The Big Ten will convert to a nine-game scheduling model for conference play in 2016, a subtle yet substantial deviation from the old model of eight conference outings.
It changes the look of the conference a bit. It might also impact how the College Football Playoff committee views the Big Ten, when it comes to establishing the field for the four-team Playoff.
Land Of 10 offers five benefits to the Big Ten’s bold move:
1. The Big Ten East division teams get the extra home game this year.
Going to nine games means half the league gets a fifth conference home game. This year, for competitive balance within the divisions, the Big Ten East team get the extra game.
The seven Big Ten East members — Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers — have five conference home events on the docket.
Consequently, all seven members of the Big Ten West — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin — will make five road trips in league play. They will all get the extra home game next year.
2. There will be fewer arguments about the legitimacy of a division champion
In 1980, the SEC had 10 members but only six conference games, meaning it was possible — and perhaps highly likely — that two teams would finish in a first-place tie without a head-to-head game to serve as a tiebreaker.
The same odds of potential chaos applied to the Big Ten soon thereafter, once the league expanded to 11 teams in the early 1990s (adding Penn State).
From 1993-2010, the conference (no split-division format back then) would annually introduce a schedule grid that offered more randomness than stability (outside of certain protected year-end showdowns).
Fast forward to the present: The nine-game model still doesn’t match the round-robin consistency of the 10-team Big 12, but it’s absolutely essential with conferences of 14 teams. With nine games, you get your six division opponents and three from the other side. It’s not much, but it’s far better than two.
(SEC, are you listening?)
3. Each fan base gets spared the drudgery of seeing one more tomato can from a non-Power 5 league
In recent years, Big Ten officials have gone to great lengths to discourage its members from scheduling FCS programs; and given how the conference schedule doesn’t start until late September for all 14 schools (unlike the SEC) … total compliance shouldn’t be an issue here.
That said, most Big Ten teams prefer the non-conference strategy of one high-profile opponent from another Power 5 school (SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12) and then doable (or “winnable”) matchups against Group of Five programs (MAC, Mountain West, American Athletic, Conference USA, Sun Belt), along with popular independents BYU or Army.
And with a nine-game conference schedule, that means one less outing against UMass, Eastern Michigan, Wyoming, Hawaii, Texas State, Appalachian State or Tulsa.
4. ‘Millennial’ Big Ten fans who appreciate history will soon become acquainted with the 1983 Illinois team
From 1981-84, back when the Big Ten comprised of only 10 schools (hence the name), conference officials experimented with a round-robin scheduling model, where every team played one another during the regular season.
As a sports-obsessed child growing up in Michigan, the nine-game model seemed like a great idea in the early 1980s, ensuring that all ties could be distinguished via head-to-head encounters.
And yet, the system disappeared after just four seasons, presumably because every Big Ten school demanded an extra home game each year (this just in: money rules college sports).
Which brings us to this: The 1983 Illinois squad – with Jack Trudeau at quarterback – stands as the only Big Ten champion in history to post a perfect 9-0 record during the regular season (there were no conference title games back then). For that dream campaign in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois dispatched three consecutive top-10 teams at home (Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan), en route to the conference crown.
It was a momentous feat for a school that opened the season outside the top 25; and for 30-plus years, no other Big Ten school has had a chance to match the Fighting Illini’s accomplishment.
5. An undefeated Big Ten champion would be a lock for the College Football Playoff
The above declaration doesn’t just apply to conference powerhouses, like Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Michigan. If any other Big Ten school should pull off the improbable task of going 9-0 during the regular season and then capturing the league title on Dec. 3 (Indianapolis) … they’d have a 99.99 percent of reaching the four-team Playoff.
Why is that? Well, no college football exec would ever confirm this publicly, but as the NCAA’s highest-revenue conferences (by a significant margin), an undefeated champion from the Big Ten and/or SEC would always get the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s look at the 1983 Illinois team one more time: After incurring a season-opening defeat to Missouri (Big 8 member at the time), the Fighting Illini then reeled off 10 consecutive victories to close the regular season.
Subsequently, the No. 4-ranked Illini held legitimate hopes of capturing the up-for-grabs national title during bowl action, heading into their Rose clash with UCLA.
Obviously, that was a short-lived wish for Illinois, which got crushed 45-9 by QB Rick Neuheisel and the Bruins; but that’s a story for another day.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.