IOWA CITY, Iowa — If the college football offseason were shaped as a racetrack, the offseason horse is approaching the short distance between turns three and four.
No horse — or program — wins the race at this juncture, but it can lose it. Often the details comprise the most interesting part of this race, and the topic currently consuming many college football fans is the schedule. It’s not about who plays whom; that was decided years ago. It’s about which Big Ten games are slated at night.
Usually, the league rolls out those times right about … now. Or … now. But this year is different. The Big Ten has an agreement with FOX Sports/FS1 for first-tier television rights and with ESPN’s family of networks for the second tier. The number of night games will soar from roughly 18 to around 30, including from six to 18 on networks operated by FOX and ESPN. Those logistical issues are more complicated than fans and media understand, but it doesn’t end the speculation.
With 30 night games on the schedule, and none the final two weeks, the prime-time slate is a mix between showcase games and incidental schedule fillers. The Ohio State-Penn State game generally is earmarked for prime time, and this year even more so. Others are slotted more randomly, such as Iowa-Minnesota in 2015.
For the first time, networks can flex games into prime time by using the 12-day rule. That makes predicting night games a little more challenging than previously.
The Hawkeyes played in three prime-time games last year — at home against Iowa State and Michigan, on the road at Penn State. With the jump in the Big Ten’s overall prime-time games, let’s break down which Iowa games could air at night this year on a scale of 1 (unlikely) to 10 (likely).
Sept. 2: vs. Wyoming
Typically, these season openers in Iowa City are played at either 11 a.m. or possibly 2:30 p.m. Wyoming is not a typical opponent, however. The Cowboys were Mountain West Conference divisional champions last year and feature the NFL’s potential No.1 overall draft pick in QB Josh Allen. Wyoming has only one other game against a Power 5 opponent in Oregon, and that game is slated for CBS Sports Network. Outside of the monster Florida-Michigan game, Iowa-Wyoming is the next-best Big Ten game that day. Usually you’d place Florida-Michigan in prime time and this game at 2:30 p.m. But with the Fox/ESPN relationship, I think this one shifts to night. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 8
Sept. 9: at Iowa State
Plenty of high-profile games litter the Big Ten schedule that day, ranging from Oklahoma-Ohio State and Pittsburgh-Penn State to Nebraska-Oregon and Northwestern-Duke. The Iowa-Iowa State football game is the state’s biggest event every year. Television networks have aired it either in prime time or late afternoon in three of the last four years. I think the late-afternoon kickoff happens again. I can see FOX or FS1 broadcasting Iowa-Iowa State at 5 p.m. CT, with maybe Nebraska-Oregon kicking off at 9 p.m. CT. Does that count for prime time? I say yes. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 8
Sept. 16: vs. North Texas
This is the least marketable game on Iowa’s schedule and for the Big Ten. There aren’t many Big Ten games of value on the day’s schedule — the only Power 5 game is Purdue at Missouri — but North Texas-Iowa is one of the least-interesting games. If BTN or FS1 needs a night game, maybe it moves to prime time. But based on what’s coming up for Iowa, I doubt it. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 2
Sept. 23: vs. Penn State
This has prime time written all over it. The only other Big Ten game with a shot is Notre Dame-Michigan State, but neither team qualified for a bowl game last year. The defending Big Ten champion Nittany Lions won 12 games and Iowa won eight a year ago. They played in prime-time last November at Happy Valley, and four of their last five games have aired at night. The scene after Iowa’s prime-time upset of Michigan the week after losing to Penn State should motivate television executives to make this a prime-time game. Heck, ESPN’s College GameDay could make its first appearance in Iowa City since 2006. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 9.5
Sept. 30: at Michigan State
It’s unusual for Iowa to play consecutive night games, which actually happened last year, but this has a chance as well. The teams battled to the final seconds in the 2015 Big Ten title game, and this is their first meeting since the Spartans’ 16-13 epic win. The only game with more cache is Northwestern-Wisconsin, although Ohio State at Rutgers could vault past both games based on demographics. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 8
Oct. 7: vs. Illinois
This is Iowa’s homecoming game, which usually means an 11 a.m. CT kickoff. Also, this is perhaps the least-interesting matchup on the Big Ten slate. It’s unlikely the sun sets on this game. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 2
Oct. 21: at Northwestern
Outside of Michigan-Penn State, no other game on the Big Ten’s slate screams “prime time.” This series — which is as hotly contested as any non-trophy, second-tier rivalry in the Big Ten — could slide in as the second night game. It probably airs in another time slot to balance out the schedule. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 4
Oct. 28: vs. Minnesota
The Penn State-Ohio State game is automatic for prime time. The Minnesota-Iowa game is as compelling as any other on this week’s schedule. The last time the teams met at Kinnick Stadium, it aired in prime time. More than likely, it shifts to a different time window to balance it out the schedule. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 5
Nov. 4: vs. Ohio State
Like the Iowa-Penn State game, I’d place this one in the probability slot. Ohio State is the conference’s flagship football program, and that includes TV ratings. Iowa will have a stadium full of rabid fans. The Buckeyes haven’t played in Iowa City in seven years, and the Hawkeyes are prone to prime-time stunners at Kinnick Stadium. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 9.5
Nov. 11: at Wisconsin
Iowa-Wisconsin is as fierce of a Big Ten rivalry as there is, and probably the most competitive in the West Division. It could land in prime time, but that depends more on Ohio State-Michigan State. The Buckeyes are TV’s priority, and if the Spartans are competitive, then it’s probably a prime-time game. If not, the annual slugfest between the Badgers and Hawkeyes could get flexed under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 6.5
Nov. 18: vs. Purdue
The Big Ten remains unlikely to stretch prime-time football into the final two weeks of the regular season. If so, this game ranks at or near the bottom of the Big Ten list. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 1
Nov. 24: at Nebraska
The Big Ten has no plans to play outdoors in prime time in late November. This game already has a special Friday status, so it’s even more unlikely it would air at night. PRIME-TIME POSSIBILITY: 1