What the B1G’s new conference-only schedule should include
The Big Ten’s announcement of a conference-only schedule last Thursday felt like a gut punch. Combined with the news that the Ivy League was punting on its football season and programs like Ohio State shut down workouts, well, that’s 2020 in a nutshell.
And though Ohio State announced Tuesday that it is resuming workouts, the future still looks a bit gloomy.
But let’s not dwell on it for now. No one knows what’s going to happen because the news cycle changes every hour. One minute it feels like there’s no chance of college football, the next minute athletic directors are talking about 50,000 fans at a game and the next minute, the Big Ten cancels nonconference games.
The Big Ten will likely release a new schedule soon. Here are 4 things I want to see in it:
1. Front-load the schedule
I think the fairest way to do this is to have the most important games early on, so there is a clear indication of the league’s top teams and they are positioned well for a potential shortened season. That means the East’s first 6 games should be against each other, and the West’s first 6 games should be against each other. That should be the priority because at least then, there is a greater possibility of a rightful champion.
Let’s say that some of the season gets played in the fall and some gets played in the spring, as a television executive told Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel. Wouldn’t you want all of Ohio State’s best players playing all of Michigan’s best players? In the spring, those schools likely lose potential draft picks. No use in sitting on those premium games.
No one knows what is going to happen, but let’s pretend there is no College Football Playoff and a national champion is crowned the old-fashioned way. At least Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State will have gotten their shot at one another.
2. Rivalry games in Week 2
Since the schedule should be front-loaded, I love the idea of starting the season with a bang, like college basketball does with the Champions Classic pitting bluebloods like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State against one another. But with virtually no offseason, I don’t think this is fair to the football teams. There’s a reason that the majority of teams ease into the season, even when they have the full complement of spring practice and preseason camp.
I think the Big Ten should let teams build to rivalry games for at least a week. That’s why Ohio State and Michigan should play in Week 2. The Buckeyes can’t say this is too early; they were slated to go to Oregon in Week 2 anyways.
The appetite for football is incredibly high right now, and the ratings in Week 1 would be through the roof, regardless of the matchups. Remember when Tom Brady and Peyton Manning playing golf captured our attention for an entire Sunday? Well, think about the type of ratings a college football game with real stakes would draw.
I would still watch every second of a Penn State rematch with Maryland, or Ohio State opening up against Rutgers. Those are maybe the least-sexy matchups you can draw up, but I don’t care. Week 1 is going to get plenty of eyeballs, no matter what.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s wise to wait on Michigan and Ohio State for the Saturday after Thanksgiving — give it to us early on. I understand tradition, but we are living in a strange world right now, and I think fans deserve to see that matchup. Who knows what the sports world will look like on Thanksgiving?
3. Foresight into the mind of the College Football Playoff Committee
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is stepping into quite a situation. There is no blueprint for a pandemic. That said, he would be wise to look ahead and try to peer into the minds of the College Football Playoff Committee. Proceed as if there will be a CFP — that’s what ultimately should guide the thinking behind the design of the schedule. What will give the Big Ten the best chance of nabbing 1 of those 4 spots?
As Warren is well aware, there is no commissioner of college football; every conference is making up its own rules. The Big Ten is in an interesting spot since it is leading the way on this conference-only venture (the SEC is waiting until the end of July to make a decision).
Maybe it’s easier to make it 10 games — 5 home and 5 road contests for each team. Maybe it’s easier to go with 9 and stick with the original conference slate. Easier makes sense in a pandemic, but the Big Ten can help shape college football’s future. Don’t take the easy way; take the smart way.
The topic in recent years of the SEC and ACC only having 8 conference games and the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12 each having 9 league games has been exhaustively debated because it gives those with 8 league games the opportunity to schedule an extra Group of 5 or FCS opponent. A conference with 8 league games has never missed the CFP. The Big Ten switched from 8 to 9 in 2016. Is this the year where it makes sense to schedule 10 Big Ten games? Will the CFP committee value an extra Power 5 opponent if it is comparing 1-loss teams? Would this set a precedent for future non-pandemic seasons and force the SEC and ACC to move to 9 conference games and thus even the playing field? I don’t know the answer, but it’s certainly something to consider.
The lack of uniformity among the Power 5 leagues can be frustrating. It can be an advantage or a disadvantage, and the Big Ten would be wise to use it as the former. It’s up to Warren to decide what that looks like.
4. Creative flexibility
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Big Ten handles the bye weeks. It seems that universities want to finish the season (and semester) in the shortest amount of time possible. But how can the Big Ten do this without putting the players at further risk and also maintaining some flexibility in light of potential postponements? The definition of being on a bye week may have to change this season.
Will it strategically pair teams that match up early in the season for bye weeks later in case they have to postpone? Will it have a team on standby in a given week if, for example, one team has an outbreak but the opponent doesn’t and needs a team to play?
If the goal is to complete the season, maybe the solution is to have the crossover games not set in stone just yet. That could create some potential competitive advantages, but the unfortunate reality is this season isn’t going to be fair for everyone. College football rarely is, anyway.
The goal, at this point, is to finish the season. Warren and his staff at the league office need to design a schedule with the best chance of allowing that to happen.