The Big Ten's eight-game schedule is dead. Well, it's on death row, anyway, and Jim Delany isn't in a pardoning mood.
Delany told the Chicago Tribune on Monday that an eight-game slate is "not even on the table right now," and that means nine or 10 conference games a year will be the new norm in the Big Ten as early as 2014, when the conference moves to 14 teams. Here's more from the Tribune:
“The thinking is we like to play each other, and those are not hollow words,” Delany said. “We are getting larger (with Rutgers and Maryland), and we want to bind the conference together.”
Also of significance: More night games are likely for November, and conference play will begin earlier. In 2012, no Big Ten games were played until Week 5.
Coaches have come out against a nine-game schedule because it means half the teams will play five home games and half will play four.
The new seven-team divisions will reflect geography, with some ADs pushing for “East” and “West” to replace the much-maligned “Legends” and “Leaders.”
This is not a light move for the Big Ten. Changing the balance of non-conference and conference games would have far-reaching consequences alike for the fans, teams and athletic departments.
The trickiest aspect of a 9- or 10-game conference schedule for the Big Ten is where athletic departments get the revenue they're used to receiving. There's simply no substitute for home games and all the money that comes with them—ticket sales, concessions, other fees and other school-owned establishments that get used on game days. Most athletic departments strive for at least seven home games a year; Ohio State managed eight.
But with an increased in-conference schedule, at a minimum seven of the 14 teams are spending five games away from home, and that's assuming a nine-game conference schedule and every school getting its full non-conference schedule at home. Move it to 10 conference games and that's five guaranteed road games before the non-conference schedule comes into play.
Now, one would think the Big Ten would likely generate more revenue for its network if its games are of higher quality than the usual September slate of humdrum blowouts and MACrifices. But it's actually the case that the number of Big Ten games would decrease per team if more of the regular season were devoted to conference games.
Look at it this way: If 12 teams played all 12 games out of conference, that'd be 144 games as a whole in the Big Ten. If the 12 teams played all their games in the conference, that's only 72 games altogether. As it stood last year with four non-conference games per school and eight conference games, there were 96 games involving Big Ten teams altogether.
Now even with a move to 14 teams, if the Big Ten goes with 10 conference games, that's 28 out-of-conference games for the conference and 70 total conference games—98 as a whole. The Big Ten's only increasing its inventory of live events by two whole games with that move. That's disappointing, especially since an eight-game schedule puts the number of total games at 112, or 16 more than its current total.
So with five games away from home becoming the new norm and a Big Ten Network that won't be substantially increasing its number of games per year, schools are going to be pressured into making some tough decisions when it comes to scheduling.
Nobody's exactly keeping it secret that Big Ten teams want home games, and fortunately schools are doing a fairly good job of keeping most of their non-conference games at home, usually attached to a fat check for whoever's coming to town. Moot Big Ten schools will also go on the road at least once a year to a decent opponent as part of a home-and-home agreement (seeing as how schools in other BCS conferences also like having as many home games as possible), but rare is the Big Ten team that heads out on the road twice in for non-conference play.
So since a larger conference schedule effectively increases the amount of guaranteed road games in a season for a team, athletic departments will be under greater pressure to schedule home games in the shorter non-conference portions of the schedule.
Ah, but herein lies the problem. Decent non-conference opponents rarely agree to non-conference deals that don't involve a home game. Only the bottom half of the FBS or an FCS team volunteers to go to a Big Ten team without expecting a home game in return.
But remember: 2014 isn't just the first year of the Big Ten's latest expansion, it's also the first year of the BCS Playoff. And wouldn't you know it, that playoff has put renewed emphasis on strength of schedule, and the Big Ten has made waves by scheduling tougher opponents for the coming years. Additionally, multiple Big Ten teams have yearly games against Notre Dame, Iowa has an annual series with Iowa State and Nebraska has begun scheduling the likes of Colorado and Oklahoma, though those games won't be for quite a while yet.
So the Big Ten's going to have quite the dilemma. Does it have its teams back out of their tougher non-conference games for the sake of ticket money, or does it have its teams back out of their cupcake non-con games for the sake of schedule strength? It could very well be the case that 10 conference games will satisfy Jim Delany's desire for stronger schedules from the Big Ten, making the tougher non-conference games suddenly expendable.
But that would look bad, as all canceled games against power opponents do. Nobody wants to be the team that says "Sorry, Texas, but we've got our own teams to play now."
But if the doormats get taken off the schedule, you're easily going to find some Big Ten teams playing 11 (or maybe even 12) challenging games a year. That's great for strength of schedule but utter murder for the hopes of running the table. And make no mistake—with only four teams going to the BCS Playoff, the margin for error for getting into the playoff is still exceedingly small.
Ah, but for the fans nine conference games would be an improvement and 10 would practically be a blessing. Easy wins over lesser competition are all fun and good, but they essentially cheapen the month of September and leave fans waiting for the "real" games to start. Now those games of great consequence are coming earlier and more often. That is a win.
Increasing the number of conference games also helps keep conference rivalries fresh, even if they're not trophy games or otherwise "traditional" rivalries. Michigan State and Purdue (or really, just name any two teams of the pre-'93 Big Ten) don't have a "rivalry," but certainly each team's fans would like to see the two teams play more than a couple times a decade, and if the Big Ten can avoid than it's wise to do so. The fans would rather see a game like that than, say, two more games against Cupcake University or Thirty Point Underdog State.
So even with the logistical challenges the Big Ten is bringing upon itself in the first two situations, at the end of the day this is just better quality football being delivered to the fans by the conference. That's called taking care of your fans, and the Big Ten deserves to be lauded for that—it can just figure out the money and scheduling parts later.