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What Big Ten Schedule Talks Mean for Northwestern

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

The Big Ten has been discussing the possibility of moving to nine league games for a while now, and while that eventually seems inevitable, the league has stayed at an eight-game slate for now. Now, according to ESPN's Big Ten blog, the conference is exploring a nine-game, or possibly even 10-game slate for the 2014 and the foreseeable future.

Let me first say that I don't think a 10-game conference slate will ever happen. Considering how important records, as opposed to strength of schedule, are for rankings and bowl eligibility, there's no way the Big Ten athletic directors will agree to play 10 conference games. They need the cupcakes to pad their schedules. However, a nine-game conference schedule is a very legitimate possibility, and it could have an impact on how everyone schedules games, including Northwestern.

Obviously, it's always great to see another conference game. Presumably that boosts strength of schedule and allows for shorter hiatuses between when conference opponents see each other — that will be especially true with the Big Ten expanding to 14, and possibly even 16 teams. However, it also means the loss of top non-conference games, since teams typically aren't willing to schedule a tough non-conference matchup with the knowledge that they'll be playing one more of those tough matchups during conference season.

Typically, Big Ten teams like to make sure they have at least seven home games to make sure they get enough money from gate receipts. Northwestern is one of the few exceptions to that rule. While the Wildcats would prefer seven home games, they've been okay with having six before for a number of reasons. To name a couple, gate receipts for early-season non-conference games aren't that good since students aren't on campus — plus, general fan interest for NU vs. [insert cupcake here] isn't particularly high — and the national exposure of playing BCS conference teams in home-and-homes is important for NU.

However, a nine or ten game conference schedule will certainly cut down on the number of home-and-homes the Wildcats can have with other BCS conference schools, from an economic and competitive perspective. Let's break it down with each scenario.

Nine-game conference schedule

In this case, NU would have nine conference games and three non-conference games. One of those non-conference games will be against an FCS team no matter what, so that automatically takes away the possibility of having three BCS conference matchups from home-and-home series each year. That doesn't happen all that often anyways, but it would have in 2013 with Cal, Syracuse and Vanderbilt had the Commodores not cancelled that game.

In a nine-game conference schedule, NU would alternate with having four or five home games each year. In years when there are five conference home games, theoretically only one of the non-conference games (the cupcake game) would have to be at home, but NU would certainly make sure it had at least one of its home-and-homes at home that year if two were scheduled. In years when there are four conference home games, at least one of two home-and-homes would have to be at home in addition to the cupcake game just to get to six home games.

In all likelihood, if the conference went to a nine-game conference schedule, NU would have to significantly cut down the number of home-and-homes that schedules. I would expect something like this, for most years:

- One home-and-home with a BCS conference team (opponent coming to Evanston on the four home game years)
- One MAC team
- One FCS team

Of course, there could theoretically be some years when there were two BCS opponents scheduled (one at home, one on the road). After all, NU has always been aggressive in its scheduling. Would Pat Fitzgerald really want to play 11 BCS conference opponents each season? Doubtful. But regardless of how things would play out exactly, there would be far fewer home-and-homes than there currently are.

Ten-game conference schedule

Again, I don't think this will happen, but since the Big Ten athletic directors are apparently discussing it, we might as well, too. In this case, NU would have five conference home games each year and only two non-conference games. One of those games will certainly be against a MAC or FCS team to get to six games.

That brings us to the same question as posed in the previous section: Would NU be willing to play 11 games against BCS opponents, especially considering it would mean six home games every other year? Again, doubtful. In this case, I'd expect seven home games almost every year, with games against MAC and FCS teams.

What this all means

Of the two options on the table, the nine-game conference schedule seems the most likely. In fact, it's probably more likely than the eight-game schedule that is currently used. It's tough to tell exactly what NU would do, and maybe there are some years when the Wildcats would play two home-and-homes, though it's certainly not likely.

If the nine-game conference schedule is adopted, expect to see fewer home-and-homes, and certainly never a year with three BCS non-conference opponents. Looking at this year's conference schedule (at Cal, vs. Syracuse, vs. Western Michigan, vs. Maine) it's likely that under a nine-game slate, one of the series against BCS teams would be dropped, with the remaining one being at home in years when there are four Big Ten games.

With the new era of "superconferences," we're likely to see this all across college football — more intra-conference play and less non-conference play. Let us know your thoughts with the schedule repercussions in mind: would you prefer the Big Ten to have eight, nine or 10 game conference schedules once Rutgers, Maryland and possibly others join the league?