The Big Ten has one of its toughest schedules, but will it be too much to overcome?
Last year, the prodigal conference known as the Big Ten came home — sort of. After being a punchline while the SEC was taking names and drinking sweet tea for the better part of a decade, there was a bit of a resurgence in the heartland.
Ohio State is still cooking with gas and Michigan State has earned its stripes with General Dantonio at the helm, but there was more than that in 2015.
Iowa came out of nowhere to remind people that it still plays football amidst the cornfields, Northwestern won at more than SAT scores, and the conference as a whole began to show up in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Meanwhile, Jim Harbaugh blew up more than Twitter by making Michigan the darling of college football until it ran into an angry Ezekiel Elliott and his Buckeye squad in late November.
Yes, life seems to have been restored for Jim Delany and company, and there are signs of that inertia continuing in 2016.
East Division Again The Harder Road
In the East division, Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are once again in the preseason upper crust, while Penn State figures to improve as it continues to come out of the cloud of sanctions and disappointment with inroads and splashes made on the recruiting trail.
Rutgers and Maryland might take some years to get cranking, but we’ve seen what sleeping on Indiana can do in years past.
The Badgers’ Big Problem
Out West, Wisconsin figures to be the tough out it always is, Nebraska looks to continue its improvement under second-year head coach Mike Riley, and Iowa has pieces back — none more important than CJ Beathard at quarterback. Add that to the yearly competitive natures of Northwestern and Minnesota, and the landscape is almost flowing with milk and honey.
Or in these parts, cheese and brats. And fermented beverages.
The moon, starts and Jupiter all seem to be aligning, except for one thing that starts to kick in this year, a new conference scheduling format. Lest you forget, this is the year that the conference moves to nine conference games, and with it, cross-over games against the more traditional powers.
So while Wisconsin could get a breather in conference play by not playing the likes of Ohio State or Michigan, that will end this year. And the teams in the East who could count on wins against lesser non-conference opponents, those games will now be replaced with a tougher opponent from the West division.
Use Wisconsin as Exhibit A (and that’s a big fat capital A). Last year, the Badgers were able to jump around with the following eight-game conference schedule: At Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, Rutgers, at Maryland, Northwestern and at Minnesota.
This year, all you need to do is look at a brutal five-game stretch mid-season that reads at Michigan State, at Michigan, Ohio State, at Iowa and home versus Nebraska. That is in succession, folks.
It doesn’t stop there. Every team is getting an upgrade in competition because of this new philosophy in scheduling. It’ll be good for television, and good for the eyeballs of the College Football Playoff Committee when it comes to comparing strength of scheduling.
Does The Big Ten Need A Nine-Game League Slate?
The Big Ten 2.0 version of a schedule won’t come without some bugs and defects out of the box. Clearly there’s the added pressure of having to beat more quality opponents and the potential stumble at the most inopportune times. There’s a shot to garner more prime real-estate wins, but there’s also the potential of being squeezed out by the neighbors while other conferences keep the competition level at the status quo.
The SEC has almost flat-out refused to go to a nine-game conference schedule by the same tired chest-thumping of its superiority.
But what about the other Power-Five conferences? ACC has stayed at eight, and the Big 12 has nine conference tilts but without a championship game. The Pac-12 comes the closest with its nine-game in-conference schedule, but there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to match the traditional powers across divisions as frequently as what the Big Ten is attempting to do out of the gate.
Will the playoff committee really take a one-loss Big Ten team over another Power-Five conference undefeated team, even if the schedule is far and away better? Unlikely.
And what about the grind of a nine-game conference schedule with the meat being served on almost a weekly basis? Better competition more consistently means fewer opportunities to rest starters and star players. It could inevitably and theoretically lead to more injuries, more bruises, and yes, even more losses.
If anything though, give the Big Ten credit. It has been a change agent rather than a byproduct of the chemical reaction that can occur in college football. In a game of copycats, the league continues to try and blaze a new path.
It’s noble to ratchet up the conference schedule, and resulting body of work as a whole. What can be wrong with that? After all, the conference is on the upswing at just the right time to pull this whole thing off.
Until it’s not.