CHICAGO -- It has taken some time, but Big Ten nonconference schedules are finally beefing up.
Michigan opens the 2012 season against Alabama and Michigan State kicks off against Boise State. The Spartans also have contracts to face Oregon, Alabama and Miami. Ohio State has Virginia Tech and Oklahoma on its future schedules. Northwestern, which used to shy away from tough non-league foes, has series set with Stanford, California and Notre Dame. Traditional series with teams like Notre Dame (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue) and Iowa State (Iowa) aren't going anywhere.
Add in the Big Ten's upcoming scheduling partnership with the Pac-12, set to begin in 2017, and things are looking up with non-league slates.
But will the trend continue in the post-playoff era?
Schedule strength is one of many components that college football's brass must weigh as they try to decide the selection criteria for a four-team playoff. The current BCS system rarely rewards teams -- or in the Pac-12's case, an entire league -- for challenging themselves during non-league play.
"It would be my desire to have strength of schedule play a much more significant role than it does now, which is there's no role for strength of schedule," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis said. "It's how many wins you get, not who you play. I think we need to come up with a system that motivates schools to want to play tougher non-conference games during the season."
Hollis feels so strongly about schedule strength that he wants it to be factored in selecting bowl teams, even for minor bowls.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who advocates a scheduling model that includes one marquee non-league game a year, is concerned about where schedule strength fits into the playoff selections.
"Will this make some teams play nobody in the nonconference schedule?" Smith said. "The strength of schedule in the polls changed. It's not as heavily weighted. So now, do I just not play Cal and Texas and all these schools? I don't know. That's going to be interesting to see. We cannot do anything that affects the greatness of the regular season."
The Big Ten and Pac-12 aren't going to rescind their scheduling partnership, which is designed to have 12 intra-league games per year. But if SEC teams can schedule patsies every year and reach a playoff based on the strength of their conference, where's the incentive to beef up?
"One of the reasons we're looking at the Pac-12 coalition is to instill that in our schedule rather than force it in," Hollis said. "But nationally, we need to have that in play, both for bowl eligibility and for championship qualification.