Big Ten nonconference schedule strong, and getting stronger
The Big Ten this summer unveiled a strategy to beef up nonconference football schedules across the league. A look at the 2015 schedules of the five most powerful leagues shows the Big Ten’s slate already is mighty tough.
Of the Big Ten’s 56 out-of-conference games, 18 (32 percent) are against fellow Power Five teams. Only the Atlantic Coast Conference is playing a bigger share — 21 of 56 games (38 percent) against the biggest of the big boys.
But the ACC also has 16 games against second-tier Football Championship Subdivision teams, most of any major conference. The Big Ten has only seven FCS opponents, fewest among the power leagues.
In July, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany announced a policy that expects conference teams to play at least one nonconference game against a Power Five opponent and eliminate FCS schools from their schedules starting in 2016, when the league goes to nine conference games.
The Big Ten would become the only Power Five conference to play nine league games, eliminate FCS opponents and require a Power Five nonconference game. Delany’s purpose is to enhance his league’s collective strength of schedule and its positioning for one of the four College Football Playoff spots every year.
"What I would ultimately like to see is all the Power Five conferences adopt a similar policy," Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said, "because that would allow us all to have a similar playing ground."
The Big Ten goes full-bore into Power Five games this week. Minnesota hosted No. 2 TCU on Thursday; Northwestern meets Stanford and No. 20 Wisconsin takes on No. 3 Alabama in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday; and No. 1 Ohio State visits Virginia Tech on Monday.
Five Big Ten teams will play two Power Five nonconference games this season, eight will play one and Penn State will play none.
Nebraska plays BYU — like Notre Dame, the Cougars are an independent and considered the equivalent of a Power Five team — and go to Miami. New coach Mike Riley said he wants tough games like those because they benefit his team.
"The thing for us about BYU and Miami is that we’re going to find out a lot," Riley said, "and our team will grow from these games."
The Big Ten’s seven FCS opponents are down from 11 in 2014 and the fewest since there were four in 2006.
The new scheduling policy does allow teams to honor contracts already in place with FCS schools for games in 2016 and beyond. The Big Ten again will have seven FCS opponents next year.
"A lot of teams like to play those FCS teams to get loosened up," Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said, "but I do not think that is going to be the case any longer."
And that’s a good thing, Flood said, if a Power Five conference is intent on doing all it can to impress the playoff selection committee.
"It’s going to be the people in the room that are making the decisions, and if they come out and say ultimately we’re taking Team A over Team B because they didn’t play an FCS team, I think that will be very impactful," Flood said.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said it might have been a good idea to nix FCS opponents sooner. The Hawkeyes had to sweat out a 31-23 win over Northern Iowa last year. They play 2014 FCS runner-up Illinois State on Saturday and FCS defending champion North Dakota State next season.
On the flip side, the no-FCS-opponent policy will hurt schools like Indiana State, which has played at least one Big Ten team eight of the last 12 seasons. The Sycamores travel to Purdue in two weeks and go to Minnesota next year.
The mid- to high six-figure guarantees paid to FCS teams for visiting Big Ten and other Power Five stadiums account for significant chunks of their athletic budgets.
"For some of those smaller schools, it’s a tough thing financially," Nebraska’s Riley said, "but it’s the way we’re going."