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March 26, 2013Follow @JohnVeldhuis
MADISON - The Big Ten's move to scrap its eight-game conference schedule is the league's most recent step into the future of college football. Moving to a nine or 10-game conference schedule is the only way for an even bigger Big Ten to maintain rivalry games and keep high profile teams like Ohio State and Michigan coming to sold-out opposing stadiums.
But unlike the wooing of Nebraska and the forthcoming addition of Maryland and Rutgers as the Big Ten's newest initiates, there are motives behind playing more conference games that aren't directly tied to increasing revenue. The Big Ten is also trying to field more competitive games for the fans and to set itself up for success in the upcoming college football playoffs.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez confirmed the Big Ten's interest in having more conference games in an interview on 1070 WTSO in Madison, saying "eight [games] was not in the discussion" at the Big Ten's recent athletic directors meeting. And even though increasing the number of conference games would cut each team's possible non-conference slate to just three or two games, some fans are excited at the prospect of trimming the excess fat from their team's schedule.
Wisconsin football season ticket holders like Dave Groh, a physical therapist from Las Vegas, and Dale Nodolf, a financial advisor from Madison, view more conference games as an opportunity to get rid of the poor games that usually populate the Big Ten's non-conference schedules.
"I think it's a good idea, primarily because the current feeling about the Big Ten is that it's a comparatively weaker conference," Groh said. "Too many schools, Wisconsin included, sure seem to have their share of FCS games and poor quality opponents that are not a challenge."
The Badgers in particular have played a team from the lower-division Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) in each of the last seven seasons. But Alvarez said the Big Ten is planning on banning those games once it expands the conference schedule. FCS schools like Wofford, South Dakota, and The Citadel appear on schedules to give Big Ten teams another home game against an out-matched opponent, even if their FCS foes rarely put up much of a fight.
The Big Ten has a 24-2 record against FCS teams since the 2010 season, but season ticket holders have found that games against the likes of Eastern Illinois and Cal Poly can be a tough sell to other fans. Nodolf said he misses about one game every year, but he doesn't feel right trying to sell his tickets to a game against one of college football's perennial bottom-dwellers.
"You can't really sell them to anybody," Nodolf said. "A lot of times I feel bad because when it's considered by most people to be a very weak opponent and you want to sell that to somebody, I almost feel like a criminal asking for the money."
"Usually I'll give it to someone with a child that normally couldn't go and say 'Hey, wanna take your kid to a game? Here's two tickets.'"
In exchanging a game with Austin Peay for more games against Big Ten rivals, the Big Ten is also planning for the new four-team playoff that is set to change college football's landscape. The Big Ten hasn't won a national championship since 2003, and weak strength of schedule ratings could prevent them from securing playoff bids when the new postseason format takes hold in 2014.
A selection committee will consider strength of schedule when picking which four teams will compete for the national championship. As a result, more teams have already started to replace the weakest opponents on their schedules with traditional powerhouses. Ohio State scheduled future home-and-home series with Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon to try and attract the attention of the selection committee.
The Big Ten realized racking up wins against poor opponents won't get teams into the playoffs. In a world where the Southeastern Conference has taken over as college football's super-conference, Alvarez said combining a strong non-conference schedule with more Big Ten games was the only way for the conference to improve its image.
"If we want to compete with the Southeastern Conference we've got to pick up our schedule," Alvarez said. "This is one way we can handle that- by having better games on the schedule."
The Big Ten's biggest challenge is to figure out whether a nine or 10-game conference schedule is better for the league. A nine-game schedule gives teams flexibility to schedule better non-conference series that include road games against tougher teams. But at the same time the uneven number of Big Ten games would mean in any year half of the league would play five Big Ten games on the road to just four at home.
A 10-game schedule would allow every Big Ten team to play five home games each season, but having just two non-conference games to plan around also poses problems. Athletic departments prefer having seven home games per year, for the sake of their bottom lines as much as the prospects of the football team. Big Ten teams would be reluctant to sacrifice an extra home game to travel across the country and fulfill their half of a home-and-home deal with a team like Southern California or Georgia.
"Neither [option] is perfect," Alvarez said, after mentioning that he prefers the nine-game option. "We're going to have to come up with a happy medium."
"I think the fans will like it, and this is one of the things that we have spent a lot of time talking about- you want to be fan friendly."
Just like expanding to 14 teams and installing a conference title game, moving to nine or 10 conference games will give the Big Ten another financial boost. But playing better games more often is also aimed at getting the conference back into the good graces of the fans and playoff structures that will shape the Big Ten's future.
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