When the Big Ten's scheduling alliance with the Pac-12 crashed and burned July 13, it created a new set of headaches for Big Ten athletic directors.
They had been asked by league commissioner Jim Delany to hold off on scheduling games for the 2017 season and beyond -- a moratorium of sorts -- so that the Pac-12 alliance could be set up. Many Big Ten teams -- Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan, to name a few -- scheduled Pac-12 opponents in advance of the alliance, in part because of Delany's nudging. While many of those contracts still will be honored, the Pac-12 alliance added structure to scheduling in the distant future.
Things are cloudy again.
"It was an obvious disappointment," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. "There was an excitement beyond just football and basketball with the possibilities that could take place. We had put so much into the collaboration with the Pac-12, and now that's off the table, so we all need to step back and make some decisions about our future."
Several big decisions could be made this week as Big Ten athletic directors gather in Chicago for preseason meetings. Scheduling will be a major topic on their agenda. The ADs simply can't afford to drag their feet on future scheduling issues.
Among the questions to be asked:
Should the Big Ten maintain an eight-game conference schedule or go to nine games? The Big Ten announced a move to nine league games last August, but shelved the plan when the Pac-12 alliance surfaced late last fall.
Should the Big Ten consider playing league games earlier in the season? Most major conferences play league games in early to mid September -- some even play them in season openers -- while most Big Ten teams complete their nonconference schedules before opening league play.
How should the Big Ten schedule for a playoff environment? Schedule strength will be a factor for the football selection committee, but a schedule loaded with difficult opponents could cost teams in their quest for the crystal football.
Should the Big Ten revisit a scheduling alliance with another conference?
Let's look at each issue ...
CONFERENCE GAMES: 8, 9 ... 10?
This topic likely will get the most discussion in Chicago. Although the Big Ten's ADs agreed to a nine-game league schedule last summer, they might not go down that road again.
Hollis and Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips both have reservations about nine-game league schedules because of the imbalance they create with home and away games.
"That's hard to swallow when you're trying to define a true champion," Phillips told ESPN.com "But we don't live in a perfect world, and sometimes scheduling isn't perfect. My preference is eight right now, but I haven't heard what other folks have had to say."
Hollis acknowledges that other major conferences, like the Pac-12 and Big 12, play nine league games. The ACC is going to a nine-game league schedule when it expands to 14 teams.
Although nine-game league schedules typically increase teams' overall schedule strength and make it easier to sell tickets to home games, they have drawbacks.
"The biggest issue I have with it is the inequity with a conference championship," Hollis said. "In college football, I think it's about a 60-40 ratio of home team winning vs. visiting team winning. When you get to the end of the season, and a team is winning a championship because they have five home games vs. four, it's something I have pretty big concerns with. ... If you look at the end of the year and you have two rivals that are separated by one game, there’s going to be some bad feelings."
Hollis prefers "an even number" of league home games and league away games -- meaning eight or 10. He acknowledges a 10-game league schedule would restrict teams from scheduling blockbuster nonleague opponents, but it would balance home and away games, and allow Big Ten teams to play one another more, not less.
A 10-game league schedule might not be realistic. It certainly wouldn't sit well with Big Ten football coaches, who opposed the initial move to nine league games.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema noted that the SEC, winner of the past six national titles, plays an eight-game league schedule, although that soon could change.
"Nine games changes things dramatically," Bielema told ESPN.com. "I hope we stay with an eight-game format. That's what the SEC uses, and that's the model everybody's chasing right now. That's the part that gets frustrating when anybody starts talking about nine conference games. The beloved SEC doesn't have that, and we don't want to jump into that world, either."
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez is "on the same page" with Bielema about the conference games issue.
My take: Don't be shocked if the Big Ten eventually goes to nine league games, but the thinking since the announcement last August seems to have shifted quite a bit.
EARLIER BIG TEN GAMES
Bielema also would like the Big Ten to mimic what the SEC and other conference do with league games earlier in the season. Both he and former Illinois coach Ron Zook brought up the idea last year, noting it would give the Big Ten showcase games every week in September and prevent some of the sorry September Saturdays we've seen in recent years.
The movement needs a jolt, however, as the Big Ten schedules through the 2016 season essentially follow the traditional format: most if not all nonconference games first, followed by a full league slate.
"They [the SEC] front-load the schedule," Bielema said. "I saw they released their September games, and everyone goes gaga over those games. Well, we could have the same effect if the Big Ten would play them in September. I would much rather go that road than playing nine [league games], because it gives you an opportunity to get two out-of-conference, BCS opponents [on the schedule], travel to one and play one at home. That would bring a lot of excitement."
While moving Big Ten games earlier didn't have much traction before, the end of the Pac-12 alliance creates "a whole different scenario" with scheduling, Bielema said.
"I think we'll talk about it," Phillips said. "I'm for whatever creates the most interest and is best for the fans. If that allows us to have some better games for the fans earlier in the year, I'm all for that."
Hollis, an out-of-the-box scheduling wizard who helped create unbelievable moments like this, also is open to the topic, although he wants any change to be made for the right reasons.
"If you do shake it up, how are you shaking it up?" he said. "Why are you shaking it up? Are you doing it for television? Are you doing it for strength of schedule? I'm open to looking at things like that. I think those are all things we have to turn over."
SCHEDULING FOR A PLAYOFF ENVIRONMENT
A playoff comes to college football in 2014, and major conference athletic directors must be cognizant of it in crafting their teams' schedules. The selection committee will look for teams that have challenged themselves outside their leagues, but overly taxing schedules often remove teams from the playoff picture.
In the current BCS environment, a Big Ten team likely has to run the table to reach the title game. While perfection might not be required to qualify for a four-team playoff, a lot of good 1-loss teams are sure to be left out.
"You kind of have two parallels going," Hollis said. "It's kind of a given that to win a conference championship right now, with rare exception, you need to go undefeated. If you go undefeated, you have a shot to play for a national championship. Well, playing Alabama and Notre Dame selectively in our nonconference schedule [as Michigan State does in 2016 and 2017] isn't real conducive to the odds of winning 12 games. As [the playoff] goes forward and they talk about how the process is going to work, that's an important component."
ANOTHER SCHEDULING ALLIANCE
The Big Ten will be cautious about pursuing another scheduling alliance after the Pac-12 pact fell apart, but the league isn't ruling it out. Remember that the Big Ten/Pac-12 agreement fizzled because several Pac-12 schools ultimately didn't get on board. All 12 Big Ten schools were willing, and if the Big Ten can find a league with the same across-the-board commitment, it could seek another agreement.
"I don't know what shape or form that's going to result in," Hollis said, "but obviously playing games against opponents in the ACC, opponents in the Pac-12, opponents in the Big 12 and many of us are already doing the SEC, it's so complicated. If we could get some organization into it, I think it could be a positive."
A potential problem: number of conference games. Had the Pac-12 played an eight-game league schedule like the Big Ten, the alliance would have worked, sources told ESPN.com. With the Pac-12, Big 12 and, eventually, ACC, at nine league games, a partnership could be difficult.
"We'll be pretty sensitive, much more sensitive about conferences that have nine games," Delany said. "They have less flex. We're going to have a discussion about it."
There will be plenty of discussion in Chicago, and several big scheduling decisions will be made "in the very near future," Hollis said.
Although each Big Ten school has different scheduling models and desires, it's important to reach consensus on these items.
"One thing we've always done in the Big Ten that I'm proud of is we've had a collaborative group, and we've always tried to get to the right destination," Phillips said. "I don't recall us having any of those 6-6 votes.
"So wherever we get to, I would hope it'll be a 10-2 or an 11-1 vote."