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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What a 16 Team Big Ten Might Look Like: Football


Football is the engine that drives the league. A 16 team football league isn’t unprecedented, the Western Athletic Conference was 16 teams until the Mountain West schools broke away in 1999 (With TCU joining in 2001).

Sixteen schools, put bluntly, is tricky. The obvious solution is to have two 8 team divisions. I’ll get into alignment in a minute, but let’s think about this for a second.

Two 8 team divisions...

FBS schools have a 12 game season. Divisional play would take up 7 games. If the Big Ten follows what what practically every other league in the nation does (Except Pac 10 and what used to be the Big East), it would play 8 game conference slate. This means that if you have permanent geographical division (East/West or North/South) , then you play schools in the other division once every 8 years. This means that if you are Illinois and in the Big 16 West… that Ohio State comes to town to play for that turtle once every 16 years. Now, there are two solutions. One is to tinker with the number of games, maybe play a 9 or 10 game conference schedule.
More games?

Want to play more Big Ten teams more often? How about we play more league games? Big Ten gets more conference games to broadcast, and the conference season is more intriguing. So what about playing 10 conference games? Under this scenario, schools play opponents from the other division 6 out of 16 years, or a little more than once every 3 years, on average.

The downside? Well.

Last year the league went 32-12 in outside of Big Ten play (not including bowls), or won 72% of non-conference matchups.


Well, as has been the case in every single season of big ten play ever, league schools have won 50% of games against themselves. 50% is less than 72%. Simply put, playing more Big Ten games means Big Ten schools LOSE MORE GAMES. These loses won’t be evenly distributed, but you start converting wins to loses, and it means a lower percentage of Big Ten/16/whatever schools will get 6 wins in a given year, or maybe that 10 win school gets knocked down to 9 wins… it has an effect. This is especially problematic when presumably all of our rivals will still play 8.

Let’s do a bit more math with this. If in a 16 team league, there are 8 league games each year, then there will be 64 non-league games. Using last year as a measuring stick, you would expect the Big 16 to go 46-18 in those games. This is just under 3 wins average per school, meaning that 3-5 teams should go to bowl games, and the “average” big ten school should finish 7-5.

If you have 9 Big Ten games, then you have 48 non-league games annually. The league would be expected to win 34 or 35 of them, just over 2 per team. With 9 league games the “average” school would be 4.5-4.5 in the conference (with schools with 5 home games having a slight edge), and with the “average” Big Ten school getting 2 non-conference wins, the “average” Big Ten school should finish with just over 6.5 wins and just under 5.5 loses… meaning fewer bowl eligible teams.

If you have 10 league games, then you have just 32 non-conference games. The Big Ten should win 23 of those, or just under 1.5 wins per school. Using the same numbers, in a ten game schedule, the average big ten school would finish with just under 6.5 wins, meaning closer to half of the league would be bowl eligible, and schools would have to go 4-6 in the league to be able to “back door” into bowl eligibility.

Schools like to play 7 home games. Last year the Big Ten had 77 home games and two neutral site games. That’s exactly 7 home games per school. If you play 10 league games a year, that is 5 home and 5 away games with two games left to schedule. That means that every team in the league either plays FCS or MAC schools each year, and NEVER (or once in a blue moon) plays a road game in the non-conference season, in order to get to 7 home games. Increasing the number of league games means fewer home games for league schools. This means less gate (less season ticket revenue) and fewer games for the league to broadcast.

Basically, going to 10 games is not going to happen. Playing 9 games is semi-feasible, but it has its own issues. An 8 game schedule is the likely future for the Big Ten.

Division Alignment

In order to have a championship game, there needs to be divisions. With 16 teams, this means two groups of 8 teams, with the champion of each group squaring off in a Big Ten Championship Game which is sure to make all the schools even richer.

The methodology, and politics, of choosing good divisions, is complicated. For reasons I’m about to highlight, simple geographic divisions (east/west, north/south) are not doable. The ideal scenario will have constantly shifting divisions, with a school potentially able to win one division one year and the other division the next.

Geographic Divisions

Here is what the alignment would be with Geographic Divisions:

Big 16 with East and West Divisions

Big 16 East
Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

Big 16 West

Big 16 with North and South Divisions

Big 16 North
Michigan State

Big 16 South
Ohio State
Penn State

Obviously there are a multitude of problems with the scenarios outlined above.

For starters, no matter how you slice it, Big Rivalry Games will be broken up. Indiana/Purdue or especially Michigan/Ohio State happening once every 8 years can’t happen. Purely geographic divisions CANNOT happen, plain and simple. So what are the alternatives?

“Pod” System
In this system, the Big Ten is broken up into 4 “pods” of four teams each.



Michigan State
Ohio State

Penn State

With this system, there would be two non-geographic division, which for the sake of argument we will call the “Great Lakes” and “Heartland” divisions. The pods would be paired interchangeably, with groups of four schools always playing in the same division. Each pod would be matched against another pod, which would rotate every two years, as shown below.

YearsGreat Lakes DivisionHeartland Division
2013-14Western and EasternNorthern and Central
2015-2016Western and NorthernEastern and Central
2017-18Central and WesternNorthern and Eastern

This will give schools 7 conference games each year. The eighth game could be used to reinforce rivalries or create TV matchups. It could be used to balance schedules, with traditionally strong teams pairing off and traditionally weaker teams playing each other. It could also be purely random, and used to balance the number of times schools square off over a long period of time.

The advantage of this system is that teams will ALWAYS play the same three opponents within their pod. They will play the other 12 schools at least twice in a six year period. Depending how the 8th game is used, it could make sure that schools play rivals outside their pods more often, or used to ensure an additional game against each big ten opponent once every 8 years.

The disadvantage with this system is that rivals in a pod can never play each other in the Big Ten title game (so no Michigan vs. Ohio State). In theory, the pods could be realigned every 6 years to reflect changing strengths of programs.

Rivals System

In this system, schools are paired up into rivals. The divisions can be aligned a number of ways, but the basic premise is that traditional rivals CANNOT be in the same division. Instead, the 8th game (the non-division game) is played between rivals and all other division games are played amongst

Method A: Historical Strength

The list below ranks the schools in the Big Ten by the average number of wins in the last 10 years.

To create divisions, the highest ranked team (Ohio State) is chosen, and put into Division A. It’s rival (Michigan) is then put into Division B. The highest ranked team remaining is then put into Division B, with its rival put into Division A. This alternating method is repated for all 16 schools:

Group A averaged 6.66 wins and Group B averaged 7.01. To even these numbers out, Rutgers and Syracuse were swapped, creating the divisions below.

In this system, the idea is that the league would use the same divisions four two years, and then re-align them using a system to ensure ideally even strength. The upside is that rivals always play each year, rivals could play in the Big 16 Championship Game, and divisions should be even.

The downside is that in theory two schools could go VERY VERY long stretches of time without playing each other

Method B: Random Pairs

In this method, schools would be paired just like above, and put into opposite divisions. Instead of resorting teams into

Before – four pairs chosen at random to swap

After – new division alignment.

Here, every two years a school would play (regardless of whether they swapped divisions or not):Their Rival
  • 3 games against teams they played the prior year
  • 4 games against schools they had not played for at least two years.
Now, in practice some schools would go 4 or 6 years without playing, but across a long period of time, schools would play each other 50% of the time, even if its 4 years on, 6 off, 2 on, 2 off, 4 on, 2 off, and so on.

Big Ten Championship Game:
The Big Ten Championship game is the crown jewel of the football season.

Here’s a list of NFL stadiums located in the Big 16 footprint. (Green indicates “core”, Red indicates “fringe”)

The stadiums listed in green above are, at least in my opinion, ideally suited to host a centralized Championship game. Having a Big Ten title game out in the New York Metro area is a bit of a stretch, but since no other conference would claim it, and there is a new Meadowlands Stadium, it might work out. Not counting the Carrier Dome, there are four domes which could be used.

Indianapolis seems like the most logical site, it is central, new, and of at least decent capacity.

Another random thought is this…. There are three stadiums with at least 100,000 seats in the Big Ten footprint, and 10 of the 16 potential league stadiums have a capacity of over 65,000 (12 with over 60,000 seats). The Big Ten title game could potentially done ON CAMPUS. With the number of luxury suites a Big Ten stadium has, it’s not a real stretch. It’s a bit crazy, but it would be cool to see the game rotate around the league (obviously seating would be split evenly between the teams, regardless who qualifies). It’s not going to happen, but it would be neat.

The Season:
Most years there are 13 weeks between Labor Day weekend (the start of the season) and Thanksgiving, with the Conference Championship games on Week 14. Traditionally, the Big Ten has started league play on Week 4, and wrapped up action in Week 12, with no games on Week 13 or 14 (unless schools schedule non-conference games then). This gives schools 0 bye weekends. Illinois obviously has tinkered with that the last couple season. Every few years (about 2 of every 7 years), the calendar aligns just right for the first weekend to be August 30 or 31st, and there are 15 weeks to the season. This is when the NCAA allowed a 12th game before making 12 permanent a few seasons ago.

This year will be the first season the Big Ten schedule has stretched to Week 13, and will allow each school a bye game. While Illinois and Wisconsin will play in December in 2011 and 2012, when (if) the Mega-Conference arrives, the league in most years will have 13 weeks of play to schedule 12 games for 16 teams.

Adding it up, 16 schools playing 8 conference games each is 64 games (8x8). Another 64 games would be played involving non-conference opponents (16x4). So there will be, in an average year, 128 Big Ten games.
If you assume an average of 7 home games, then the league has 64 conference and 48 non-conference games (that’s 112 games) that it owns each year…. and needs to find a way to squeeze into 13 weekends of overage.

League Play starts Week 3
In order to maximize revenue, conference play should start in week 3. This still gives teams 2 weeks to warm up, but allows for 11 weekends for schools to play 8 league games, allowing for the most profitable of games to be spread out more evenly. This would make for 5.82 league games per week (meaning 10 or 12 schools play conference games weekly).

Right now the Big East and Big 12 have of their “national” games on ESPN or ABC, so it fits well into ESPN’s lineup. With 5 extra teams (and therefore 24 extra games), the Big Ten should pick up at least one game on the major networks each week. Considering we just slaughtered the Big East and castrated the Big 12, it should be expected.

On a typical weekend during league play nowadays, there are 5 conference games and 1 non-conference game. Typically, 3-4 of those league games are on ESPN or ABC, with 2-3 games on the Big Ten Network. Usually there will be split coverage on the BTN at 11AM, with 1-2 games on ESPN and ESPN at the same time. At 2:30 ABC has a Big Ten game, and there is a primetime game on either the BTN or ABC (at least until November)

The first thing the Big Whatever needs to do is drop the stupid objection to November Night games.

In a typical Big 16 weekend there will be 5-6 league games (under my plan), with 2-4 non-conference games. Because there are 8 or 9 games each week, “exclusivity” needs to go. Ideally there will be 4-5 games on the ESPN family of networks each week, and 4 games on the Big Ten Network.

ESPN would have two 11AM games, a 2:30 game on ABC, and a primetime game on ABC or ESPN. There would also be a fifth “floating” game some weeks either at 2:30 or primetime on either ESPN or ABC.

Non-Conference games each week would typically be at 11AM on BTN (3 games, split by geography) with a Prime Time or 2:30 BTN game (either low-mid tier conference game or a non-conference game) each week.

Embrace Thursday… kinda
Playing games on Thursday is pretty controversial, I will admit. Frankly, I can’t say I’m a fan, but I’m also a realist. The league should aim to have “a few” Thursday (or maybe Friday) games each year. Indiana has opened the season Thursday night last season and will this season too. I would operate it this way: The league would not force ANY school to play Thursday games, but it should offer a cash incentive ($100-200,000 maybe?) for schools to move games to Thursday. It gives the league a game it can sell at a premium, and reduces congestion on Saturday, making each of those games more profitable.

If schools want to take the money, great. IF they don’t, no problem.

Opening Weekend Blowout:
Presumably most Big Ten schools will have a home game the first weekend of the year. This creates a big mess for the league. Right now about 9 schools open up the season at home, meaning the league has to sell or produce 9 games on Saturday. Indiana playing on Thursday helps, but 8 in one day, with about 6 on the BTN is still a mess. Adding 5 non-conference games to the mix, presumable 4 of which in a league stadium, makes it even harder. Instead of trying to see if DirecTV can give them 9 overflow Channels, the BTN needs to figure out a way to spread out the games, and market Labor Day weekend as a way for schleps like us to spend as many hours as possible glued to the TV.

Proposed Solution: play games Thursday to Sunday (maybe Monday). The NFL season starts on the following weekend, and they don’t even play preseason games on that Sunday anymore. So why not?

Below is a proposed “opening Weekend” schedule, it takes into account who Big Ten teams are playing this season on the first weekend (except Illinois and Missouri, where future schedules are used)

7:30 ET/ 6:30 CT – Towson @ Indiana (BTN)
8 ET/ 7 CT – Norfolk State @ Rutgers (BTN)
12 ET / 11 CT – Eastern Illinois @ Iowa (BTN)
12 ET / 11 CT – Western Kentucky @ Nebraska (BTN)
12 ET / 11 CT – Western Michigan @ Michigan State (BTN)
12 ET / 11 CT – Marshall @ Ohio State (ESPN)
3:30 ET / 2:30 CT – Connecticut at Michigan (ABC)
7 ET / 6 CT – Arkansas State @ Illinois (BTN)
7 ET / 6 CT – Middle Tennessee @ Minnesota (BTN)
1 ET / 12 CT – Youngstown State @ Penn State (BTN)
4:30 ET / 3:30 CT – Murray State @ Missouri (BTN)

In addition, there would be the following away games:
Purdue – at Notre Dame – Saturday 1PM on NBC
Wisconsin – at UNLV - Saturday 10PM on Versus
Syracuse – at Akron – probably Saturday untelevised or on ESPN U or ESPN+.
Pittsburgh – at Utah – Thursday 7:30PM on Versus
Northwestern – at Vanderbilt – Saturday TBD

My thoughts:
As far as number of games goes, shockingly, only continuing to play 8 games makes sense.
Either the “pods” system or the “random pairs” makes the most sense. The “historical strength” option has its merits, but the fact that it does not guarantee schools play each other doesn’t make it feasible. The ideal alignment system should have schools play rivals slightly more often, and ensure they play all other schools in the Big Ten

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