For the last two years, the majority of Big Ten teams have played uninterrupted seasons of football, kicking off in late August or September and not quitting until the weekend before Thanksgiving.
That's meant playing without a bye week, a crucial period that provides time off for injured players to heal, coaches to reach out to recruits, a chance for teams to add new plays on offense and defense, while spending a little extra time preparing for their next opponent.
The Big Ten clings to its traditions more feverishly than any other conference, whether or not those traditions are wise from a national standpoint. This particular tradition goes back to the conference's wary feelings about having athletes continue to play during Thanksgiving break.
"The longer a season goes on," they argued, "the more a player's academic schedule is interrupted by practice, weight training, film, and everything else an athlete goes through to prepare."
But, when the NCAA decided that teams should play twelve games, the conference had to make a choice: take the bye and play a week later, move the season back a week, or live without it.
The conference, thankfully, went with the bye.
Next year, Big Ten fans, your teams will wrap up play on Thanksgiving weekend.
This solves a number of things:
a) the conference will now conclude its season only a week before Selection Sunday rather than two weeks, leaving their merits fresher in voters minds;
b) the addition of a bye will benefit the health and preparedness of a team during the regular season;
c) it will help strengthen the recruiting season for Big Ten coaches, who now have an extra week off to schedule visits and make phone calls.
I'm also glad that the entire conference is instituting a bye, rather than having the teams implement it piecemeal.
This year, only Illinois and Wisconsin got the luxury of a bye–the Illini actually got two–and in neither case will the late game really benefit the team.
Wisconsin plays Hawaii, a team that might have sounded smart to schedule in 2007, when the Warriors were Fiesta Bowl bound. But these days, the Warriors aren't even competitive in the WAC.
It's a functional vacation for the Badgers in Honolulu, on the verge of another brutal Wisconsin winter.
Illinois plays Cincinnati a day after Thanksgiving—all that tryptophan from the Thanksgiving turkey surely won't help a season already left for dead.
They then play the Fresno State Bulldogs, where they will invariably struggle to contain the nation's most prolific rusher, Ryan Matthews.
With the league-wide institution of a bye, the last game of the season for a majority of the teams will be a conference matchup.
As they traditionally have, Ohio State-Michigan, Michigan State-Penn State, and Indiana-Purdue will play on the final date of play, meaning bowl berths and possible Big Ten championships could be on the line rather than meaningless out-of-conference action.
But before I sell the bye week too exuberantly, I should say I've never entirely bought the argument that the Big Ten suffers from not playing in the last two weeks of the season.
Sure, Florida leapfrogged No. 2 Michigan after the SEC conference championship in 2006, but I personally felt a rematch with Ohio State in the national title game would have been absurd.
That game was played and a victor was decided in Columbus, three-point margin or not.
Rematches—especially of games that were played the last week of the season, between in-conference opponents —are not the intention of a bowl game.
Rather, it's intended to pit conference against conference.
Without Ohio State playing Florida, or Michigan playing USC, how would we have known the Big Ten was overrated in '06?
But the main reason I don't buy this argument is because Ohio State benefited hugely from not playing in the last two weeks of 2007. Coming off their domination of Michigan, the Buckeyes were No. 5 in the BCS, with Kansas, Missouri and West Virginia ahead of them.
Those three teams lost out and gave Ohio State a chance to slip in through the backdoor to face LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
Consider if Iowa had won out this year. Like 2007 Ohio State, they would probably also be ranked No. 5 in the BCS, with unbeaten TCU, Florida, Alabama, and Texas ahead of them.
Now suppose that Wyoming upset TCU on the road, Auburn beat Alabama, A&M beat Texas, and Alabama beat Florida in the SEC Championship.
Iowa would then...
a) remain ahead of Boise State because of the computers' love for their tough schedule, and..
b) leapfrog Texas, Florida and TCU to face the Tide in the national championship game, all without the need to play a game in December or even late November.
I'm not advocating against the bye week—God knows Michigan could have used one to rest Tate Forcier and Brandon Minor at some point in the heat of Big Ten play—but I also don't think the Big Ten should push play any further into the year or try and fashion a conference championship.
I think the bye stops play exactly when it should.
Thanksgiving weekend is a great time to settle in and watch some football on vacation. It's a week closer to Selection Sunday, but also allows for Big Ten teams to slip in through the back door if upsets occur in the conference championships.
And if it helps bowl preparedness, all the better, though I've never really bought that argument either. Michigan was able to put together a game plan totally unlike anything they'd ever run when they faced Florida in the Capital One Bowl, and it worked.
For the players...well, for the players, it's still not great. Playing on Thanksgiving weekend will be tough—finals are coming up, the weather is turning nastier, and the vacation isn't a true vacation at all.
But if it makes the difference between playing in the national championship and representing your conference, I don't think they'll mind.
So here's to the Big Ten Conference, for finally doing something that helps both fan and player alike. Now, about those announcers on the Big Ten Network...