When it Comes to Scheduling, It’s Time for the Big Ten to Put the Conference First!

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Big Ten Athletic Directors should require all eleven teams to face each other during the conference football season. Currently teams play eight conference games a year, four at home, and four on the road. Each conference champion is therefore largely determined by the two conference teams left off its schedule. A brief look into history reveals multiple examples of conference champions born out of this scheduling anomaly. With the stature and resources of the Big Ten, what could possibly justify making the scheduling process a determining factor in the conference championship? 

The days of potentially dodging the conference’s best teams on the way to a Big Ten title should end in the interests of competition, conference integrity, and conference stability. The competitive integrity of the Big Ten should always be a top priority, but has been widely questioned in recent years. Conference administrators should solidify the competitive foundation of the Big Ten as soon as possible by adding a 9th and 10th conference game. Rivalries across the conference would intensify with a complete conference schedule, bringing out the best possible competition and excitement for all involved. A complete conference slate would certainly make earning the Big Ten title more difficult, but also more meaningful. Perhaps most importantly, a full schedule would reliably identify the conference’s true champion each and every fall.

Without discussing a possible regular season schedule expansion from the current twelve game model, requiring ten conference games would immediately upgrade the conference’s competition level. No longer would fans be forced to suffer through multiple non-conference mismatches. No longer would teams like Ohio St. be able to load up to the maximum number of home games allowed, which has in the past provided them a real competitive advantage, but has also backfired by inflating their national rankings. The playing field between Big Ten schools would thus be leveled to an extent not seen in years, making for a better and more entertaining football product.

 The Big Ten is probably more competitive today than it has been in decades, so it’s more important now than ever to determine the conference’s best team on the field. Even the worst intra-conference matchup is likely to be more intriguing than a typical non-conference opponent. Yet, there would remain two scheduling opportunities for teams to test themselves against the nation’s best, the sweetest of cupcakes, or some other combination in between.  Can anyone really imagine a Big Ten team or fan that would trade an opportunity to play a conference game with title hopes or bowl implications on the line, for any non-conference opponent?

From a Spartan perspective, such a schedule could mean an annual match up with a traditional Michigan “directional” school, Notre Dame, and then the ten conference matchups. From a television and ticket sales perspective, the excitement and interest level around the Big Ten would likely increase by adding competitive and meaningful matchups while subtracting numerous mismatches and “pay out” games. Sure there could be a potential blockbuster out of conference game that theoretically would not end up happening, but there would still be opportunities for schools to make those games happen if they really wanted to. The overall benefit to conference stability would outweigh those potential costs.

There’s no doubt the economic haymaker that hit the world in the last year has also seriously impacted Big Ten athletics. More so than in the recent past, MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis and his colleagues around the conference are scrambling to find the money needed to keep their departments going. Dropping home schedules to a maximum of seven games could be met with an initial backlash from some conference athletic departments, but at a necessary benefit to the conference’s future as a whole. It is further probable that the travel and logistical costs of another Big Ten road game would be significantly less than the average non-conference road trip. Losing a few lucrative home dates is therefore a relatively small price to pay for the overall benefit of a stronger and healthier conference for the future. 

The recent national arms race in college athletics cannot be sustained, and has likely seen its peak season come to an end. The days of one or two schools reigning in Big Ten football power for decades are likely over too. The future of the Big Ten depends more on the health of its whole than the health of its handful of nationally prominent sports programs. So what’s stopping the Big Ten from adjusting its model to protect the interests of the conference first already? 

The Big Ten is the best collegiate athletic conference of all-time. It has been built on tradition and the loyal support of its fans. Producing anything less than a true conference football champion is a clear failure to make the most of the conference’s great resources and potential. Each school should therefore play a full slate of ten conference games, five at home and five on the road, to identify the Big Ten champion. 

It’s time to put conference first!