The networks love it.
The fans dig it.
The coaches? They despise it.
There’s a middle ground in there somewhere. If you bring a big enough magnifying glass.
When it comes to the Big Ten moving to nine conference football games, finding a consensus is a bit like herding cats. And good luck getting those cats to see eye-to-eye on anything, individually.
Haves vs. have-nots
“I’d say this: First of all, it depends if you’re a ‘have’ or a ‘have-not,’ ” Big Ten network analyst Gerry DiNardo offered. “If you’re a ‘have-not,’ you want eight conference games so you can schedule four games that you can (win) and set you up for the postseason.
“So this is a have/have-not piece of legislation. It’s a have or have-not movement … And if you look at it across the entire conference, it’s better (competitively). You can make the case that it’s better for the fans, and you can make the case that playing people more in your conference is something that most athletes would want.
“So there’s a lot of reasons, if you don’t look at it through 14 individual sets of eyes. If you look at it through 14 individual sets of eyes, the have-nots want to close their eyes, and the haves want to open their eyes.”
Regardless, what was once commissioner Jim Delany’s vision is today’s reality. Starting Saturday, the Big Ten will begin a framework of nine conference games, one more than last fall, a move floated in 2013 as part of an announced initiative to beef up schedule strength across the league. And an unannounced initiative to make the circuit more appealing to television networks.
Which brings us to the coaches’ beefs — the largest being that an odd number makes for unbalanced number of home games across the league. This fall, everyone in the West will play five away, four at home; the East, five home, four away.
“Just by pure numbers, half our league is going to have one more loss,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, one of the league’s most outspoken critics of the scheduling gambit, said at Big Ten Football Media Days.
“So my concern is: Does that six-win team become a five-win team now and gets shut out of a bowl game? And now I’m thinking about (coaches’) livelihood, professionally. Well, no postseason play enough (times) equals no more job. And yeah, I get the big picture. I understand it. I liked eight (games) a lot. And we’ll go play nine and we’ve got to find a way to win one more game.”
Fitzgerald said the coaches voted unanimously against it, largely for the reasons he cited. Delany likes it because, theoretically, an intraconference matchup is more desirous to network types — and network advertisers — than a lopsided nonconference tilt. The Big Ten also has required teams to add at least one Power 5 peer to the nonconference slate and forbids teams from scheduling schools outside the Football Bowl Subdivision in an effort to improve the league’s standing with the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“What nine conference games does, for the Big Ten, it doesn’t force you, but it gives everyone an opportunity to have a high-profile game in September,” DiNardo said. “And I always felt the Big Ten missed an opportunity for high-profile games in September. The SEC has conference games in September, so for (many) outside the footprint, they’d rather watch, maybe, a big SEC game than a nonconference game, if they’re outside the footprint.
“So what it’s given us is, it’s given a chance for Ohio State to play Oklahoma and Wisconsin to play LSU, and so on and so forth. And so I think that really matters, from a scheduling (standpoint). I think it’s given some Big Ten schools a chance to take advantage of it, especially this past weekend.”
It’s good for ratings; is it good for bowl eligibility?
The stats agree. According to numbers culled from various sources by SportsMediaWatch.com, 29 Big Ten nonconference games in 2015 that were tracked on the site averaged 2.4 million viewers; the 34 league games listed were watched by an average of 3.37 million — or almost a million more per contest. And that doesn’t include the 9.8 million that reportedly tuned in to the league championship game between Michigan State and Iowa.
As for Fitzgerald’s concerns about the postseason crunch, a major gripe for the have-nots, the precedent is less conclusive. The Pac-12, when it was still at 10 schools, switched from eight league games to nine in 2006. In the previous five seasons before the change, the conference sent an average of 5.6 schools out of 10 to the postseason.
From 2006 through 2010, after adding a conference game, it sent an average of … 5.6 schools out of 10 to the postseason. A push.
Can the Power 5 find common ground?
The more practical concern is comparative imbalance among Power 5 leagues. SEC coaches have opposed going to nine conference games for all the reasons outlined above. The Big 12 went to nine games, a true round-robin, in 2011. The ACC will vote Oct. 5-6 whether to add a game to its league schedule or keep it at eight and demand two Power 5 nonconference games per school.
“All of the Power 5 (leagues) should be on the same page,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “With this College Football Playoff, if we’re going to play nine, (we) all play nine, because we’re all going to be judged, at the end, on the schedule part, and it helps us right now.
“Nothing’s going to be completely equal across the board, because there’s too many things you can’t control. But the one thing we can control is, ‘Hey, we’re going to play nine conference games.’ ”
Or 10. Eventually.
“I may get yelled at for it, but I’d rather be at 10 (league game), five (home) and five (away),” Fitzgerald said. “I think four and five, the side with five (at home) has a game advantage that not only has to do with wins total, but then has to do potentially with bowl pecking order.”
“I’ll be totally shocked,” DiNardo added, “if we don’t go to 10 in five or six years.”
Because the only two things every cat in the Big Ten herd can agree on when it comes to adding league games is that a), No matter how much you gripe, it’s here; and b), Now that it’s here, for better or worse, there’s no turning back.