In a move that wasn't much of a surprise the Big Ten announced today that it will move to a nine-game conference schedule starting with the 2017 season. I say this isn't a surprise because little more than two weeks ago Purdue announced that the conference asked us to clear out some room beginning in 2017. A game at Marshall was moved around and two of the four scheduled games with Cincinnati were cancelled. This comes long after a home and home series with Oklahoma State was shuffled, then cancelled.
We should probably get used to that in the future. The move means there will be seasons (odd numbered years) in which we only get four conference home games and five road games. Even numbered years will bring five home games and four road games. As it happens, our perpetual series with Notre Dame will fall into that gap, as we visit the Fighting Irish in even numbered years and they come to West Lafayette in odd numbered years.
That leaves us with a pretty simple scheduling formula that will unfortunately get really dull after awhile unless we drop the Irish. The conference will be deciding nine of our games every year and we already know we're playing Notre Dame, so that leaves us with just two open slots each year beginning in 2017 through at least 2021. The Irish will likely lose Michigan in 2017 and Michigan State is taking a hiatus from 2014-17, so Purdue's presence on the schedule will keep the Big Ten connection they desire.
This means the days of fun home and homes with the likes of Oregon are over. Even though we lost both games against the Ducks it was an exciting series where both games came down to the final play. We had a similar series with Wake Forest in 2002 and 2003. College athletics rely on football money, however, and a ton of that money comes from home games.
We are blessed to be in a conference that allows us to have the offset schedule of seven home and five away games. Since the 12-game schedule became permanent in 2006 we have had a seven game home schedule each year. Even in the 2002 and 2003 12-game seasons we had seven home and five away. The only 12-game season in which we only had six home games was 1998, when we were asked to play in a special "Season opening bowl" at USC that no longer exists and we also went to Notre Dame.
I've enjoyed the 12-game schedule because it has allowed some different teams like Oregon to come through. Cincinnati, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Arizona have made appearances with home and homes accommodated by the schedule. Our relationship with the Fighting Irish made it easy to have our reciprocating road non-conference game in odd years with 2003 (@ Wake Forest), 2005 (@ Arizona), and 2009 (@ Oregon). We added relatively new opponents.
That ends in 2017 because Purdue won't want to give up the revenue of a seventh home game. In seasons where we go to Notre Dame we will already have five conference games. The coaching staff won't want to schedule another difficult road game against a BCS opponent and the athletic department won't want to lose the value of another gate. When we host the Irish we will only have four Big Ten home games. While the Irish will draw as big if not bigger than most conference opponents they will merely fill in as the default fifth conference home game. Once again, the athletic department won't want to give up that big payday of a seventh home game, thus leaving us with no place to put a reciprocating trip. Other BCS conference schools will see this and know it as well. Very few programs have the gumption of Oregon to schedule tough in those precious non-conference home slots.
In terms of strength of schedule we're not going to want to add a BCS level team because we'll already be playing 10. We have enough probable qualifying for a bowl game now when we can essentially schedule three wins. We're not going to make life tougher on ourselves when we're forced to schedule just two wins. We're also not at the level of an Ohio State, who is playing for titles and looks for that Strength of Schedule boost by routinely challenging itself with the likes of Texas, USC, and Miami. They can do that because the Indiana's and Purdue's of college football are their gimme games and they get them in conference. We don't have that luxury.
This means we get to continue a steady diet of Indiana States and other 1-AA programs mixed in with Directional MAC U. Even the Directional MAC games aren't automatic anymore (fortunately they are off the schedule this year).
As of right now we have one game scheduled each year beginning in 2017 through 2021, and that is the Notre Dame series. It is hard to think nine years out, but after that year Purdue has a choice: Do we continue scheduling the Irish as we have every year since 1946 or do we dump them and decide to branch out. Also, what happens if the Big East adds TCU, convinces Villanova to move up to 1-A, and finds an 11th team they can use to talk Notre Dame into finally joining? Will the decision be made for us?
Finally, the nine game schedule also makes the difficult task of returning to Pasadena nearly impossible. As it stands right now a school (in our case, Northwestern) can rotate off the schedule for as long as four years. Indiana is the lucky school that doesn't get Nebraska until 2015, while we dodge the Wildcats. Beginning in 2017 we will have to run the gauntlet of Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State within our own division while missing only two teams from the Legends. Even if we dodge a Michigan, Nebraska, or Michigan State somehow they could lurk in the Big Ten Championship game. And what about the harsh luck of having Minnesota and Northwestern off the schedule? In those rare years we will likely have the toughest conference schedule possible.
An unfortunate side effect is that many MAC programs are growing into their own and demanding at least a 2-for-1 deal with a return home game. This is why we went to Toledo in 2007. Even the buying of those two home wins will get more and more difficult because the MAC teams visiting now have one less date every year to make a payday, and the Michigans and Ohio States of the world can pay them a whole lot more as evidenced by Kent State snubbing us this coming year. We could be forced into losing a home game and picking up a tougher BCS home and home just because those MAC teams won't be there.
This announcement may be good for the conference in general and should even help Purdue with increased revenues at home games (upper deck, anyone?). Unfortunately, it also reduced our possibility of ever reaching a BCS bowl again unless we have drastic improvement within our program. Let's face it: It took a down year overall for the Big Ten and a once-in-a-generation quarterback to earn a three-way tie for our only conference title since 1967. My confidence is not high for another any time soon.