The Big Ten scheduling paradigm is shifting, both within and outside the league.
More conference games are on the way, and the Big Ten has urged its members to upgrade their non-league schedules, mindful of the upcoming College Football Playoff. We're seeing more big-time series and more blockbuster neutral-site games like Wisconsin vs. Alabama to kick off the 2015 season.
But one Big Ten team finds itself a bit stuck with the new model: Iowa. The Hawkeyes have their annual game against in-state rival Iowa State, which has taken place every year since 1977. The schools have a contract to meet every year through 2017. Like most of its Big Ten brethren, Iowa wants/needs to play seven home games per season to meet its athletic budget. Since Iowa State is a rotating home-and-home series, it's tough for Iowa to add a second marquee non-league opponent.
"I'm not sure I envision playing 11 BCS teams," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz recently told ESPN.com. "I guess we could do that. There's no law against it, or policy against it. From my vantage point, when we decided as a conference to move to nine [league games], which not everybody has done or is doing, that's one of the choices you make. OK, so you play your nine conference games, they're locked in. And then you want to look outside for another BCS opponent.
"I'm sure there will be teams that choose to play 11 or 12 BCS teams. I'm not sure we're in that group. I'm not sure that's in our best interest."
Iowa typically has played Iowa State and one other major-conference team in recent years, whether it was Pitt or Arizona or Syracuse. The school managed to keep seven home games per year, but the task becomes harder beginning in 2016 as the Hawkeyes will have five guaranteed road contests every other year.
Ferentz has spent the past 14 seasons as Iowa's head coach and served as a Hawkeyes assistant from 1981-89, so the Cy-Hawk series is all he knows in Iowa City.
"I've had 24 years in this program, and it's hard to envision us not playing them," Ferentz said. "It does mean an awful lot to the state. It's unique in our situation because the other schools in our conference that have something like this, they're playing other Big Ten schools. It's pretty much true nationally. Pitt-Penn State used to be a big thing, but it's a little unique in that we've got two different conferences represented.
"If you're Michigan and Michigan State, you don't have to worry about it."
What's the solution for Iowa? The program undoubtedly faces a dilemma, but a two-year break with Iowa State now and then wouldn't be the end of the world. Iowa would be free to schedule a series against a marquee major-conference foe or perhaps a one-time, neutral-site game like Wisconsin-Alabama.
I also wonder whether Iowa could play 11 major-conference teams in a season from time to time. Would a schedule featuring five Big Ten home games, Iowa State on the road and a decent major-conference team at a Kinnick Stadium be too much? Not really.
Ferentz is right that the Iowa-Iowa State game resonates within the state. But it shouldn't restrict Iowa and its fans from bigger and better opportunities elsewhere.