Big Ten athletic directors will meet several times over the next few months to hammer out some key decisions for the 2014 season and beyond. The most pressing, and arguably most important, issue will involve figuring out how many times to play each other during the season.
League officials chose to stay with eight conference games per season after Nebraska joined the league in 2011. But when Maryland and Rutgers come aboard next year, that could change. ESPN.com interviewed several conference athletic directors, who confirmed that a nine- and even a 10-game league schedule are on the table in the upcoming discussions.
"That’s something that we have to really resolve quickly, because the ramifications of that discussion are significant," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told ESPN.com. "It’s a high-agenda item."
The reason for the priority is obvious: More conference games means fewer nonconference opportunities. Some schools, like Nebraska and Minnesota, already have four out-of-league opponents lined up for the 2014 season and beyond, while others are waiting to see what the league decides before signing contracts with future opponents.
The Big Ten announced in August 2011 that it would go to a nine-game league schedule. That was scrapped a few months later when the Pac-12/Big Ten alliance was brokered, but then that agreement was canceled the following spring before it ever began. Athletic directors we talked to were at the very least interested in revisiting the nine-game schedule idea.
Commissioner Jim Delany has said he'd like to see more conference games. Brandon and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith both told ESPN.com that they favored that idea when the Big Ten balloons to 14 teams.
"As the conference expands, it would be unfortunate if a student-athlete came to the University of Michigan, played in the Big Ten Conference for four years and never even got to play or compete against one of the schools in the conference," Brandon said. "That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As the number of institutions has grown, I believe we should take a look at at least moving to nine."
"I would like to go to nine or 10," Smith said.
Of the major conferences, only the Pac-12 and Big 12 currently play nine league games per season. No FBS conference plays 10 league games per year. The main advantage of adopting the latter, more radical idea would be balancing the conference schedule. Every team would then play five home and five road league contests, instead of having years with five road conference games and only four at home in a nine-game slate.
"Nine is challenging because of the statistical advantage for the home team over time," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said. "If you have some teams with five home games and others with only four, do you really have a true champion? To some people, that is a stumbling block."
But a 10-game schedule would bring its own share of obstacles. Such a plan leaves only two nonconference games and could make schools less inclined to play home-and-home intersectional matchups versus big-name opponents.
For example, Ohio State has already scheduled several high-profile series for the future, including home-and-home deals with Oregon, Texas and TCU. But with a 10-game conference schedule, the Buckeyes would have only six home games in years when it traveled to play opponents like the Ducks, Longhorns or Horned Frogs -- assuming it decided to keep those series.
"Most of us need seven home games in order to make our local budgets," Smith said. "Is there a way to overcome that? I don't know. We'll have to look at that. The conference is aware that it's an issue."
Would the extra inventory of conference games add enough value to the Big Ten's next TV contract to make up for the loss of home dates? Smith also points out that, with only two nonconference games, schools could potentially avoid paying huge guarantees to lower-level conference teams to fill out their schedule. Such teams are routinely getting $1 million or more to play sacrificial lamb against power programs in their giant stadiums.
Still, giving up home games is not a popular idea in a tough economic climate.
"Let’s face it, we have a stadium that we’re putting 112,000 people in every week," Brandon said. "It doesn’t make a lot of sense to be shutting that stadium down and not playing as many events, and going to places where you’re playing in front of crowds that are far less. We have to think about that financial consideration, and how do we leverage the assets we have in the most positive way for the conference and all the institutions?"
The forthcoming four-team playoff also complicates matters. Strength of schedule is expected to be a main component for the playoff selection committee. Would playing 10 games in the conference help or hurt Big Ten teams? In years when the league was viewed as down, like in 2012, it would most likely damage a league contender's chances, not to mention that 10 conference games means seven more guaranteed losses for Big Ten teams.
"I think [a 10-game schedule] could work if you're trying to schedule strong opponents in those other two games as well," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "The decision is, are you going to play two, three or four games outside of conference? I think a lot of it will depend on what the feeling is on how that would affect strength of schedule."
So a nine-game schedule appears to be a more likely option, but the thorny problem of an unbalanced number of home games remains. Could the league try to get creative, and perhaps add more neutral-site conference games to the mix? Anything and everything appears to be up for discussion.
"Maybe you could do it divisionally, where one division plays five home games one year, and then that division plays four home games [the next year]," Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said. "I don’t know. But it should be interesting.”
That last part is the only guarantee right now.