- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big Ten will use a nine-game conference schedule in football beginning with the 2017 season, the league announced Thursday.
Three teams from each Big Ten division will play five conference home games in 2017 and continue to do so in odd-numbered years.
The 2017 schedule features five conference home games for Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division and Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State from the Leaders Division.
The 2018 schedule includes five Big Ten home games for Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern of the Legends Division, and Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin of the Leaders Division.
The proposed change from eight conference games to nine had been discussed for the past year, after the Big Ten added Nebraska as its 12th member and introduced division play. The Big Ten has played eight conference games every season since 1985 -- the 10-team league played full round-robin schedules in 1983 and 1984 -- and will continue to do so until 2017.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com Thursday that nine-game conference schedules have greater value for fans, maintain the intimacy of a conference and better determine a true conference champion.
In the current model, every Big Ten team faces five division opponents and one protected cross-division rival, and doesn't play three teams from the other division each season. From 2011 to 2014, each team will go without facing a cross-division foe in the regular season.
The nine-game model in 2017 ensures that all teams will meet at least six times in a 10-year term rather than four times in 10 years.
"It gives us a clearer sense of conference," Delany told ESPN.com. "We don't expand to play each other less. We expand because we like to play the teams and the schools that are involved in the conference. It also gives a clearer sense of a champion by having more competition, not less.
"And over time, it not only builds a brand but builds value."
It's unlikely the Big Ten will adopt a second protected cross-division rivalry in the schedule for 2017 and beyond.
"That has not been discussed," Delany said. "The second protected rival -- that tends to undermine the competitive equity."
Delany acknowledged that the majority of Big Ten coaches opposed the increase to nine league games. The change will eliminate a week of games typically played against weaker FBS teams or FCS schools, and add six more losses for Big Ten teams.
"That might mean somebody's not [bowl] eligible," Delany said. "It probably makes it a little harder to get to a second BCS [bowl] game, with the addition of the [Big Ten] championship. So those are negative considerations, which were all evaluated. But when everything was evaluated, in terms of what a conference was supposed to be, the value to our fans, the building of the brand, the change made sense."
The Pac-12 (formerly the Pac-10) went to a nine-game conference schedule in 2006 and will continue to do so now that Utah and Colorado have joined the conference.
The Big 12, now with 10 members, will begin playing nine-game league schedules this season, although the league no longer has a championship game, something the Big Ten adds this year.
With three of the top conferences playing nine-game conference schedules, Delany said the Big Ten will not be at a major competitive disadvantage.
The majority of Big Ten schools say they must play at least seven home games a year. While league schedules are only set through 2014, Delany said keeping seven home games for most teams is an objective in structuring the schedules for 2017 and beyond.
"We can't expect people to attend games the way they have and grow the attendance," Delany said, "without giving them the best we can possibly give them."
Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
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