cell service. For complete Wi-Fi, it would need about 1,200 antennas.
"We don't know what the cost is, but we know it's somewhere north of seven figures," Smith said. "We're studying it, as are my colleagues in the Big Ten."
Student sections aren't nearly as full as they used to be on Saturdays, both in the Big Ten and in the nation. ADs are well aware of the downturn and have tried different approaches to boost attendance.
Michigan in 2013 implemented a general admission policy, hoping to get more students to show up early, but reviews weren't favorable. Minnesota provided a new student tailgating area and better ticket packages. Illinois held a clinic for international students, who have told Thomas they'd come to games if they knew more about football.
The technology component resonates for students. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told CBSsports.com that many students didn't show up for a 2012 game against Iowa because they couldn't send text messages in the rain.
Even if Ohio State doesn't install complete Wi-Fi at The Shoe, it could do so for the student section.
"Our surveys show that less than 25 percent of the crowd actually uses their cellular device [during games]," Smith said, "but of that 25 percent, a supermajority are students. You want to be able to provide that access."
“The days of public-address announcers listing scores from other games during timeouts are over. Schools want to give fans a broader view on Saturdays, whether it's putting live feeds of other games on video boards or replaying highlights shortly after they happen.
Everybody realizes improvements have to be made. People want to be updated on other games. They want to go in there and take photos or Instagram videos or tweet. They want to be able to stay in touch with family and friends that aren't there but are watching.” Kerry Kenny, the Big Ten's liaison to the game-day experience subcommittee, on Wi-Fi in stadiums.
"I was at a game at Purdue this year," Kenny said, "and they showed a highlight of a touchdown in the Wisconsin-Iowa game within a couple minutes of that touchdown being scored."
Added Thomas: "If you're watching ESPN or watching a game at home, those are the kinds of experiences you should give people in your venue."
Big Ten athletic directors and football coaches last week discussed having more locker-room video or behind-the-scenes content that can be shown only within the stadium.
"You're in an era where people want to know what's it like before the game, after the game," Burke said. "It humanizes us if people see that side, the highs and the lows."
Burke likens Purdue's sideline to a "Hollywood production," as the band director, a disc jockey and a show producer coordinate in-game music on headsets. Several schools post tweets from fans at games on video boards to create a more interactive experience.
Ticketing and timing
Last month, Penn State became the latest Big Ten school to adopt variable ticket pricing for single games, acknowledging, "We have been listening to our fans." Attendance has dropped 11.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, while frustration has grown with the Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) program.
Big Ten schools are getting more creative with ticket plans in response to attendance concerns. Northwestern last season implemented a modified "Dutch auction" system where a portion of tickets were sold based on adjusted price demand rather than set prices.
Purdue last fall introduced mobile ticket delivery, which allows fans to download tickets directly to their devices.
Kickoff times are another attendance indicator, as Big Ten schools located in the central time zone often struggle to fill the stands for 11 a.m. games. The Big Ten gradually has increased its number of prime-time games, and while Burke considers mid-afternoon games ideal, more night kickoffs likely are on the way, including those in early November.
Ohio State is in the process of installing permanent lights at Ohio Stadium.
"I'm a big fan of evening games," Thomas said.
As attendance becomes a bigger issue, the Big Ten and its members have surveyed fans about what they want at games. Wisconsin last fall established a 25-member fan advisory council, with two students. The school has received feedback about concessions, parking and whether fans would prefer digital programs rather than the traditional magazine-style ones.
"So much of it is when somebody comes to your venue," said Justin Doherty, Wisconsin's associate athletic director for external relations, "they have an experience that makes them want to come back."
It's no coincidence that a historic downturn in Big Ten football has coincided with a historic stretch of instability among the league's coaches.
The Big Ten coaches that year had combined for four national championships, five Rose Bowl titles and seven BCS bowl victories.
Since 2005, the Big Ten has gone through 17 coaching changes (not counting Nebraska's after the 2007 season). Seven teams have made multiple changes, including Penn State, which introduced new coaches earlier this month and in January 2011 after not doing so since February 1966. Last season, Indiana's Kevin Wilson was the longest-tenured coach in the Leaders division. He was hired in December 2010.
As the Big Ten invests more in its coaches, it also must ensure it has the right leaders in place for the long haul.
"If you believe strongly in the person you have," Iowa athletic director Gary Barta told ESPN.com, "continuity is invaluable."
Few programs value continuity more than Iowa, which has had two coaches (Kirk Ferentz and Hayden Fry) since the 1978 season. Ferentz, who just completed his 15th year at the school, has been at his post eight years longer than any other Big Ten coach. He's one of only four FBS coaches to start before the 2000 season (Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Troy's Larry Blakeney are the others).
Iowa awarded Ferentz with contract extensions both in 2009 and 2010, the latter a whopping 10-year deal with a salary of $3,675,000. The Big Ten hasn't set the pace nationally in coach compensation, but Iowa's pledge to Ferentz, often the subject of NFL rumors, jumps out. Ferentz's salary is frequently debated and scrutinized, especially when Iowa struggles like it did in 2012, but Barta's loyalty to him hasn't wavered. Iowa rebounded to win eight games last season.
"Because of that commitment, we made our statement," Barta said. "We're going to fight through this with the person in whom we have great confidence and trust. There's no guarantees in life, but because of Kirk's past performance, because of his long-standing approach at Iowa and his proven success, it was a risk I was willing to take. Knock on wood, so far it has worked out terrific."
Barta sees a similar approach from Big Ten schools like Michigan State, which won Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in Mark Dantonio's seventh season as coach. Dantonio in 2011 received a contract designed to keep him a "Spartan for life," and his newest deal is expected to more than double his salary from $1.9 million in 2013.
"Continuity breeds success," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said, "and that's the hardest part sometimes on the institutional side, to keep that commitment, keep that contract whether it's an assistant or a head coach. … It requires a high level of confidence and a high level of trust."
“There have been similar long-term commitments at other Big Ten schools. Northwestern awarded coach Pat Fitzgerald a 10-year contract in 2011. When Indiana hired Wilson, it gave him a seven-year contract, longer than the initial deals new coaches typically receive. Athletic director Fred Glass links Indiana's lack of continuity -- the school has had five coaches since 1996 -- with its on-field struggles (only one bowl appearance since 1993) and knows the school needs a more patient approach.
The day of playing musical chairs with coaches, of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right.” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon
"Stability is an important thing in our league," said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who applauded recent moves like MSU retaining Dantonio and Penn State hiring James Franklin. "The best example I'll use is men’s basketball where we're having tremendous success, in large part, because of the stability we have in a number of our programs. I think we need to get that in football."
While Big Ten football has struggled in recent years, the league is surging on the hardwood, in large part because of veteran coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo (19th year), Wisconsin's Bo Ryan (13th year) and Ohio State's Thad Matta (10th year). Six of the league's 12 basketball coaches have been in their jobs for at least five seasons.
Continuity doesn't guarantee success, but it often correlates. Barta has tried to create "an environment of longevity and long-term commitment" at Iowa, while also recognizing the pressure to win and, in some cases, the need to part ways with a coach.
"The day of playing musical chairs with coaches," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said, "of making change just for change's sake, is over because any changes you make are going to be expensive and important. You've got to get them right."
After several years of transition, the Big Ten hopes it has the right men at the top -- and the ability to keep them there.
When Bret Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas in December 2012, it sent shock waves throughout the Big Ten.
Why would a guy who had led his program to three straight Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles, one who was a Midwesterner through and through, decide to bolt for a mid-level SEC program? And if the Big Ten couldn't keep a guy like that from heading south, did it have any hope of keeping its best coaches around?
Bielema's exit wasn't the only example of coaching talent bred in the Midwest flocking to the SEC, after all. Nick Saban famously left Michigan State for LSU back in the day. Michigan man Les Miles coaches LSU. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is a Purdue grad. Tennessee's Butch Jones is a Michigan native, while Georgia's Mark Richt was born in Omaha, Neb.
But offseason hires in the Big Ten this winter should alleviate fears that the league will always suffer from an SEC brain drain. Conference teams looked south to fill several high-profile openings:
- Penn State hired James Franklin (and just about all of his staff) away from Vanderbilt. Sure, Vandy is no powerhouse program, but the Commodores reportedly offered him a 10-year, $50 million contract to stay in Nashville.[+] EnlargeMatthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsLuring "Pennsylvania boy" James Franklin from the SEC to Penn State could be the start of a trend to get coaches with Midwestern roots back home.
- Michigan lured Doug Nussmeier away from Saban and Alabama and hired him as the Wolverines' new offensive coordinator. While there were some rumblings that Saban wasn't exactly sorry to see Nussmeier go, the Tide did average 38.2 points per game last season.
- In a bit of sweet irony, Ohio State swiped Bielema's Arkansas defensive coordinator, Chris Ash, naming him the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
It makes sense that Big Ten schools with important vacancies would turn their attention to the SEC. If you can't beat 'em, become 'em, after all. But those in charge of the hiring say that poaching the SEC wasn't really at the forefront of their minds.
"We were trying to get the very best person who fit within how Penn State is and what we do who was available," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "It just so happens that this great coach had a great experience in the SEC. If you just look at the football piece of it, having the success that he had in the SEC -- obviously the most successful conference over the past eight or nine years perhaps if you look at national championships -- that was a very strong positive."
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon noted that Nussmeier was born in Oregon and has coached at Washington and Michigan State, while only spending the past two years in the SEC with Saban.
"To me, it’s more coincidental than anything that’s more strategic," Brandon said of the recent Big Ten hires. "You're going to see Big Ten coaches moving around and the same for coaches from other conferences. I don’t think where they're from is as relevant as how we view their talent and experience and how well prepared they are to come in and help us at Michigan."
Still, it's good for the league and its image that high-profile coaches are willing to leave the bright lights of the SEC and take their talents to the Midwest for essentially the same positions. Ash accepted a small pay cut to abandon Bielema's ship, going from a sole coordinator's role to a job where he is officially, at least, sharing coordinator duties. Ash, tellingly, was born in Iowa and spent most of his career coaching in that state and Wisconsin before going to Dixie.
"He's kind of a Midwest guy," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "He has Midwest values. He's coming home, in my opinion."
And maybe that's the best selling point and best hope for the future of the Big Ten. With so many coaches having deep ties to the region, perhaps the league can bring some of them back home. It sure worked for Ohio State when native son Urban Meyer became available. Penn State scooped up self-described "Pennsylvania boy" Franklin. Both were considered stars in the SEC.
"If you’re not competing for great coaching talent, it’s going to be very hard to win the Big Ten title, it’s going to be very hard to appear in Rose Bowls, and it’s going to be very hard to compete for national championships," Brandon said.
Big Ten teams can do all of those things by first making sure they clot the Midwest brain drain.
Two days before Michigan State ended its best season in nearly a half-century with a Rose Bowl victory, Mark Hollis stood outside a Los Angeles conference room and described the dilemma he and other athletic directors face with football coaches' salaries.
"I get concerned sometimes about where we're going with coaches' salaries as an industry," Hollis said, "but at the same time, you need to ensure that continuity is in place."
The recent moves underscore a greater willingness throughout the deep-pocketed Big Ten to invest more in the men charged to coach its flagship sport, one that has struggled for the past decade. The Big Ten didn't set the market for soaring coaches' salaries, but after some initial reluctance, the league seems more willing to join it.
"When you see an institution like Penn State and Franklin, it says we're going to attract the best talent that we can and in order to do that, we have to step up financially to procure that person's services," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "I think that's great for our league. ... We need to have the best coaches, we need to retain the best coaches."
Ohio State in 2011 hired Urban Meyer for a salary of $4 million per year. At the time, the Big Ten had no coaches earning more than $4 million and only two making more than $3 million. Purdue was one of the few major-conference programs paying its coach (Danny Hope) less than $1 million. Bret Bielema cited the difficulty of retaining top assistants at Wisconsin as one reason he left for the Arkansas job in 2012.
The landscape has changed. Last year, both Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke made more than $4 million, while Iowa's Kirk Ferentz made just less ($3.985 million), according to USA Today. Franklin's deal at Penn State includes an annual salary of $4.25 million. Terms of Dantonio's new contract at Michigan State have yet to be announced, but it will put Dantonio, previously among the lowest-paid Big Ten coaches ($1.9 million), in the top salary tier. His staff also will receive nice pay bumps.
"I don't think we've been woefully behind," Smith said of the Big Ten. "We were not the first ones to drive the salaries up, but we weren't far behind in responding. Whenever we can attract someone who is really talented, we pay them."
They also must pay top assistants, many of whom command salaries well above those of head coaches from smaller leagues. The Big Ten, after lagging behind nationally in assistant coach pay, is catching up.
"The offensive and defensive coordinators, those decisions become critically important," Michigan AD Dave Brandon said. "You can have the greatest head coach in the world, but if you're not providing him with those leaders who can manage those smaller staffs ... it's hard to believe that the head coach is going to be successful."
There has been no Big Ten mandate to increase salaries, and athletic directors don't discuss financial specifics when they meet. These are institutional decisions, and Hollis, upon realizing Dantonio and his aides deserved an increase, first looked at what MSU could provide before surveying the Big Ten, the national college scene and the NFL.
Part of his challenge is verifying data, as some numbers, even those available through records requests, aren't always accurate.
"Every school pays individuals in different ways," Hollis said. "There can be longevity payments put in there, different bonuses."
Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner expected to make a strong financial push for O'Brien's successor but didn't know exactly where the numbers would fall. Among the metrics Joyner used was the potential attendance increase a new coach could bring.
Despite PSU's on-field success the past two years, average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by about 5,000. An increase of 1,000 fans during the season, including parking and concessions, adds about $500,000 in revenue, Joyner said.
Indiana AD Fred Glass also wants to fill seats, but he's in a different financial ballpark from schools with massive stadiums like Penn State, despite competing in the same conference. Glass notes that while Michigan made $147.5 million in football revenue last year, Indiana made only about $4.5 million.
But it didn't stop IU from doubling its salary pool for assistant coaches when Kevin Wilson arrived, or awarding Wilson a seven-year contract worth $1.2 million annually, or increasing the number of full-time strength coaches devoted to football from two to five, the NCAA maximum.
"There's a reason IU traditionally hasn't been where we want to be in football," Glass said. "We haven't really made the investments in it. We haven't stuck with continuity. We haven't stayed with a staff over a long period of time. That's what we need.
"Kevin understands we're making resources available, but it's not a bottomless pit."
Glass' last point resonates in the Big Ten, which generates record revenues but also sponsors more sports, on average, than any other major conference. The league believes in broad-based programs, which makes it harder to sink money into football, despite the superior return.
"We are a college program versus just a football franchise, and I think our football coaches not only understand that but really embrace it," Hollis said. "I believe in the Big Ten, maybe more so than others -- I've had the opportunity to see East and West -- [coaches] feel that the athletic department is part of their family."
But they also have to take care of their own families, and their assistants. They know salaries are rising everywhere.
Big Ten athletic directors know this, too. To keep up, you have to pay up.
(We'll pause here to let SEC fans pick their jaws up from the floor and clean off the spittle.)
Friday's Discover Orange Bowl will mark Ohio State's 10th BCS appearance. No other program reached double digits in BCS bowl game appearances in the 16-year history of the system. The Buckeyes also have won six BCS bowl games, tied for the most with USC. Since the Trojans aren't in the BCS this year, Ohio State would finish alone atop the wins category by beating Clemson. (The Buckeyes' 2011 Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas was later vacated by the NCAA, but it actually happened, so we are counting it.)
"No system is perfect, and the BCS has had its challenges," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "But it's been good to us. We've won games. We've enjoyed it."
Ohio State beat Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl in the first year of the BCS system, and Urban Meyer is the third coach to lead the Buckeyes to a BCS game. With their first trip to the Orange Bowl on Friday, Ohio State will have played in every BCS landing spot during the era: the BCS title, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls.
Though the Buckeyes have been the Big Ten's pre-eminent program during the BCS era, they have played in the Rose Bowl only once in that time, beating Oregon on New Year's Day 2010.
"We've had outstanding fan support, and the bowls know our fans come and have an economic impact in those communities. And so the system has benefited us because of our total package. But at the end of the day, we won games, and that's really what put us in that position to be considered."
Yet for all its success, Ohio State often receives more scorn than admiration from a national perspective. The Buckeyes sometimes get labeled as big-game chokers. That sentiment was evident late this season, when the team climbed the BCS standings and appeared on the verge of playing for a national title.
In many ways, the program is still paying a public-relations price for losing the 2007 and 2008 national title games to Florida and LSU, respectively, in lopsided fashion. Hardly anyone ever mentions that the Buckeyes were the last team to beat Oregon in a BCS game or that they took down an SEC team in their last BCS appearance or that they squeezed past a supremely talented Miami squad to win the BCS title in 2003.
That kind of selective memory is not just limited to Ohio State. The team with the second-most BCS appearances is Oklahoma with nine. The Sooners usually are more associated with their BCS losses than they are praised for their triumphs.
"That's understandable," Smith said. "That's our society.
"We've had great success against great opponents in the BCS system in some outstanding bowls. But everybody puts so much emphasis on the national championship game itself. That's just the way it is. It's that finality."
Smith said that at a program like Ohio State, the goal is always going to be winning a national championship. Falling short of that brings disappointment. But he said he also tries to remind his coaches and players to take pride in their accomplishments.
That applies to this year's Buckeyes, who lost a shot at playing for the final BCS championship when they were upset by Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. Players and coaches couldn't hide how crushing that defeat was in its aftermath, but they have tried to refocus.
"We're just as happy to be in a major game," linebacker Ryan Shazier told ESPN.com. "Not one team in the NCAA could be mad playing in this game, because it's a BCS bowl. I think it's really big just to finish the BCS era with the most wins."
Ohio State's final BCS bowl will be its first under Meyer, and it's a fitting marriage of achievement. Meyer is 4-0 in BCS games, including two national championships. That's the best record for any coach who has led a team to at least three BCS games.
"We have all the confidence in the world in Coach Meyer," Shazier said. "Everybody understands how much he has done to get teams in position to win these types of bowl games."
The Buckeyes have put themselves in position to win more BCS bowl games than any other school. Closing it out with one more victory would be their perfect end to an era.
The slate is the main reason why Urban Meyer's team sits at No. 3 in the BCS standings, despite a 9-0 record and a 21-game winning streak. It's also the reason why the Buckeyes soon could be behind a third unbeaten in Baylor, or even a 1-loss team in Stanford.
The Buckeyes have faced just one team in the current BCS standings, No. 22 Wisconsin. Barring a surprise, the only other ranked team they'll face before the BCS selections are announced will be in the Big Ten championship game.
How did this happen? Although Big Ten teams have shied away from tough schedules, Ohio State hasn't been one of them. In fact, the Buckeyes used a scheduling model that featured at least one marquee matchup per season, whether it was Texas in 2005 and 2006, USC in 2008 and 2009, or Miami in 2010 and 2011.
It's shortsighted to suggest, as many have, that Ohio State tried to avoid challenges in the schedule. For several reasons, the slate hasn't panned out, and it could keep Ohio State from playing for the crystal football.
1. The Cal series
Ironically, Ohio State's title hopes were impacted by a decision made in the Buckeyes' last championship season, 2002, when the school added a series with Cal. Scheduling games so far in advance is common, but it carries risks.
As Cal blossomed under Jeff Tedford from 2003-08, the series looked like a good one. But the Bears began declining in 2009. By the time the first game rolled around last fall, Cal was headed for a 3-9 campaign and a coaching change. The Bears, whom OSU defeated 52-34 on Sept. 14, are 1-9 this season.
"It just didn't work," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN.com. "You know, Cal had a run where they were rolling. Scheduling nonconference opponents is a little bit of art and a science. We have Oregon in the future, Oklahoma in the future, Texas in the future, TCU in the future. You hope that they stay great."
It would have been tough for Ohio State to back out of this year's return game at Cal, and even tougher to replace the Bears with a marquee foe.
"The only thing you could do is cancel it and take the financial hit that you pay in the penalty," Smith said. "But then you still have to find someone to fit that date. It's a supply-and-demand inventory issue, so sometimes the dates don't line up."
2. Vanderbilt mails it in
Many forget that Ohio State was set to face two major-conference teams this season, but Vanderbilt opted to cancel its game at The Shoe, informing Ohio State by snail mail last October.
Ohio State replaced Vanderbilt with San Diego State, which went 9-4 in 2012 and shared the Mountain West championship. But the Aztecs struggled to a 0-3 start this fall before righting the ship.
According to Smith, the level of opponent and the Big Ten's scheduling moratorium during its short-lived scheduling pact with the Pac-12 also limited the options.
"There was really no one we could get, a major-major, to do a one-game [series]," Smith said. "We could have got some neutral-site games, but I can't take one of our games out of Columbus unless it's a huge [financial] number, and nobody can do that but Dallas."
AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, hosts marquee season openers between major-conference teams, but was booked this year (LSU-TCU). Ohio State home games bring in $6.5 million for the athletic department, not to mention major gains for the Columbus community.
"The hotels, the restaurants, the taxi drivers, all those people count on those seven games a year," Smith said. "That's important to me. I have a social conscience. The neutral-site game has to be a big one."
3. The B1G drag
Florida State's non-league schedule consists of Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho and an unusually weak Florida team. Baylor's is even worse: Wofford, Buffalo (also a Buckeyes opponent) and Louisiana-Monroe.
So why is Ohio State's schedule criticized more? Because the Buckeyes receive little help from their conference.
The strength of the ACC and Big 12 -- real or perceived -- helps Florida State and Baylor. Some view the Pac-12 as the nation's strongest league, which could help one-loss Stanford leapfrog Ohio State. The Big Ten, meanwhile, remains a national piñata.
Michigan's struggles hurt. Northwestern, ranked 16th when Ohio State visited Evanston, is now in a five-game tailspin.
Even Ohio State's crossover schedule has been a detriment. The Buckeyes don't play 8-1 Michigan State, 8-2 Minnesota or 7-2 Nebraska during the regular season and will face only one in the Big Ten championship.
"We were hopeful," Smith said, "that the Big Ten would be a little stronger."
But he adds that perception is the biggest issue.
"Michigan State is one heck of a football team, Wisconsin is one heck of a football team," Smith said. "Just to dismiss our league says people haven't really looked at it. They haven't studied it. To dismiss our team means you haven't studied it."
Meyer didn't spent much time scrutinizing the schedule before the season, but he's aware of the Big Ten's perception problem.
"There's one way to eliminate all that talk: go win a bunch of bowl games and keep improving," Meyer said. "There's a lot of really good teams in our conference."
Still, it's hard to see the Big Ten helping the Buckeyes' chances. Ohio State needs help to get to Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes could be in Pasadena five days earlier for the 100th Rose Bowl game, which Smith calls "a heck of an accomplishment for our kids."
Ohio State likely won't have this problem in the future with marquee opponents lined up, and a nine-game league schedule beginning in 2016.
"You deal with what’s in front of you, because you can't control public opinion," Smith said.
"Still, at the end of the day, anybody who's won 20-plus games in a row, that's pretty strong."
And while the senior safety and the rest of the Buckeyes have consistently stressed the importance of maintaining focus this week, the unpredictable nature of college football and simply embracing another chance to play in their home stadium and win another game, they're certainly aware of the stature of the opponent coming in for a visit.
"I like to showcase our talent," Bryant said. "I would like to play bigger games, but I mean, it’s really out of our control. I’m not really sure who makes the schedule, but we still just have to go out there and face whatever team is put in front of us.
"I mean, we know the type of opponent we’re about to face this upcoming Saturday, but that really doesn’t give us any reason to lay off or slow down any of our tempo. In practice, we’re still going to go out there and practice like we’re facing a top-10 opponent."
Not counting its own scrimmages, the No. 4 Buckeyes will wrap up nonconference play on Saturday without having tangled with an actual top-10 opponent. And based on the latest rankings, they're not even slated to see one at all during the regular season with No. 14 Michigan currently the highest-rated team on Ohio State's schedule.
That relatively soft-looking schedule has its benefits, starting with what has long appeared to be a reasonable path to another undefeated mark at the end of November and a potential spot in the national title game. But the strength of schedule can also work against the Buckeyes if there's a logjam at the top of the polls and voters are left to compare the merits of either unbeaten or one-loss teams based on who they played.
Of course, there's nothing the Buckeyes can do now other than handle their business regardless of the opposition. But moving forward, the program has taken steps to beef up the schedule and avoid likely pushovers like Florida A&M in the future, particularly with strength of schedule expected to play an even more significant role in selecting participants for the four-team playoff set to debut next season.
Ohio State already has deals in place with powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Texas, TCU and Oregon in an effort to put at least one marquee showdown on the slate every season. And even with two other nonconference spots available when the Big Ten moves to a nine-game schedule within the league, athletic director Gene Smith has made it an emphasis to keep those filled with FBS-level squads.
That approach, even when it doesn't yield primetime matchups like a home-and-home series with the Sooners, sets up interesting, competitive games with programs like North Carolina, Boston College or Cincinnati.
And whether the Buckeyes have had any trouble getting locked in for the Rattlers or not this week, putting more recognizable names on the schedule should help them avoid any questions about their ability to do it down the road.
"These players are smarter than the coaches, so we need to do a very good job of coaching them and not looking past a team," coach Urban Meyer said. "You see it all the time, there's going to be one [upset] every year, maybe two, and there can't be one this week."
"It does make a difference. I could give you some coach-speak, but [the opponent] does make a difference."
For seniors like Bryant, they have no choice but to prepare as if a ranked opponent is coming to the Horseshoe. But the next wave of Buckeyes behind them shouldn't have to pretend as much as they gear up for Big Ten action.
In an official announcement from the program, Meyer said he has suspended running back Carlos Hyde from all football team activities pending the outcome of the student code of conduct and criminal investigations. Hyde was named as a person of interest in a weekend assault case. The Columbus Dispatch reported earlier Monday that Hyde had been dismissed from the team; this announcement at least leaves the door open for Hyde's return, should he be cleared of charges.
Junior cornerback Bradley Roby will not attend Big Ten media days because of his misdemeanor arrest on a battery charge over the weekend in Bloomington, Ind. The team said Roby could face additional discipline as more information becomes known.
True freshman tight end Marcus Baugh, who was arrested earlier this month for underage possession of alcohol and possessing a fake identification, has been removed from all team activities and will sit out the first game of the season on Aug. 31 against Buffalo. He will also lose his scholarship money for summer school.
Finally, true freshman defensive lineman Tim Gardner has been sent home and will not be a part of the 2013 team after he was charged Saturday night by Columbus police with obstruction of official business.
“I have a clear set of core values in place that members of this football program are constantly reminded of and are expected to honor,” Meyer said in the school's release. “There are also expectations with regard to behavior. I expect our players to conduct themselves responsibly and appropriately and they will be held accountable for their actions.”
“Swift, effective and fair discipline is the standard for our entire athletics program,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in the statement. “I applaud Coach Meyer for his immediate actions.”
Meyer took quick and decisive action in these cases. Still, you can expect him to field several questions about disciplinary matters and off-field issues when he speaks at Big Ten media days on Wednesday in Chicago. The Buckeyes can only hope this is the last of their legal problems before the start of the season.