Big Ten Playbook: Eight is NOT enough

Big Ten season starts this week. No more Eastern Kentuckys and Murray States.

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Reminds me of George Perles’ line about bowl games. ``Bowl games are like ham,’’ the old Michigan State ball coach used to say. ``Never had a bad piece of ham.’’

That’s a bit of a stretch, even for those of us who have an appetite for college football. But at least conference games tend to be closer to ham than Spam—unlike many nonconference games.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

And Perles never envisioned a world where Iowa at Rutgers would be served up as a conference game. Not a lot of meat on that bone—and don’t let anybody tell you the Hawkeyes were looking ahead to the Scarlet Knights when they were stunned by North Dakota State last week.


Some may call it Orwellian. For the first time since 1984, each Big Ten team will play nine conference games.

The Midwestern behemoths all played nine league games in 1983-84; some of them did in 1979-82. In those days, it sort of made sense because—I hope you’re sitting down for this—there were 10 teams in the Big Ten. So a nine-game schedule meant that everybody played everybody. It was symmetry in motion.

That nine-game experimentation took place so long ago that Illinois was good enough to be the only 9-0 team (in 1983). So it’s difficult to draw comparisons.

There were no quirky unbeaten teams who dodged games against powerhouse teams. For example, let’s say Iowa won all of its regular-season games, but didn’t play Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State.

That wouldn’t be fair. That would be 2015.

The new nine-game schedule means that teams will play 69.2 percent of their league rivals each season. Which is 7.7 percent better than under last year’s eight-game schedule (61.5 percent). But not as good as Illinois’ magical 1983 season, when it played 100 percent of its league rivals.

There are problems posed by a nine-game schedule. Notably, half the teams will have one more home game than the other half.

The Big Ten schedule-makers have addressed that nicely, by deciding that schools in each division will have the same number of home and road games in the same season. This year, the East gets five home games; next year, the West.

There are also benefits to the nine-game schedule. One is an overall improved strength-of-schedule, which is more important now that four teams are being selected for the College Football Playoff.

Many Big Ten teams didn’t get the strength-of-schedule memo, though, because seven of them are playing teams from the division formerly known as I-AA (FCS) this fall. At least Illinois (Murray State), Michigan State (Furman), Minnesota (Indiana State) Purdue (Eastern Kentucky) and Rutgers (Howard) won theirs; Iowa (North Dakota State) and Northwestern (Illinois State) paid to be ridiculed.


Another advantage is that the nine-game schedule means the Big Ten doesn’t have to share as much with other conferences. The Bison, for example, earned a cool half-million, an excellent party fund to celebrate their shocker at Iowa’s Nile Kinnick Stadium.

Illinois will pay $8.65 million to the eight nonconference opponents who are coming to Champaign in 2019-2022, the Champaign News-Gazette reported.

Do the math: 14 teams, each with one less guarantee of up to $1 million leaving the conference. Even if you round it off at $10 million, that’ll pay for some assistant coaches and ankle tape.

To sum up. . . while I like the idea of the nine-game schedule for competition reasons, I have a strong suspicion that the Big Ten likes the idea for bottom-line reasons, too.

Saving on guarantees is just part of it. I’m also going to guess that more conference games is a good thing for the Big Ten Network and the league’s other broadcast partners.

Whether it’s big business or the Big Ten, you pretend that you like competition. But you don’t want to share with smaller competitors. This is America.


And now, let the (conference) games begin. . .

Actually, it’s a pretty modest opening schedule.

The headliner is No. 11 Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State. That game looked a lot more interesting a week ago, before the Badgers, riding high after beating LSU, had squeaked past Georgia State on Saturday. And before Michigan State, which had looked wobbly in its opening win vs. Furman, had thrashed Notre Dame in South Bend.

Before, the question was, how good is Sparty? Now the question is, can Wisconsin’s freshman QB, Alex Hornibrook, keep his head on straight against the Spartan hordes in East Lansing?

The other league games aren’t looking like thrillers, either.

Penn State figures to be over-matched at No. 4 Michigan.

And Northwestern, with its very shaky 1-2 start, has taken the edge off of its conference opener in Evanston against No. 20 Nebraska. It’s a night game that doesn’t look nearly as ready for prime time as it did before NU stumbled against Western Michigan and Illinois State.

And finally, Iowa’s trip to Rutgers shapes up as a yawner. Then again, who knew that the Hawkeyes wouldn’t be able to cope with North Dakota State? Everybody knew the five-time defending FCS champions were good.

There are a few nonconference games this week. Indiana (vs. Wake Forest) and Minnesota (Colorado State) will try for 3-0 starts. Purdue will try to avoid a 1-2 start vs. Nevada, which already has lost at Notre Dame and must have relatives in Gary or Hammond, Ind.

In the Big Ten, there are no guarantees. Well, that’s literally not true. But thanks to the nine-conference-game schedule, there are fewer guarantees for outsiders.


Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a book that allowed Spartans fans to savor every moment of that amazing blocked-punt victory over Michigan last fall?

Now there is. ``The Perfect :10,’’ co-authored by longtime Michigan State sports chroniclers Jack Ebling and Joe Rexrode.

For those of us who don’t bleed green-and-white but like college football, ``The Perfect :10’’ also features an excellent history of Michigan State football. I would tell you that this is a heart-warming tale of how the little brother finally triumphed over Big Brother. But that probably would irritate Spartan Nation, even if it's true.

Guessing this book won’t fly off the shelves in Ann Arbor. But check it out at [/membership]