All of those promises came from the general agreements that the university presidents and athletic directors reached during the process of setting a nine-game schedule instead of the eight-game schedule that has been in place since 1984. These scheduling principles were as follows:
- Each team in the Big Ten will play each other team at least once every four years.
- The top teams in each division will play each other more in division crossovers, making a parity-based schedule.
- Schools will play better nonconference competition, including no FCS teams after 2016.
Those all sound good, but like a good politician, has Delany delivered?
With the first four years of nine-game conference schedules now in hand (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019), we can begin evaluating whether those promises will be kept. This will be critical to making the Big Ten a better football conference and the top tier in the national championship playoff chase.
Let's begin with a table that helps visualize whether the first two promises have been kept. This is a composite chart of East and West division foes and the number of inter-division games against each other team from 2016 through 2019:
|Big Ten Football Cross-Division Games 2016-2019|
|Team||Indiana||Maryland||Michigan||Michigan State||Ohio State||Penn State||Rutgers|
1. Each team in the Big Ten will play each other team at least once every four years
Here's what Delany said:
Likewise, if you're a student-athlete, you'll have a chance to play everybody at least once in a four-year cycle, even though it's a bigger conference. The presidents and athletic directors were on board, too, with the idea of playing as much as we can.
Unless some unexpected changes occur, it is clear that Delany and his schedule makers will deliver on this first promise as long as the conference stays at 14 teams. The way that this is accomplished is elegant and creates mini-rivalries across the divisions that remain in place for three seasons and then rotate.
To illustrate, if the games from the 2019 schedule are removed from the table above, then each team has three games in three years against one particular cross-division foe and one game against all six other teams over the same three-year span.
Thus, here is the first set of "mini-rivalries" that happen each year from 2016 through 2018:
- Indiana vs. Purdue
- Maryland vs. Minnesota
- Michigan vs. Wisconsin
- Michigan State vs. Northwestern
- Ohio State vs. Nebraska
- Penn State vs. Iowa
- Rutgers vs. Illinois
This solution is elegant because it allows Purdue and Indiana to remain a protected crossover while making sure each team plays each other team from the other division at least once every three-year cycle. That's actually better than the four years promised, although there may eventually be gaps of four years between meetings when a new three-year cycle begins.
Extrapolating into the future for more schedules, the 2019 schedule is actually a direct reversal of the 2016 schedule, including crossover games. That means the "mini-rivalry" games from the cycle above actually repeat for a fourth-straight season!
But then one would expect that 2019 is the beginning of a new cycle, when one of the other two teams on the cross-division schedule for 2016 and 2019 becomes the new "three-year mini-rivalry." Taking a look at the options available, this is what should happen for the 2019-2021 mini-rivalry cycle:
- Indiana vs. Purdue (the Bucket Game will be maintained over Nebraska-Northwestern)
- Maryland vs. Nebraska (instead of Purdue)
- Michigan vs. Illinois (instead of Iowa)
- Michigan State vs. Wisconsin (instead of Illinois)
- Ohio State vs. Northwestern (instead of Wisconsin)
- Penn State vs. Minnesota (instead of Purdue)
- Rutgers vs. Iowa (instead of Minnesota)
If you want to guess (correctly) the future 2020 and 2021 conference schedules, just take the two teams that were only played on 2017 (for 2020) or 2018 (for 2021) and add them to the mini-rivals above. For example, Ohio State's crossovers in 2020 should be Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois. Michigan's crossovers in 2021 should be Illinois, Nebraska and Northwestern.
After 2021, every team should have played each other cross-division team at least twice in the past six years. For every team outside Indiana-Purdue, which will play all sex years, two of the teams in the other division will be played four times over that same six years instead of twice.
To summarize, there will be one or two visits from each other Big Ten foe to your team every six years, and one or two trips by your team to each other stadium in the same six years. While not ideal, it is the best fans can get with the nine-game conference schedule.
Then the process will repeat for 2022-2024, 2025-2027 and so on.
Verdict: Yes! (In fact, Delany has formulated a way to exceed his promise.)
2. The top teams in each division will play each other more in division crossovers, making a parity-based schedule
Here's what Delany said:
If you look at the schedules, what you'll see is over time, the crossovers rotate. In the first 18 years, you're going to see a lot of competition between teams at the top of either division. We call that a bit of parity-based scheduling. You'll see Wisconsin and Nebraska and Iowa playing a lot of competition against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan.
Indeed, Delany looks like a prophet back in April by identifying that the top three programs from the East Division will be playing a lot of the top three programs from the West Division. That's because the three-year cycle and mini-rivalries explained above paired each of these top three teams with another of the top three teams from the other division (OSU-Nebraska, Michigan-UW, PSU-Iowa).
Thanks to the quirk of those teams reappearing in the 2019 schedule, which is exactly repeated from 2016, each of these high-profile matchups happens four times in the first four years of the nine-game conference schedule. That's a pretty good deal.
Unfortunately, the payoff for the front-loaded schedules comes in 2019-2021, when the cross-division "mini-rivalries" pair exactly none of the top teams from the divisions against each other. Just check out the second list above and feel the lack of excitement (Michigan-Illinois, ick. Rutgers-Iowa, really?).
Although this may be a good way to spread the love to the lesser powers (Illinois, Maryland, Rutgers, Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern), it will largely keep the tough cross-division games for the top teams at maybe one per year.
Of course, then a new cycle will start in 2022, at which point the top three teams from each division could be paired together once again (say, Ohio State-Wisconsin, Michigan-Iowa and Penn State-Nebraska). Three years of awesome, followed by three years of OK, and back and forth.
It looks like the "18-year plan," as alluded to by Delany, will be for each team to be paired against each other non-Indiana team (those teams will stay as always-protected rivals, which makes this plan work well over 18 years, instead of 21) as a mini-rival for one three-year cycle out of every 18 seasons. That means Ohio State and Nebraska better enjoy those games from 2016-2019 because there will be only a minuscule four meetings left in the 14 seasons from 2020-2033.
Of course, all this is subject to change, as the next two cycles might keep all the power teams together in the mini-rivalries for both three-year cycles. Then it would really be true that the better teams will play more of the better teams from the other division.
But we won't know that until more of the 18-year plan is revealed. That revelation will take a while, as it would be unusual to see more than six to eight years of conference play scheduled in advance.
Verdict: Yes, at least through 2019 (then likely No, barring a surprise for 2022-2027)
3. Play better nonconference competition, including no FCS teams after 2016
Here's what Delany said:
"Everybody's looking for improved schedules. I think they will be. And the committee we finally establish will have guidelines in that direction. We're not saying everybody has to play the same schedule, but if you're a Top 10-type program, we want you to be scheduling a Top 10-type program. For the most part, [the FCS games] were wins, and in a lot of cases, they weren't good matchups. They're good football teams, but it's hard to compete when you're 25 scholarships less."
You like tables? We do too!
Let's take a first look at the non-conference games currently scheduled by the East Division first:
|Big Ten East Division Non-Conference Opponents|
|Year||Indiana||Maryland||Michigan||Michigan State||Ohio State||Penn State||Rutgers|
|2016||Ball State||(Howard)||Hawaii||Eastern Michigan||Bowling Green||Kent State||UCLA|
|2016||South Florida||Florida International||Central Florida||(Furman)||Tulsa||Pittsburgh||Connecticut|
|2016||Wake Forest||West Virginia||Colorado||Notre Dame||Oklahoma||Temple||TBD|
|2017||Bowling Green||Texas||Florida||Miami (OH)||Oklahoma||Akron||UCLA|
|2017||Massachusetts||(Towson)||Cincinnati||Western Michigan||North Carolina||Pittsburgh||Connecticut|
|2017||TBD||West Virginia||Air Force||Notre Dame||TBD||TBD||TBD|
|2018||TBD||Bowling Green||Ball State||South Florida||North Carolina||TBD||Miami (FL)|
|2019||TBD||Bowling Green||Arkansas||Western Michigan||Cincinnati||Pittsburgh||Miami (FL)|
It looks like the advice has been largely taken to heart, as the Big Ten current members have scrubbed all FCS games out of the future schedules except for one game on Michigan State's schedule in 2016. That game against Furman may yet be replaced as well.
Maryland does bring a pair of FCS teams to the docket in 2016 and 2017, and that may be a function of uprooting all that the program knows by leaving the ACC. Hopefully the Terrapins can either replace those dates or make certain that no other FCS schools crop up after 2017. Surely there will be opportunities for eastern MAC schools to jump on this opportunity to join the Big Ten nonconference parade.
The strength of these schedules is also clearly improving. One look at the daunting set of opponents Ohio State has put together shows this point exceedingly well. In addition, other highlights appear like Texas on Maryland's schedule, Miami (FL) on Rutgers' schedule, Notre Dame on Michigan State's schedule, and two SEC schools (Florida and Arkansas) on Michigan's schedule.
This will give the Big Ten precisely the type of opportunity to win big games that it currently only has in bowl games, for the most part. The East Division certainly has upgraded the strength of schedule, and there are still plenty of spots for even more tough competition to be added.
Now let's turn to a look at the non-conference games currently scheduled by the West Division:
|Big Ten West Division Non-Conference Schedules|
|2016||(Murray State)||Miami (OH)||Oregon State||Fresno State||Western Michigan||Cincinnati||LSU|
|2016||North Carolina||Iowa State||(Indiana State)||Wyoming||Duke||Notre Dame||Akron|
|2016||Western Michigan||(North Dakota State)||Colorado State||Oregon||Stanford||Nevada||(Georgia State)|
|2017||Ball State||Wyoming||Oregon State||Oregon||(Western Illinois)||(Eastern Kentucky)||Florida Atlantic|
|2017||South Florida||Iowa State||Middle Tennessee State||Northern Illinois||Duke||Missouri||South Florida|
|2017||Western Kentucky||North Texas||TBD||TBD||Rice||Notre Dame||TBD|
|2018||Kent State||Northern Illinois||New Mexico State||Colorado||Duke||Missouri||Washington|
|2018||(Western Illinois)||Iowa State||TBD||Troy||Rice||Notre Dame||BYU|
|2018||South Florida||(Northern Iowa)||TBD||TBD||Notre Dame||TBD||TBD|
|2019||Kansas||Miami (OH)||(South Dakota State)||(South Alabama)||Army||Nevada||BYU|
|2019||TBD||Iowa State||Miami (OH)||Colorado||Stanford||Notre Dame||Virginia Tech|
And then the other shoe dropped. Unlike the table above, where the FCS teams listed in parentheses were hard to find, every single team in the West Division still has at least one game scheduled for 2016 through 2019 against such an opponent.
Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota have two apiece, bringing the total to a whopping 10. This, quite frankly, has to change moving forward. Preferably, these games will be bought out and replaced before those years appear in front of fans with more boring blowouts on the docket (or even worse, when playing a dangerous team like ND State).
While the schedules on the left-hand side of this table are a bit weak, one cannot get too riled up about Iowa scheduling the Cyclones as an in-state rival every year. While that may not carry the same cachet as Purdue playing Notre Dame, it is good to see those on the schedule.
Similar kudos also go to Nebraska by including Colorado and Oklahoma in future schedules, alongside Oregon. Only Ohio State can compete with the strength of schedule Nebraska and Wisconsin will face going forward. Northwestern also has a ton of highlight games coming up against Stanford, which will be a battle of the nerds (who actually play pretty good football).
The strength of these schedules is only marginally better than it is currently. The West Division needs to step up the game—just like the East Division has—to raise the stakes and the national profile for the Big Ten conference.
Verdict: Yes (stronger schedules) and no (FCS teams still on the docket)
While many fans may dislike or get fed up with Delany, the man keeps his promises when it comes to scheduling. As he pressures more teams to get rid of all FCS foes, there is a high likelihood that all of these campaign promises about scheduling will come true.
That is great news for the future of the Big Ten. More entertaining football against better competition is just what this conference needs to get back on the map for the college football playoff committee. Even if the conference gets pounded overall in nonconference play, at least the effort to play better competition should lead to better outcomes over time.
In short, I give a big "two thumbs up" to Delany and his promises about scheduling. At least for 2016 through 2019, Big Ten fans have a lot of good football to look forward to.
Now back to the grim reality of 2013.
Author's note: Please comment on how you would render verdicts on these and other promises from Jim Delany in the comments below, and follow David on Twitter for more conversation throughout the week.