On Sunday, the Big Ten made official what we already knew for a few weeks: The conference will switch to East and West divisions in 2014 — Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers in the East, and Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin in the West — and the it will switch to nine conference games in 2016. The nine-game schedule will allow all teams to play each other at least once in each four-year period.
The new piece of information is that the East Division teams will have five conference home games in even-numbered years, while the West Division will have five conference home games in odd-numbered years. That means in the first season, Northwestern will have four conference home games and five conference away games, which will likely lead to scheduling changes.
Right now, NU has four non-conference games scheduled for that season — Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke and at Stanford — so one of those games has to go. The most likely cut will be Illinois State, since according to Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Big Ten schools have all agreed to stop scheduling FCS teams. That would leave the Wildcats with six home games if the schedule stays as is, but we could see some changes coming. Most schools like to have seven home games each season, and while NU has had six conference games some years — most recently in 2011 — Pat Fitzgerald told BTN's Tom Dienhart that having seven home games is the goal:
"We need to be on top and schedule accordingly—we need seven home games. That is important for us."
It's especially important considering the Wrigley Field deal will take one of NU's "home" games each year. If the Wildcats play a game at Wrigley Field in 2016 and keep the schedule as is, they would have just five home games in a 12-game season, which wouldn't be ideal. That means they'll likely have to figure something out with Stanford.
One choice would be to switch the 2015 and 2016 games — sending NU to Palo Alto in 2015 — but that would leave the Wildcats with six home games in 2015 (at Duke and at Stanford) so it wouldn't be very productive. To make matters more difficult, the Pac-12 also has a nine-game schedule, so Stanford has worked out its home/away non-conference schedule for the foreseeable future.
The Stanford series runs from 2015 to 2016, skips 2017 and 2018, then runs from 2019 through 2022. The Duke series runs from 2015 through 2018. Could move the game at Duke back to 2019, changing the series from away/home/away/home to home/away/home/away? Theoretically it would work, since NU would have five conference home games, non-conference home games against Stanford and Syracuse, and an away game at Duke. However, that would be a very difficult non-conference season, with all three games coming against high-major schools.
Really, the only options are to move that Duke game back to 2019, drop a game in the series — neither Duke, nor Stanford will want to voluntarily drop a home game unless it gets a lot of money — or play six games one year. There's still a lot of time until 2016, but schedules typically get decided far in advance, so the clock is already ticking for Jim Phillips and company to figure this out.