CHICAGO -- It was the elephant in the room during the Big Ten’s spring meetings. The conference isn’t the football power it once was.
The last seven national champions have come from the SEC, with four different schools from the conference taking home the title. The Big Ten’s last champion was Ohio State—that happened 11 years ago. Ever since, the conference has seen one team play in the championship game, and that was Ohio State again, in 2006.
During these meetings in Chicago, the Big Ten’s athletic directors plotted plans to change this trend.
“It’s about how are we going forward to position the Big Ten conference to be the premier conference in America,” said Iowa athletic director Gary Barta. “In the game of football, we still have some catching up to do.”
The new “College Football Playoff” will feature the game’s four best teams, and the Big Ten hopes to have a consistent presence. As the landscape of college football has changed, the Big Ten has done its part to keep pace.
With a field of 14 schools now in place for 2014, the Big Ten will move to a nine-game conference. Conference commissioner Jim Delany has stressed to his schools that each should refrain from scheduling weak opponents in their three nonconference slots.
Big Ten athletic directors are in unanimous agreement that this is a step in the right direction.
“We want those three nonconference games to be relevant,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. “We want to get out of the business of scheduling things that feel like a scrimmage—to our fans, and in some cases, to our programs. We want those games to be against formidable competitors that are interesting to watch that provide great experiences for our student-athletes and help us develop our programs.”
There are many complications from these scheduling changes. The new nine-game schedule has compromised some Big Ten rivalries, as well as many traditional nonconference clashes.
The newly-implemented divisions may create complexities for annual Big Ten rivalries, such as when the games are scheduled and rotating between stadiums. That’s only the beginning of it.
Michigan has put its longstanding rivalry with Notre Dame to a halt after this season, while in-state foes like Iowa and Iowa State are working toward a compromise. Purdue has played Notre Dame each year since 1946, and athletic director Morgan Burke is working to preserve that rivalry. However, with the Fighting Irish forming an agreement with the ACC, the issues only grow greater.
“Until the dust settles, you can’t get there,” said Burke. “It just frustrates scheduling; it’s probably the hardest part of the job right now.”
The scheduling headaches are necessary for the Big Ten to reach its goal of being the best conference in America.
“We still have great programs and a great fan base,” said Barta. “But competitively, how are we going to position ourselves in this new College Football Playoff setup so that we’re right there? It’s strengthening our schedules.”
There are certainly other important elements to a strengthened schedule, too. On Wednesday, the athletic directors met with national television executives who emphasized the importance of stronger nonconference games, though looking with an emphasis of ratings.
Putting aside the strength of schedule element, there are greater interests to protect by building a stronger schedule.
“What the fans want,” explained Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips. “What does your attendance look like? Everybody’s feeling it. It doesn’t matter who you are and what kind of stadium you have. When fans feel as if the opponent is lesser—in value, in name, in ability—they have a tendency to not turn on TV sets and not come to the in-game experience.”
It won’t be easy to build a Big Ten schedule in the coming years—not until college football’s climate reaches some semblance of stability. Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner joked an IT degree is required to sort through the complexities.
“We’re committed to doing what we’ve talked about with scheduling,” added Phillips. “But the devil’s in the details.”
The Big Ten has a pact in place to build up its brand. The process won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it.