Nine-game Big Ten schedule has pros and cons
Chicago — A year ago, the Big Ten began an initiative to strengthen the teams’ schedules in an effort to make conference teams more attractive for the College Football Playoff.
One part of the plan was to move to a nine-game conference schedule, a plan that begins this season.
There, no doubt, will be an adjustment for Big Ten teams as the East Division gets five home games and four road games this season followed by the West Division getting the home-game advantage in 2017.
“Nine games there are pros and cons,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said at Big Ten media days on Monday. “I’ll just go with the thumbs up. Thumbs up, I’m good with it. It’s tough scheduling. You know you’re playing nine other Big Ten games, got those scheduled. It has championship implications the more Big Ten games you play. They’re closer most of the time.
“Good, fair for everybody. Healthy, honest competition.”
Michigan plays just four conference road games, but they’re tough ones as the Wolverines play at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa as well as Rutgers. Michigan State travels to Indiana, Maryland, Illinois and Penn State.
It’s something that clearly can benefit the teams that contend for the Big Ten championship with hopes to reach the playoffs. For those teams near the bottom of the standings, it can make life more difficult.
“I think you have to do it,” said Purdue coach Darrell Hazell, who has just two conference wins in three seasons. “It puts you in the national spotlight. These teams that are gonna want to advance throughout the playoffs, people are gonna want to see you play good opponents. What better opponents are there than the Big Ten? That’s a good thing for us.”
Even for the Boilermakers.
“Obviously it’s harder,” Hazell said, “but we’re not afraid of it.”
The initiative that was put in place last season also included taking FCS opponents off non-conference schedules and requiring at least one of the three non-conference games be against a team from the Power Five.
That could be an obstacle for programs that are trying to turn things around.
“The schedule is the schedule and we have to go play it,” first-year Rutgers coach Chris Ash said. “As a new coach building a new program, a lot of times past coaches would use those non-conference games to try and create momentum before you head into your conference season. It will be good for the league and good for fans. I’m excited to do it. There’s nothing I can do about it. Can’t change it, so we’re gonna go out and play 12 games whether it’s 12 Big Ten games or nine. That’s our job.
The tradition of college football is based in rivalries. Michigan-Ohio State and Michigan State-Michigan are the big ones around here while nationally there are plenty. Auburn-Alabama, Southern Cal-Notre Dame, California-Stanford, Army-Navy — you name it.
One that is on a lower tier but just as real to its fans is that of the two schools from the state of Illinois — Northwestern and Illinois.
So when Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald opened media days on Monday and welcomed the three new coaches to the Big Ten.
“Excited and want to welcome Chris and DJ and Tracy to the Big Ten head coach's fraternity to Rutgers Maryland and Minnesota respectively,” Fitzgerald said.
There was only one problem with mentioning Chris Ash, D.J. Durkin and Tracy Claeys — Fitzgerald forgot about Illinois coach Lovie Smith, the fourth first-year Big Ten coach.
After he left the podium, Fitzgerald jumped on social media to correct his mistake.
“Hey @LovieSmith sorry I "fumbled" the presser — WELCOME TO THE @bigten my friend!! #B1GMediaDay,” Fitzgerald posted on Twitter.
So a simple goof or a shot across the bow? In college football, any answer is possible.
Penn State no longer has to deal with scholarship limits, its full 85 reinstated for the first time since sanctions were imposed following the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal.
And that means no more excuses for the Nittany Lions. At least that’s the way coach James Franklin sees it.
“This is going to be a very important year for us, no doubt, to make progress, to show the direction that we're going and our players understand that,” Franklin said. “Our coaches understand that. Our fans and administration. I think everybody is aligned and understands that. And excited. Excited about what this year is going to bring. And our guys have prepared as such.”
If there’s a coach on the hot seat, Hazell certainly fits that description. He’s compiled a 6-30 overall record in three seasons, including 2-22 in Big Ten games.
However, he is hardly lacking optimism entering season No. 4.
“I guess I don't look at it as a three-year funk, I look at it as a growing process,” Hazell said. “A lot of times on the outside you can't see the things that are happening throughout the program where you're making progress. That's the vision that I see.”