Big Ten officials will discuss the merits of a nine-game league football schedule next week in Chicago. It’s undetermined if it will pass, or even come to a vote.
“I think more discussion at this point,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “I’m not aware that there’s going to be a specific vote. I could be suprised. Certainly more discussion.
“One of the things that I’ve made it clear and I think that every athletic director has made it clear is whenever that occurs, if it’s going to occur if it becomes inevitable, one of the principles we all need to have seven home games. Asssuming that principle is adhered to, then I’m generally supportive of the concept.”
It seems likely the nine-game schedule will pass at some point. Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany made it a focus even before the league split into football divisions last summer at Big Ten Media Days. Delany has said multiple times the league’s teams should play more often rather than less often. A nine-game league schedule allows for stronger television inventory and no more late September snoozefests like in 2010 and this fall.
It also allows the league to balance its schedule. When the league invited Nebraska and split into divisions, Delany said competitive balance was the first guiding principle. Rivalries were a close second and geography a distant third.
The Big Ten use criteria based on results over a 17-year-period. It split Ohio State from Michigan, Penn State from Nebraska and Wisconsin from Iowa into separate — but equal — divisions. The league also sliced its bottom six football programs in half with geography and rivalries seemingly playing a larger role such as linking the Indiana-Purdue-Illinois triangle together.
The divisional alignment exuded balance. But the league’s creation of permanent cross-divisional opponents did not. Based on the current eight-game league schedule, some teams have obvious advantages over others. For instance, Michigan State will play Indiana — which had the most losses over the 17-year period — every year and Ohio State four times over 10 years. Michigan, however, will play Ohio State — which had the most wins over the 17-year period — every year and Indiana four times over 10 years. Wisconsin’s cross-divisional rival (Minnesota) hasn’t even tied for a Big Ten title since 1967, while Penn State’s cross-divisional rival (Nebraska) has won three national titles in the last 17.
This fall, Legends Division members Iowa and Nebraska will play five divisional opponents and one common non-divisional opponent, Penn State. Among uncommon opponents, Iowa plays Indiana and Purdue — teams with losing records last year — while Nebraska plays 2010 Big Ten co-champs and BCS qualifiers Ohio State and Wisconsin. Future divisional titles, Big Ten title appearances and BCS bowl berths could be decided about which teams a program plays on a permanent or rotational basis.
But the ninth game could avoid those scenarios if the league adds a second permanent rival to each school’s annual schedule. All the league has to do is apply the same tenet it used to form its divisions: competitive balance. In permanent non-divisional play, each program should play one traditional upper division and one traditional lower division opponent. On a rotational basis, the league should couple opponents by upper and lower division status.
Iowa plays six league schools annually: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern within the division and Purdue as its permanent cross-divisional rival. If long-time rival Wisconsin was tabbed as Iowa’s second permanent cross-divisional rival, the Hawkeyes would play a traditional upper division foe (1 as listed below) and lower division foe (2) ever year. Then among Iowa’s four non-divisional, non-permanent opponents, the schedule should be grouped as Ohio State-Illinois for two years, then Penn State-Indiana for two years. That would achieve almost perfect balance between playing traditional and non-traditional powers annually.
Additionally, a second rivalry restores Iowa-Wisconsin and Michigan State-Penn State on an annual basis. Both games were highly anticipated trophy games among the fan bases. Ohio State-Northwestern dates nearly 100 years, and Michigan-Illinois has been played 92 times. Minnesota-Purdue and Nebraska-Indiana are no more silly than the current permanent rivalry between Iowa and Purdue.
The league has a chance to restore its rivalries and balance its schedule. Here’s how the Big Ten’s scheduling could look if the league implements a second permanent rivalry if it goes to nine annual games: