The Big Ten continues to mull its future football scheduling options, with key stakeholders still split on their preferred formats for 2024 and beyond once USC and UCLA join the league.
Three models remain under consideration after last week’s athletic directors’ meeting in Chicago, league sources involved in the process told The Athletic:
• Protect 3: Three permanent protected matchups, with games against six of the remaining 12 Big Ten opponents one year and the other six the next. Similar to the ACC’s 3-5-5 model, this is the format with the most repeatable structure: Every four years, each team would play three teams four times and the remaining 12 teams twice.
• Protect 2: Two permanent protected games played four times over four years. Over the course of four years, each Big Ten team would play the remaining league opponents at least twice and two teams three times.
• Flex Protect: A hybrid model in which each Big Ten team has one, two or three protected opponents. This format allows schedule-makers the most flexibility in terms of competitive balance, home-and-away rotations and the specific challenges around West Coast travel for teams playing USC or UCLA.
None of the models involve the continuation of divisions; the league is expected to switch to a single-conference layout for scheduling and championship game qualification when USC and UCLA arrive.
The goals of the remodeled schedule are three-fold: to take into account historical and current competitive balance, to play leaguemates more frequently and to create pathways to the College Football Playoff for more teams in the 12-team CFP era. Better schedule balance should enhance resumes for teams that have historically had weaker league schedules while not unduly burdening the best teams in the league.
Big Ten football coaches did not seem generally enthusiastic about the Flex Protect model when it was presented to them last month, according to multiple administrative sources. Some administrators prefer it to a fixed number because they believe it would lead to the most balanced schedules.
No matter which model is selected, schedules will be more balanced than they have been during the East/West divisional era. Over nine years, the East Division leads the West 90-78 in non-divisional games and has won all nine championship games. Last fall featured the greatest disparity between the divisions, with the East winning 13 of 21 matchups. Iowa (15-9) and Wisconsin (14-10) are the only West Division teams with winning records in non-divisional play, and only the Hawkeyes have beaten every East squad within the last nine seasons. But the West has maintained a higher floor of performance than its counterpart: East Division teams Rutgers (4-21) and Maryland (8-16) have the league’s worst non-divisional records over that time frame.
Fans and coaches alike have fixated on their annual crossover opponents based on competitive balance. Now everybody will play each other often enough that the schedules will look far more similar on paper. A team paired with Rutgers or Indiana should naturally draw a higher percentage of the league’s more challenging opponents in its rotational schedule. Similarly, a team set to play Ohio State or Michigan annually may end up with what looks like an easier set of rotational opponents.
With a nine-game league schedule, each Big Ten team plays 36 league games over a four-year period, and 30 of those games are accounted for by playing all 15 leaguemates at least twice, which would happen under all three formats. The new formats limit the real scheduling variance to those final six games per school.
Then there’s the question of what to do about the two new members. At this point, it doesn’t look like USC or UCLA will have Ohio State or Michigan as a protected game, two sources who attended last week’s meetings said. But the newcomers will still see the two Big Ten mainstays at least twice over a four-year span (and on both campuses) in any of the formats still in the mix.
Big Ten ADs have asked the league that it not require any current member to travel twice to Los Angeles in the same season — an ask that should be able to be accommodated. One benefit to the flex scheduling model is that the Big Ten could pair USC and UCLA as each other’s protected rival and stop there with the L.A. schools’ fixed opponents. If that’s the case, it would make it easier to schedule everybody else’s trips west. But fulfilling the ADs’ request becomes more challenging if, say, UCLA were paired with Nebraska as a protected rival. If the Huskers travel to play the Bruins every other year, that would affect when they could play USC in L.A, along with how and when every other team in the Big Ten can play at USC or at UCLA. It’s doable, but it’s more complicated.
Multiple administrative sources expect that the Big Ten will have its conference scheduling model chosen and announced by the summer. A scheduled in-person meeting of the ADs in May is likely the latest this decision-making process will stretch. The conference will likely also announce the fixed and rotational opponents for each school at that time.
Actually sequencing the schedule each year will be its own challenge. For example, the Big Ten will try to avoid making USC or UCLA play its farthest-flung opponents in back-to-back road games. It will also consider the effects of a West Coast primetime game (10:30 p.m. ET) on the traveling team by leveraging idle weeks.
The Big Ten offered uniform scheduling beginning in 1983, but the schools largely were in control of who they played annually. That changed in 1993 when Penn State became the league’s 11th member. For the first time since 1937, Wisconsin-Iowa rotated off the schedule, which prompted then Badgers coach Barry Alvarez to request two protected foes per team. The other opponents faced one another six times over eight years. The system kept most of the rivalries intact, but in 1999 it cycled off Michigan-Minnesota, a game which had been played for 80 consecutive years. In 2003, Illinois-Ohio State fell off the schedule for the first time since 1914. For whichever plan the conference chooses, preserving historic rivalries while addressing the modern-day challenges of a 16-team league will be a critical balance to strike.
(Photo: Kyle Robertson / Columbus Dispatch)
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