Big Ten Realignment: How the Conference Should Handle Schedules with 14 Teams
As I wrote about last week, the first major hurdle for Jim Delany and the athletic directors in the Big Ten Conference is to figure out how to realign the divisions for play beginning in 2014. A second, but just as important, question will be how to arrange the schedules for conference play going forward from 2014.
With a college football playoff beginning on the same year, now is the time to fix the problems and get things right. It could make all the difference between making the playoff consistently or being on the outside looking in more often than not as a conference.
Here are a few agenda items which Jim Delany needs to get done in the upcoming meetings, as far as scheduling is concerned for conference football games in 2014 and beyond.
Agenda Item 1: Install a Nine Game Schedule
The first thing and the most important thing to change is the number of games the Big Ten teams play in-conference. The magic number of games should be nine instead of eight, because, as Jim Delany has admitted, these teams want to play each other more, not less. If that really is true, and if you want to see a non-protected rival in the other team more than once every six years, then nine games has to be the plan.
For example, with seven teams in each division that means six games are locked in every season. If a cross-division rivalry is also protected, that would be a seventh. With a nine-game conference schedule, that means two of the remaining six would rotate onto the schedule each year. This would guarantee even the players who only stay three years a chance to play against every other team in the conference. There's no way teams are really in the same conference if a player can play four years and not see a team on the other sideline. At that point, the super-conference has become two conferences linked by a championship game. That may be where this is headed, but with 14 teams the math works out well.
The only real downside is the five/four home and road game split that must be managed every year. However, this can still be done fairly by making sure that each team in one division gets two road games and one home game in cross-division play, while each team in the other division gets two home games and one road game. That would balance any competitive problems within the divisions, which are the only races that really matter. As far as scheduling the non-conference games, it should be the case in the future that only one or two games on a 12 game schedule are "paid" wins where a lower tier or FCS team comes in for a paycheck. If that does not happen, then the playoff committee will not value the schedule very highly. Thus, nine games can happen and athletic departments can still make it work, even with five guaranteed road games every other season.
Agenda Item 2: Remove Cross-Division Protected Rivals
The second agenda item is somewhat related to the first. The other way to ensure that every student athlete gets to play every team in the conference at least once is to remove the cross-division protected rivals. Those rivals make sense when teams like Michigan and Ohio State are split, but it dilutes the brand overall since those teams do not get to play the other cross-division teams as often. Assuming the most important rivalries are placed into the same division, the concept of protecting cross-division rivals is not as important.
Plus the benefits are too good to ignore. If the conference schedule stays at eight games, then two of the seven cross-division teams can be scheduled each year. That means every team in the other division would be played at least once in four seasons. If the schedule goes to nine games, then three out of seven teams could be scheduled each season and most teams in the other division would be played twice in a four year stretch. It's time to drop the idea of cross-division rivals. Set up the divisions properly and the need for this scheduling quirk becomes minimal.
Agenda Item 3: Move Conference Games Into Early September
One of the better things the SEC does is September conference games. Marquee matchups like Georgia-South Carolina have become routine for the second and third weeks of the season. This season, a battle between Texas A&M and Florida was a highlight on the second week of the year. What those games do for national perception is critical to a conference's reputation. While the Big Ten and other major conference teams are playing full slates against over-matched competition, the SEC steals the spotlight. In addition, more breaks are provided toward the end of the season to allow these teams to recover during the tough conference play.
The same needs to become true of the Big Ten. By playing conference games starting as early as the first weekend, the conference can keep in the the front of the national mindset right off the bat and keep the focus on itself throughout the season. If you want to be like the SEC, you have to emulate the SEC. The Big Ten already has some coaches and recruiting like the big boys in town, now it is time to match the SEC in scheduling as well (but maybe leave off the late-season FCS games).
Agenda Item 4: No More Inter-Division Games in the Last Two Weeks of Regular Season
In order to protect the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and keep it at the end of the season, the Big Ten has allowed cross-division games to be played on the last two weeks of the regular season. However, there is a huge risk whenever this happens as a rematch could occur one or two weeks later in the conference championship game. That is simply too soon. Look at the Stanford vs. UCLA two-game series to end the 2012 season. Stanford had to win both games to win the conference title, and thankfully the games were in different locations, but it was still a rematch one week after the first game.
If this happened to The Game, would it take all of the excitement out of the first game between the Wolverines and the Buckeyes? Would the feeling be anywhere near the same if the rivals were not sitting in the 100,000 seat home of one of the teams, making a hostile environment for the other? I'm guessing no. Rematches can be fine in conference championships, and they have already happened twice in the Big Ten championship. Both times the first meeting was early in conference play, which made the rematch not feel like leftovers from Thanksgiving weekend. Whether it is non-conference games or intra-division games, the final two games of the season should not be cross-division. That prevents the worst-case scenario for Indianapolis, or wherever else ends up hosting the game in the future.
Agenda Item 5: Strongly Encourage Challenges, Rivalries in Non-Conference Play
This last agenda item is already being done at the highest levels of the conference, and it is a great idea with a playoff and a selection committee on the horizon. Conferences will need to test themselves as a whole in non-conference play to prove that the best teams belong on the highest stage playing for a national championship. Take this season, for example. Michigan played teams that finished first, second, and third in the final BCS Standings. While Michigan lost all of those games, a couple of wins would have put the Wolverines in serious consideration for a big BCS game because the wins would have been more impressive than those on anyone else resume.
When humans decide which teams get to participate in a four-team playoff, that strength of schedule will be critical. In addition, with realignment running rampant in these conferences, it would be nice to see some long-term rivalries come back on a more regular basis, which also meets this goal of improving schedule strength. Games between Nebraska and Oklahoma, Michigan and Notre Dame and similar series increase the visibility and likelihood for big wins for the conference as whole.
So, that's what needs to be done when schedules are being formulated for 2014 and beyond. Many of these rules will also be important if the conference expands further to 16. Get the hard work out of the way now and the benefits can be reaped later. What other scheduling rules would you like to put on the agenda for the Big Ten this winter? Let me know in the comments below.
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