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Football: Notes and thoughts on the Big Ten’s “Flex Protect Plus” scheduling model for 2024 and 2025

Massive changes are coming to the Big Ten in 2024 and beyond.

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Some big changes are coming to the Big Ten.

Earlier this week, the Big Ten unveiled a new schedule model which will be implemented for the 2024 and 2025 seasons. With the arrival of USC and UCLA to the conference, the higher-ups have scrapped the divisional structure in favor of a more balanced plan.

With the “Flex Protect Plus” model, each school was given up to three protected rivalries within the conference, ensuring those matchups will play every year. Every other team will be cycled through, so each team will play every Big Ten team at least once in a two-year span. For the 2024 and 2025 seasons, depending on the number of protected rivalries the team was given, some teams will also have two-play opponents, setting up a home-and-away series.

A few quick notes and takeaways from this arrangement:

  • Northwestern’s lone protected rival is Illinois (more on this below), so the Land of Lincoln Trophy isn’t going anywhere.
  • Poor Penn State. No protected rivals. That being said, not having to play Michigan and Ohio State every year should bode well for a team who will definitely be in the mix for the new 12-team College Football Playoff, also kicking off in 2024.
  • Iowa is the only team in the conference with three protected rivals (Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin) while five teams have two protected games.
  • The ‘Cats were unlucky drawing Ohio State as a two-play opponent for 2024 and 2025, as the Buckeyes are one of the most consistently dominant programs in the country. Purdue is the other team the Wildcats will face in both seasons.
  • In 2024, Northwestern will welcome both new teams to the conference with a trip to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA and a home matchup against USC.
  • Without divisions, the conference championship will now feature the two best records in the Big Ten, allowing for a potential Ohio State-Michigan matchup and forever erasing our beautiful, upside-down mess that is the Big Ten West (enjoy this last season). This model also should allow three or four Big Ten teams to consistently be in the mix for the expanded playoffs.
  • In the 2024 season, Northwestern will not face either Iowa or Wisconsin. Northwestern has played both programs every season since 2012. In 2025, the Wildcats will not face Nebraska for the first time since 2010 and Minnesota for the first time since 2006 (excluding the altered 2020 season).

Did the conference get Northwestern’s rivalries correct?

I’ll start by stating I think the Big Ten did an admirable job crafting this new format. It does a nice job balancing tradition with competitive equality and should lead to a fun conference gauntlet. The flexible protection plan is smart in the way it does not bill any arbitrary matchups as “rivalries” by mandating each team have a certain number. Nobody needs to try and pretend that UCLA-Indiana is a great historical matchup. Could Ohio State-Penn State have been protected? Yeah, probably, However, the design committee overall did a solid job.

For Northwestern, the committee was spot on declaring Illinois a rival. No need to mess with that, but it is worth wondering whether the Wildcats deserved a second protected game. Here are a handful of options the committee could have looked at, ranked by how compelling of a case they have for a rivalry with Northwestern:

  1. Purdue Boilermakers: The two teams have faced off 86 times in history and are actually geographically closer than Northwestern and Illinois. In recent years, the teams have traded punches. Since the turn of the century, the Wildcats and Boilermakers are an even 10-10 against each other and tend to be a very even matchup. If Northwestern were to have a second protected rival, this is the one that jumps out.
  2. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Hot take time! Although Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota have all faced Northwestern far more in their programs’ histories, ever since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the two teams have produced compelling football. In the Fitz Era, the teams are 6-6 against one another, with nine of those 12 contests being decided by a single possession. Seven bouts were settled by three points or fewer, and two went to overtime. Simply put, these teams put on a show.
  3. Iowa Hawkeyes: Much like the other matchups, Northwestern-Iowa has been a well-balanced matchup during Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure, with Northwestern holding a slight 8-7 advantage in the series since 2006. Between 2016 and 2021, the teams consistently faced off in gritty Big Ten rubber matches (minus a blowout in 2019) but ultimately Iowa is not higher on the list because the program already does have three protected rivalries that are just a bit more storied than the Hawkeyes history with Northwestern.
  4. Wisconsin Badgers: Since 2000, the Badgers, somewhat surprisingly, only boast a 9-8 record against the ‘Cats; but, as of late, the final scores have not reflected that level of competition. Each of the last seven matchups have been decided by multiple scores, regardless of which side comes out on top, including some lopsided recent finals such as 42-7 and 35-7. The rivalry, although storied, has begun to fizzle out.
  5. Minnesota Golden Gophers: Similar story to Wisconsin here. Northwestern is 8-7 against Minnesota under Coach Fitz, but the two teams have not played a close game since 2014. The average margin of victory in the seven games since (with Minnesota winning four of seven) is a whopping 23.4 points. Just not competitive football.

The new changes will have to wait a year to be implemented, making the upcoming season the end of an era for the conference. In 2023, it will be one last hurrah for the divisional format that has allowed Northwestern to reach the Big Ten Championship twice in the last five seasons. 2023 will also be the final year of traditional, midwestern Big Ten football (yes, Rutgers, Maryland and Penn State are all in the east, but you get the point) before the Big Ten spans coast-to-coast with the arrivals of USC and UCLA.