CHICAGO — Ask Big Ten coaches about the nine-game conference schedule that’s going into play this season, and most of them seem to talk up the positives for the league on a national level.
Ask Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys, however, and you’ll get some concern.
The change has each of the 14 Big Ten teams playing nine conference games and three nonconference games as opposed to the usual eight and four. The idea is to flush out the schedule with a higher proportion of games in league play and to avoid the fluke situations in which some teams face drastically tougher games than others, such as when Wisconsin avoided the top four teams in the East on the way to a 10-3 finish last season.
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, for instance, is a fan of the change.
“I think it’s good on a number of levels,” said Harbaugh, who went 10-3 in his first season in the Big Ten as a head coach. “We’re closer. We’re playing the teams that are in our area. You could get on a bus and go to most of the schools, not most, maybe some of the schools anyway. (It) makes scheduling easier, we’re in the same conference, has implications on who the champion is. I think it’s very good.”
Added Purdue’s Darrell Hazell, “I think you have to do it for the national landscape when you start thinking about playoff runs and who you played.”
But Claeys sees additional challenges in scheduling by moving the number of nonconference games from an even four to an odd three every other year. Because Big Ten teams must feature seven home games each season, the change forces schools in years with five road conference games to place all three nonconference affairs at home. Making up the road nonconference game as part of a home-and-home agreement, Claeys pointed out, will not always be smooth.
Claeys also sees a scenario in which the change will leave results even more up to luck of the draw. It goes into moving from an even number of league games, four on the road and four at home, to an odd number that will leave teams in one division each year playing five road games. This year, Claeys’ Gophers and their West counterparts will face that challenge.
“It’s hard to win on the road. So if you have five home games, you’ve got an advantage right out of the gate,” said Claeys, who will begin his first full season as Jerry Kill’s replacement after going 2-4 as the interim coach last season.
“It all balances out. I’m just saying that you know every other year, you’re starting in the hole. Now next year, I’m going to be happy. We’ve got five of the games at home. So now all of a sudden, we’ve got to feel like we’re a little bit ahead because everyone likes to play at home.”
Claeys said he’d rather have 10 league games, with an even number of those at home and on the road, as opposed to the setup entering play this season.
The league did set the schedules to where all the teams in one division have the same number of home and road games each year. That way, one West team won’t hold a scheduling advantage over another in a given year due to the number of games in its own stadium.
But Claeys pointed out that the setup could affect teams’ chances to reach the College Football Playoff, given the standard the committee has set through the first two years of the plus-one system to eliminate contenders who have more than one loss.
The Big Ten has sent its champion to the four-team playoff in each of the first two seasons, with Ohio State winning it all in the 2014 season and Michigan State falling to Alabama in the first round last season, but both of those were with a max of four road conference contests.
With that in mind, the extra road league game every other year will either serve as a boost for playoff-contending Big Ten teams or the dagger to their hopes. Win, and the schedule all of a sudden boasts one more quality win than could be possible for teams from leagues that don’t feature a fifth road game. Lose, and it could well mean elimination.
In some ways, it’s the play-in to the playoff.