Posted by Adam Jacobi
The Big Ten conference season is going to be getting longer in a few years. Jim Delany announced Thursday that in 2017, the Big Ten is moving to a nine-game conference schedule. Yes, that means some teams get five home conference games a year, but fear not: the conference has a plan:
Three teams each from the Legends Division and Leaders Division will feature five conference home games during odd-numbered years, while the other three schools from each division will host five conference contests during even-numbered years. The 2017 schedule will include five conference home outings for Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division and Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State from the Leaders Division. The 2018 schedule will feature five Big Ten home games for Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern of the Legends Division and Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin of the Leaders Division.
The upshot of this is that unless there's a 13th regular season game about to be added (which seems unlikely right now), Big Ten teams are going to be left with three non-conference games to be filled. And being that college football programs still covet home games and bowl bids above all other things, those three non-conference games are probably going to be almost exclusively home dates against cupcakes. Those programs with regular non-conference rivalries (namely Iowa-Iowa State and Michigan-Notre Dame) are going to have to coordinate the schedules so that the road games don't come in years with the extra in-conference road game, otherwise that's only six games at home for the season -- a Big Ten athletic director's worst nightmare.
That all said, nine conference games is still nine conference games, and it's going to make the conference even more fiercely competitive. Say what you will about the Big Ten not being the SEC, but there really aren't that many cupcakes to be found. Between the regular season and the conference title game, whoever the Big Ten champion is will have had to face 10 Big Ten opponents to get there, and at least seven of them will have been teams other than Minnesota, Indiana, or Illinois. That's pretty rough.
All in all, it's a bold move for the Big Ten. and if there's one thing I would change, it's the distribution of home and away games. While it evens out over time, the division races are going to be unfairly tilted toward the three teams given five home games. Penn State probably can't expect to win many division titles in odd-numbered years when it has five road games and Ohio State's over there with five home games. I'd rather see it alternate between entire divisions (Legends host the protected inter-divisional rivalry game in even-numbered years, Leaders host it in the odds), so at the very least divisional crowns are decided on more equal footing.