IOWA CITY, Iowa — No matter how hard the Big Ten tries, its football programs always find a way to schedule a siesta before the heart of league play.
When it was an eight-game Big Ten schedule, that happened on the fourth nonconference weekend. The league expanded to nine games, and here we are, still stuck in a September slumber.
Only one true Power 5 matchup is on the docket this week — Purdue at Missouri. Wisconsin’s trip to BYU is interesting, as are Michigan and Ohio State matchups against Air Force and Army, respectively. But collectively it’s a dud week. That’s why the Big Ten’s future schedules include conference games littered nearly every week.
Iowa’s nonconference finale fits alongside its Big Ten brethren. The Hawkeyes (2-0) play host to North Texas (1-1) at 2:30 p.m. CT (ESPN2). The Mean Green played in a bowl last season, but their profile is similar to Northern Illinois (at Nebraska) and Middle Tennessee State (at Minnesota).
|Big Ten teams||Power 5 nonconference opponents|
|Michigan State||Notre Dame|
Every team in the Big Ten — heck the nation — plays a team like North Texas, however no team nationally gets scrutinized for its nonconference schedule as much as Iowa. The Hawkeyes were slapped with the label “Fake ID” during their 2015 campaign despite playing Power 5 teams Iowa State and Pittsburgh, which was one touchdown from winning the ACC Coastal Division title that season.
“Every one of our games we expect to be tough,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s part of playing in the Big Ten.”
Of Iowa’s three nonconference games this season, two are against 2016 bowl teams (Wyoming, North Texas). The other was a road game at instate rival Iowa State, a member of the Big 12 Conference. That’s not dissimilar to Northwestern traveling to Duke, Indiana playing at Virginia, or Minnesota flying to Oregon State.
Among Power 5 schools plus Notre Dame, only four scheduled 11 fellow Power 5 opponents this season: Purdue, Texas, USC and California. Of the three conferences that play nine conferences games — Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 — only Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Utah, Arizona, Washington State and Colorado didn’t schedule at least 10 Power 5 opponents. Wisconsin and Utah do play BYU, which is not a Power 5 program but carries similar prestige.
In the SEC, which plays only eight conference games, only four teams play more than just nine Power 5 opponents. In the ACC, which also plays just eight league games, barely half (eight) play 10 Power 5 teams. Notre Dame also plays just nine.
In that view, Iowa is among 42 of the 65 schools that will play at least 10 Power 5 opponents this season. But Iowa fans and foes alike still take shots at the Hawkeyes’ schedule.
Iowa’s past, present, future schedules
Before the Big Ten expanded its league schedule to nine games in 2016, Iowa scheduled four nonconference opponents from 2006 through 2015. The program’s philosophy was to play Iowa State every year, another BCS/Power 5 opponent, a mid-major (usually a MAC squad) and an “opponent,” which often was an FCS squad. After the ninth Big Ten game was added, Iowa chopped the second Power 5 opponent.
The Cy-Hawk series’ value comes up frequently among Iowa fans. Wisconsin previously has opened its season against Alabama and LSU and has a two-game series scheduled with Notre Dame. Nebraska played Oregon the last two seasons and has future games set up with Colorado and Oklahoma. Iowa has played Iowa State annually since 1977. While the rivalry is red-hot in Iowa, it doesn’t boost either squad’s reputation beyond the state borders.
“It’s fun in some ways and it hamstrings you in other ways, and it’s important that those two are said together,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. “I love the college rivalry, the state rivalry. I’ve said that many, many times publicly. But because of doing that every year, [it] probably takes us out of a few other opportunities.”
Iowa officials have had discussions with other schools and venue operators about neutral-site opportunities. That would have cost them a year or two of the Cy-Hawk Series, which was scheduled through 2021. Nothing could get worked out, however, and the schools extended their contract through 2023.
“Before you sign the next one, you always think about your options,” Barta said. “We ended up where we ended up. We extended it.”
|Northern Illinois||$1 million|
|Miami (Ohio)||$1 million|
|Middle Tenn. State||$1.55 million|
|Northern Illinois||$1.1 million|
It’s convenient for fans to complain about nonconference scheduling and simply demand Iowa add another game against a name program. But that is far from easy. In fact, scheduling requires a delicate balance with finances and program needs at the forefront.
Iowa athletics earns about $5 million from each home game. Based on its budget, the department needs seven home games to generate the required revenue. Another Power 5 opponent isn’t going to play at Kinnick Stadium without expecting a return trip. A lucrative neutral-site game could negate the lost revenue of a home game, but it also has drawbacks.
“It would have to be balanced financially,” Barta said. “After that we’d still have to decide, do we really want to leave the confines of Kinnick Stadium to do something like that? Again, we’ve considered it. If it’s right, the right opponent, right year, we’ll keep it mind.
“We’ve looked at it before, we’ll keep looking at it, but we don’t have one scheduled right now, obviously.”
If the program played a neutral-site game in Chicago or Kansas City — even for the same amount of money — hundreds of Iowa City-area athletics donors would lose significant revenue from that lost weekend, from unfilled hotel rooms to restaurants.
“There’s all sorts of factors,” Barta said. “Competitive, fans and their ability to get to the game, financial — they’re all included when you try to figure one of those things out. You have more flexibility when you don’t have an annual rivalry against a Power 5 [opponent], more flexibility when we had eight Big Ten games. You factor all of that in.”
Iowa has its schedule filled through 2019 and is looking for one nonconference opponent in 2020 and two in 2021. It’s unlikely the Hawkeyes will fill any of their openings with a Power 5 opponent.
“It’s hard because you want to have a good schedule, a schedule that’s going to challenge you,” Barta said.
“You try to do the best you can and pick programs that are consistently at a certain level.”