Don’t be fooled by numbers.
The debate over conference scheduling may be intriguing, but it’s just a diversion from other inconsistencies plaguing college football. It doesn’t matter whether the Big Ten plays eight, nine or 10 league games, if the schedule-makers don’t rearrange their priorities.
“We didn’t go to nine games for one reason,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said earlier this month. “We went to nine games for four or five different reasons.”
With Delany’s blessing, an additional conference game will be added to every team’s schedule, starting in 2016.
Nine seems fine to me. But it’s a tradeoff, more than an enhancement, and over time it will make our early-season options less appealing.
Remember when Major League Baseball introduced interleague play in the late 1990s? For every Yankees-Mets or Dodgers-Angels, you get Royals-Padres or Marlins-Astros.
Well, this is sort of the reverse.
By eliminating a fourth nonconference opponent, you’re left with divisional roulette.
In 2016, the Big Ten’s inaugural season for nine-game schedules, Iowa will host East Division member Michigan and travel to Penn State, Rutgers.
The Wolverines are a tradition-rich blue blood, and they appear beatable. In buzzworthy terms, that’s a win.
The Nittany Lions boast plenty of history, but will still be feeling the impact of NCAA sanctions. That’s a split.
The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, have averaged 5.4 wins per year since the end of World War II and have never finished a season ranked among The Associated Press’ top 10.
That’s when you’ll wish you could take another spin, in hopes of something better.
Nebraska’s 2016 cross-over dates are also mixed: Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland.
Those who stump for more conference games will tell you it’s in the best interest of fans.
What most of us actually want is more Wisconsin-Arizona State (with better officiating and clock management at the end) and less Ohio State-Florida A&M (which resulted in a 76-0 rout).
Delany points out attendance is usually higher for conference games.
There are notable exceptions, however. In 2012, the Hawkeyes drew a sellout crowd of 70,585 for a game against Northern Iowa, and just 69,805 when Nebraska visited 10 weeks later.
Much of the drop off was because of Iowa’s 4-8 tumble that fall, but let’s not sell the Panthers short.
An in-state rivalry — even one in which Northern Iowa hasn’t earned a victory since 1898 — typically generates more buzz than Purdue.
“It’s a different level of competition,” Delany said of scheduling NCAA Football Championship Subdivision programs. “That’s not to say you can’t lose those games, because you can; whether it’s Furman or (Appalachian) State, Northern Iowa.
“They have good football teams, but they’re not constructed the same way our teams are constructed.”
With FCS schools off the table, Big Ten officials are feeling a squeeze. There are only so many Mid-American Conference schools to go around.
You’re starting to hear whispers of a possible 10-game conference slate.
Another option: Some are talking about Big Ten teams scheduling other Big Ten teams in “nonconference” games.
“I would say that requires some level of exploration,” Delany said, “because we do a lot of things at the gate, share gate revenues.
“When you have a nonconference game, you have a different financial arrangement.”
Delany is emphasizing strength of schedule as a new playoff format debuts this season.
For most of his coaches, bowl eligibility is a more immediate concern. The Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences are staying at eight games, which puts the Big Ten at a disadvantage.
So although Delany wants to push for national prominence in November, many athletic directors would rather ease into September.
“It’s not just college football playoff-related,” he said. “It’s the branding, it’s the binding of the conference together.”
The bonding process will take time, but schedules and opponents will become increasingly familiar.
And I’m not sure it looks like much fun.