The best way to build a balanced Big Ten football schedule: Dochterman

The best way to build a balanced Big Ten football schedule: Dochterman


No matter what football scheduling structure the Big Ten enacts for 2023 or beyond, the goal for administrators and school officials is to deliver the best possible outcome. The perfect solution, as they discovered when they created the competitively equal Legends and Leaders divisions or shifted to a geographic alignment three years later, does not exist.

Based on conversations with several Big Ten athletics directors, the league appears headed toward a division-less model. There’s no momentum for a divisional adjustment or keeping the status quo. But what a non-divisional model means and how officials will arrange the schedule remain in question.

“Right now, we’re just discussing,” Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith. “I think everybody submitted who their crossovers will be, and then we’ll have another discussion around that.”

The problem for the Big Ten as it approaches its scheduling verdict — likely after the media rights agreement is finalized this summer — is the uneven nature of rivalry preservation. Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour, who is retiring this month, said last month “I’m not going to pound my fist” to play any team annually. At Iowa, there are three teams it would like to play every year: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The remaining programs have anywhere from two key rivals (Michigan with Ohio State and Michigan State, for instance) to one or none.

“There’s a preferred concept, which is as it relates to some number of protected (rivals), probably the smaller the better,” Barbour said. “Because if you’re trying to go through a true rotation, the more protected (rivals) you have, then you’ve created pods instead of divisions.”

“There could be some downside if we didn’t play each of those teams every year,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. “But if it’s what’s best for the conference, we have to look at it from a bigger standpoint.”

All parties agree the No. 1 motivation of any systemic change is to ensure better access to the College Football Playoff. A non-divisional model has the most support because it allows every program an equal path to two championship game slots, not just one dictated by geography. Teams then can play one another with greater frequency and schedule variety.

With a nine-game conference schedule, to which the league is committed, the drawbacks for non-divisions include deciding which schools receive only four home Big Ten games every other year. The current system rotates it by division. Championship-game tiebreakers could become an issue, as could strength of schedule. Two compelling divisional races are shrunk to one, which cuts the number of achievements teams can attain. Also, the number of high-ratings games goes down a notch if the East Division TV titans don’t play annually like they do currently.

“You’re never going to be able to completely thread the needle to get 100 percent of what every institution wants,” said one industry source familiar with the scheduling discussions, “but you can get pretty close to it based on just using some good parameters, good guardrails and just kind of common sense.”

The ultimate decision will come down to how many protected opponents each school will have. If it’s two, that allows a school to play the other teams seven times over an 11-year period, but it cuts off at least one major rivalry, probably Iowa-Wisconsin. If it’s three, a school will play the other teams three times over a five-year period. But that could force a few non-rivalries into protected status.

There is a way for the league to balance between two and three protected entities and still appease all sides. A three-protected-rival system ensures the important rivalries become permanent. Then the schools and conference office should revisit the rival system every five years to adjust if necessary.

Annual Big Ten rivals – 3-matchup system

Team Rival 1 Rival 2 Rival 3

Nebraska

Minnesota

Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Iowa

Nebraska

Minnesota

Iowa

Nebraska

Iowa

Wisconsin

Minnesota

Illinois

Michigan State

Purdue

Northwestern

Purdue

Indian

Indian

Illinois

Northwestern

Purdue

Illinois

Rutgers

Michigan

Penn State

Maryland

Ohio State

Michigan State

Rutgers

Penn State

Michigan

Northwestern

Michigan State

Ohio State

Maryland

Rutgers

Penn State

Ohio State

Maryland

Michigan

Indian

(Highlighted rivalries would be permanent; Others would be revisited)

Each school has its own preferences. Iowa could play Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska and never change it. Perhaps Penn State’s protected games would include Michigan State, Ohio State and Maryland for the first five-year block. Then after five years, the league could swap Rutgers for Maryland. Over a 10-year period, Penn State would play both Maryland and Rutgers eight times rather than one team every year and the other only six.

In the inaugural five-year cycle, maybe Nebraska faces Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. But if the Huskers return to their 1990s form, then maybe a schedule alteration could include a five-year block with Ohio State instead of Minnesota. Or maybe the Gophers rekindle their Little Brown Jug series with Michigan and the Badgers meet Northwestern while both keep Iowa and one another.

Every Big Ten scheduling adjustment since Penn State’s 1993 addition has come with challenges. That year, Iowa and Wisconsin cycled off for the first time since 1937. A few years later, it was Michigan-Minnesota, which missed each other for the first time in 81 years. Then it was Ohio State-Illinois, which had played 89 consecutive years. Legends and Leaders punted Iowa-Wisconsin to the curb again. The East-West alignment was competitive during regular-season action (77-70 for the East) but uneven in championship games (8-0 for the East).

When it comes to football scheduling, perfection is unattainable. But the Big Ten prides itself on finding win-win solutions, and a three-opponent structure checks just about every requirement. It protects its historic rivalries, adds flexibility and maintains a consistent scheduling cycle. That’s a victory in my book.

(Top photo: G. Fiume/Getty Images)

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