The Big Ten made some significant (if not surprising) news Thursday morning, announcing that nine-game conference schedules in football will begin in the 2017 season.
League athletic directors had been discussing whether to go from eight conference games to nine ever since the Big Ten added Nebraska as its 12th member and introduced division play. Despite opposition from most coaches and a few ADs (Michigan State's Mark Hollis among them), the move seemed inevitable, and the 2017 season was the likely start because of existing scheduling contracts.
A few facts about the nine-game league schedules:
Three teams from each division will play five league home games in 2017 and do so in every odd-numbered year (2019, 2021, etc.) from that point forward. The other six teams (three from Legends, three from Leaders) will play five Big Ten home games in even-numbered years.
The 2017 schedule features five conference home games for Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends Division, and Illinois, Indiana and Ohio State from the Leaders Division. The 2018 schedule includes five Big Ten home games for Michigan, Minnesota and Northwestern of the Legends Division, and Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin of the Leaders Division.
The nine-game league schedule ensures Big Ten teams will play at least six times in a 10-year span. The current model ensures a minimum of only four matchups in 10 years.
Commissioner Jim Delany does not expect a second protected cross-division rivalry game to be added. "That has not been discussed," he said. "The second protected rival, that tends to undermine the competitive equity."
The Big Ten hasn't played nine-game conference schedules since the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Eight of the 10 conference schools played nine-game schedules during the 1981 and 1982 seasons, while two of 10 teams played nine-game schedules from 1971-72 and 1977-80.
ESPN.com was the only media outlet to visit with Delany on Thursday morning before the announcement.
Delany outlined the rationale behind the move.
1. Fans will benefit: "It's better for our fans. If you look at the 12th game, more often than [not] it's been someone in the lower division or out of our division. I don't think that has great value to our fans. ... We can't expect people to attend games the way they have and grow the attendance without giving them the best we can possibly give them."
2. Maintains intimacy in conference: "We don't expand to play each other less. We expand because we like to play the teams and the schools that are involved in the conference. Also, it gives a clearer sense of a champion by having more competition, not less."
3. Other power conferences are doing it: "The Pac-12, they clearly have moved in that direction. The Big 12, they only have 10 members, but they're committed to playing nine. Three of the top four or five conferences in the country are at nine, so it's not a great competitive disadvantage there."
Delany acknowledged that the "vast majority" of Big Ten coaches opposed the move to nine league games, and there are some drawbacks. The Big Ten gets rid of a week of games against lower FBS teams or FCS teams -- "we're winning probably 80 percent of those," Delany said -- for six more conference games that equal six more losses for the league.
"You're going to lose six cumulative wins," Delany told ESPN.com. "That might mean somebody's not [bowl] eligible. It probably makes it a little harder to get to a second BCS [bowl] game, with the addition of the [Big Ten] championship [game]. So those are negative considerations, which were all evaluated. But when everything was evaluated, in terms of what a conference was supposed to be, the value to our fans, the building of the brand, the change made sense."
The Big Ten schedules are set only through 2014, so the challenge going forward for league officials and athletic directors is to structure the schedules for 2017 and beyond in a way that works best across the board. The majority of Big Ten teams say they must play at least seven home games a year, which would require all three nonconference games at home in years where they play five Big Ten road games.
The switch to nine games will put a strain on teams like Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue that play home-and-home nonconference rivalries against Notre Dame. Both Michigan and Michigan State are among the group of teams that need at least seven home games per season.
"It's still to be worked out," Delany said, "but that's an objective as we move forward."
There will be plenty of reaction from around the league to the move, so stay tuned to the blog.