When the announcement came on Thursday that Ohio State and Alabama were setting up a home-and-home for 2027 and 2028, I’m sure it was met with a somewhat common reaction.
Finally, an SEC team who isn’t Mizzou or Vandy is going to travel north of the Mason-Dixon Line and face off in a home-and-home with a B1G contender. It’s a legitimate gripe. Since Alabama traveled to Penn State in 2011, it’s been essentially all neutral-site games between the elite teams from the conferences. There was LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-Michigan and Alabama-Wisconsin, none of which were played on college campuses.
Why? Well, once schools realized that neutral-site games would show a strong non-conference schedule with split revenues, it became all the rage. You had teams like Alabama back out of home-and-homes with Michigan State.
Rejoice, B1G fans.
The Alabama-Ohio State series showed us why the 2020s will be a much different decade when it comes to non-conference scheduling, and that’s good for all things B1G. Very good.
“Finally” might’ve been the reaction, but if you’ve been paying attention to how and why things will be different in the 2020s, you probably saw that coming. The SEC, who was wise to stay at the 8-game conference schedule while the B1G miscalculated, has actually been loading up on headliner home-and-homes for the 2020s, especially in the latter half of the decade.
Alabama now has home-and-home matchups with Wisconsin (2024 and 2025), Ohio State (2027 and 2028) and Notre Dame (2028 and 2029). That’s right. Alabama will face BOTH Notre Dame and Ohio State in 2028.
But wait, there’s more!
In 2030, Georgia will face Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia Tech in non-conference play. And in 2031, Georgia’s non-conference slate swaps out Clemson for a game against Oklahoma. Shoot, even Florida, who hasn’t left the state for a true road non-conference game since 1991, has 3 Power 5 non-conference games in 2028 and they’ll all be played on college campuses. In the 2020s, we’ll also see Auburn travel to Penn State and Tennessee travel to Nebraska.
What a time to be alive.
I’m not talking about now. I’m talking about the 2020s when we’re going to have all sorts of B1G-SEC showdowns played on college campuses, just as the college football gods intended.
So why is this happening? Are SEC athletic directors tired of getting made fun of by B1G fans who say they’re too scared to travel? That’s not it. At all.
It’s simple. The contract for the 4-team Playoff runs through 2025. Come 2026, expansion is inevitable. Teams like Alabama recognized that when that expansion happens (probably to 8 teams), we’re going to have at-large bids. Ergo, teams can have more margin for error in the regular season. They can lose 2 games and make the field. Win a headliner non-conference game and you’re in a much favorable position even if you lose 2 conference games.
The smart teams have recognized how important it is to load up on the headliner home-and-homes in the latter half of the decade. You don’t have to win them all. But it’ll certainly give a team the benefit of the doubt over a team with similar losses.
Right now, the Playoff doesn’t really reward that. It’s been almost exclusively Power 5 conference champs with the exceptions being 2016 Ohio State and 2017 Alabama. That’s 22 of 24 teams (92%) belonging to Power 5 conference champs. If and when the field expands to 8 in 2026, that percentage is going to nosedive. It has to. Even if there are 6 automatic bids (the 5 Power 5 conference champs and the best Group of 5 team), those 2 wild card spots will be highly coveted by non-conference champs.
Can you picture how Ohio State’s Playoff résumé would look with a win against Alabama on a college campus? The Buckeyes would enter conference play with probably 2 losses to give in order to get one of those wild card spots.
For a conference like the B1G who has had a habit of cannibalizing itself in the Playoff era, this is a good thing. All of these 1- or 2-loss B1G teams would’ve had a legitimate chance to make the field in an 8-team Playoff, but missed out because of something that happened in conference play:
I’m not saying that all of those teams would’ve absolutely made it in an 8-team field, but goodness, there are several who would’ve survived their costly loss and still made the Playoff. No conference has cannibalized its Playoff chances more than the B1G. Period.
Playoff expansion will combat that, and for B1G teams who can actually line up against SEC contenders on their own campuses, that’s a win. There will be more data to base the conference supremacy argument on. Some years (like 2017 and 2018), I’d argue a small sample size of truly meaningful non-conference games hurt the B1G. Other years (like 2015 and 2016), I’d argue the B1G’s solid non-conference showing was wiped out by what happened in league play or the conference championship.
Non-conference play is going to be valued in an even more important way in the latter half of the 2020s. Sure, a lot can change, but it’s a good thing to see that a few B1G contenders already have some pretty respectable home-and-homes for the back end of the 2020s:
- 2025: at Oklahoma
- 2026: vs. Oklahoma
- 2027: vs. Texas
- 2028: at Texas
- Ohio State
- 2025: vs. Texas, vs. Washington
- 2026: at Texas, vs. Boston College
- 2027: vs. Alabama, at Boston College
- 2028: at Alabama
- 2030: at Georgia
- 2031: vs. Georgia
- 2024: vs. Alabama
- 2025: at Alabama
- 2026: vs. Pitt
- 2027: at Pitt
- 2029: at UCLA
- 2030: vs. UCLA
- 2031: at Virginia Tech
- 2032: vs. Virginia Tech
I’d argue the likes of Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State have significant strides to make to their non-conference schedules. Penn State doesn’t even have a Power 5 non-conference game scheduled after 2025, which is a problem based on how quickly those slots are filling up. If Michigan State and Nebraska become contenders, they’re set up well to make legitimate non-conference statements in headliner home-and-home series.
Here’s the good news. It’s inevitable that the 2020s are going to feature 2 things — Playoff expansion and a much better slate of home-and-homes. That’s a win not just for B1G fans, but for all college football fans.
It’s not too early to get excited for Ohio State-Alabama in 2027. By that time, we could be talking about an Alabama program who isn’t coached by Nick Saban, or perhaps we’ll be talking about if anyone is on Ryan Day’s level.
The immediate future in college football is murky, albeit for totally different, COVID-19 reasons. But the distant future? It’s bright.
At this point, I’ll take it.