IOWA CITY — If you’re looking for a curtain raiser to the 2011 Big Ten league schedule, find another conference.
Sizzling is hardly how you’d describe today’s Big Ten football television slate. If it was a sitcom, it would end up on a summer Friday night. In short, it’s must-not-see TV.
Big Ten schools are facing opponents that combined for a 49-73 record last year. Of the Big Ten’s eight bowl subdivision opponents, only San Diego State posted a winning record last year. Ironically, San Diego State, which was 9-4 record last year under Brady Hoke, is playing Hoke and his new employer, Michigan.
Four other BCS conferences boast 12 league match-ups today and nationally there are three inter-conference games pitting top 25 schools against one another.
The Big Ten? Crickets.
Only one Big Ten opponent — Colorado — hails from the big-boy leagues. Three come from the Mid-American Conference and two more are from the Football Championship Subdivision. But this schedule doesn’t originate from the Big Ten; it comes from the schools themselves.
“I think the fans would like to see better opponents, stronger opponents,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten’s senior associate commissioner for television administration. “Our conference has had a long history with the Mid-American Conference. I think our teams are still going to play the MAC. As far as non-conference scheduling is concerned, it’s something we’ve never really been asked to be a part of on the football side at least. TV has really not expressed any sort of concern over who we’re playing from a ratings perspective.”
There’s a need to jazz up the league schedule on this annual weekend. Last year on the final Saturday in September, Big Ten teams thumped their competitors by a combined score of 428-174. And that’s with two losses. Ohio State and Wisconsin each scored more than 70 points. Michigan scored 65. In a rainstorm Iowa shut out Ball State 45-0.
Those Big Ten opponents combined for a 44-77 record that year. Only three — Northern Illinois, Toledo and Temple — had winning records.
This year it’s more of the same.
There might be some future relief to Big Ten’s gaping television hole. The Big Ten and its coaches are in favor of sprinkling conference games throughout September. That could give television more consistent inventory and fewer competitive drop-offs, like this weekend.
“We’re studying that based on what the coaches have recommended and trying to see how we’ll be able to do that,” Rudner said. “Whether it begins in early 2015-16 — the next scheduling round — or whether it’s in ’17 with nine games, we’re not sure yet.”
Non-conference scheduling — let alone the dates — will be a challenge for the league’s football programs in a few years. Each school will add a ninth Big Ten game beginning in 2017. That gives every program three non-conference games. Nearly every Big Ten football program demands seven home dates, so in years when a team has four Big Ten home games, that requires three home non-conference games and could end match-ups against high-profile opponents.
Iowa faces that situation. Each home football game equates to about $2.5 million per game, which helps pay the bills. With the current eight-game Big Ten schedule, Iowa traditionally plays Iowa State and one other BCS opponent — one at home, one on the road. Iowa also plays an opponent from either the Mid-American or Sun Belt conferences and an FCS school.
That will change with nine games. Iowa has synchronized its future Big Ten schedule so it can play Iowa State every year regardless of the Big Ten schedule. But recent BCS opponents like Arizona, Syracuse or Pittsburgh are likely to rotate away after 2017.
“It’s certainly possible that we may lose the other BCS game because we won’t be able to do a home-and-home with two schools like we do with Iowa State,” said Mark Abbott, Iowa’s associate athletics director who handles football scheduling. “But we haven’t eliminated any possibilities yet at this point.”
Nebraska faces a similar issue. Coach Bo Pelini said the ninth Big Ten game won’t change his school’s philosophy.
“Scheduling is a challenge,” Nebraska Coach Bo Pelini said. “There’s a lot of difficulty in it. You try to match dates, and you’re doing it in the future. You’re trying to get out ahead of things so you don’t have a lot of open dates. There are a lot of challenges that come with that.
“You can’t schedule four top 10 teams. That’s unrealistic, especially with the conference schedule you have. You try to schedule out ahead, you try and get good games for fans to watch, but at the same time you have to fill your dates.”
Iowa has its schedules completed through 2015 and is looking for one opponent in 2016 and 2017. Football coach Kirk Ferentz is involved in all scheduling discussions, especially with high-profile opponents or locations.
Abbott said the recent shift in conferences makes it difficult to schedule games right now, but conversations are ongoing. For instance Iowa plays Pittsburgh again in 2014 and 2015. Last Saturday, Pittsburgh was a member of the Big East. On Sunday, it officially accepted an invitation for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Abbott said the 2014-15 contract is solid, but the environment changes quickly.
“There’s so much instability across the country in conferences that it’s hard to say what 2017’s landscape is going to look like,” Abbott said. “Obviously we have to continue to move forward.”
If he needs an opponent, Abbott said he calls them. Rudner said many colleges use an online data system provided by ESPN that helps programs find future football games for specific dates or opponents.
But scheduling itself can’t change the last weekend in September this year. After compelling non-conference games in week one (Minnesota at USC), week two (Iowa at Iowa State, Notre Dame at Michigan, Alabama at Penn State), and week three (Michigan State at Notre Dame, Pittsburgh at Iowa, Ohio State at Miami), the schools collectively scheduled games with little television appeal.
Next week, that’s a different story with Michigan State at Ohio State and Nebraska at Wisconsin. But this week the league concedes the national TV clicker to the SEC and Big 12.
|Tennessee Tech||Home||Sept. 3|
|Iowa State||Road||Sept. 10|
|Louisiana Monroe||Home||Sept. 24|
|Northern Illinois (Chicago)||Chicago||Sept. 1|
|Iowa State||Home||Sept. 8|
|Northern Iowa||Home||Sept. 15|
|Central Michigan||Home||Sept. 22|
|Northern Illinois||Home||Aug. 31|
|Missouri State||Home||Sept. 7|
|Iowa State||Road||Sept. 14|
|Western Michigan||Home||Sept. 21|
|Northern Iowa||Home||Aug. 30|
|Ball State||Home||Sept. 6|
|Iowa State||Home||Sept. 13|
|Illinois State||Home||Sept. 5|
|Iowa State||Road||Sept. 12|
|North Texas||Home||Sept. 26|
|North Dakota State||Home||Sept. 3|
|Iowa State||Home||Sept. 10|
|Iowa State||Road||Sept. 9|
|North Texas||Home||Sept. 16|