Big Ten football schedules had slick manueverability when the league carried an unwieldy number of 11 schools.
Each football program played two permanent rivals annually and faced the other league opponents six times over an eight-year period. That scheduling procedure worked until it got in the way of progress.
In June 2010, the Big Ten voted to unanimously add Nebraska as its 12th member. In football terms that meant two divisions and a new scheduling philosophy. Every program would face five divisional opponents annually plus an ordained cross-divisional foe. That left open two games each year among the other five non-protected, cross-divisional rivals.
Early on Commissioner Jim Delany endorsed shifting the league schedule from eight games to nine. At the Big Ten’s 2010 media days event Delany told reporters, “I think to play each other more is what our fans want, and I think that’s what the athletes want.” He later modified his comments multiple times to reporters with the simple phrase, “We want to play each other more, not less.”
The league followed through with Delany’s desires in August, announcing it would adopt a nine-game football schedule starting in 2017. There were plenty of obstacles, primarily dealing with the uneven balance of some schools playing four home league games and others playing five. But that plan was in motion until last week.
Thursday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced a joint venture to deepen their historic ties by competing as often as possible against one another in multiple sports. Beginning in 2017, their football programs will face off once per year as an annual challenge.
The competition evaporates the prospects for a ninth Big Ten game, which means league schools will play non-protected rivals less often than they did before expansion. And it’s a shame.
Penn State and Michigan State finished their regular seasons against one another from 1994 through 2010 but were placed in opposite divisions and won’t play until at least 2015. Iowa and Illinois did not play in 2009-2010 under the old system. The border rivals aren’t scheduled to play one another through at least 2015.
Iowa and Wisconsin, which have faced off 86 times, competed every year from 1937 through 1992 but rotated off one another’s schedules for two seasons when Penn State joined the league. The duo pushed through permanent rivalry status in 1995, which lasted through 2010. Iowa and Wisconsin were separated into opposite divisions during realignment and won’t play again until 2013.
Part of the allure with a nine-game schedule was the discussion of whether each school should gain a second permanent cross-divisional opponent, which would allow Iowa and Wisconsin to resume their annual rivalry. At worst each school would play every other non-protected Big Ten school six times over a 10-year period. Now with an eight-game Big Ten schedule, non-divisional, non-permanent rivals meet just four times over 10 years.
The Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge (or whatever it will be called) will have immediate appeal in its first few years. Match-ups like Ohio State-USC, Michigan-Oregon and Penn State-UCLA will generate excitement and interest, as will games at neutral site venues such as the Rose Bowl or Soldier Field. But it also will look similarly to Major League Baseball’s interleague play. For every Ohio State-USC game (think Yankees-Dodgers), there’s an Indiana-Washington State (Pirates-Mariners) or Minnesota-Oregon State (Royals-Marlins) match-up.
Student-athletes aren’t best served with these long trips early in their college semesters, either. When Iowa played at Arizona in 2010, problems with its chartered aircraft coupled with a 9:30 p.m. Central kickoff kept the team from landing home until mid-Sunday morning. Iowa swore off scheduling regular-season West Coast games prior to that trip, with Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz telling reporters, “I can’t envision us going anywhere else in the western time zone and making sense.”
Even before the Arizona game, Ferentz eschewed scheduling additional West Coast games. Washington State was considered among Iowa’s replacements for Missouri, which dumped a four-year deal with the Hawkeyes. Ferentz instead chose games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh to replace Missouri.
“In a perfect world, I think I’d rather play a non-league game in a place where we’d recruit a little bit and being a more normal time zone,” Ferentz said.
There’s no doubt the leagues share a rich history with the traditional Rose Bowl tie-in. Nineteen of the combined 24 schools are AAU members so they are like-minded academic institutions. Other sports, such as basketball, feature more game dates and cross over winter break so a team can withstand cross-country trips. But within three years of this football arrangement, coaches and student-athletes will grow weary of the long flights. Fans will shrug their shoulders at some of the match-ups, and it will lose national appeal except for one or two games.
By then most of us will be left to ponder, why aren’t the Big Ten schools playing one another more often?