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Sports

Ten-game Big Ten schedule would solve conference's issues

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A perfect ''10'' would help Big Ten teams pack their stadiums.

What if there was a way to make Big Ten season ticket holders happier, to give players a better experience, to get more cash from TV partners, to create a more legitimate conference champion, to impress the playoff selection committee and to avoid writing gargantuan checks to Mid-American Conference opponents?

Wait, there is a way. It's actually pretty simple.

But before I uncover it, let's look at where Big Ten football is in 2014 — with the emphasis on 14. Rutgers has arrived, bringing its history as the birthplace of college football (though it curiously removed a sign signifying that from its stadium). Maryland has arrived, bringing, um, a turtle mascot named Testudo and a really talented receiver named Stefon Diggs.

As a result of expansion, the Big Ten has an East and a West.

As a result of that, teams in the West play only two teams in the East. So Iowa will not face Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State this season. Same for Wisconsin, which will play Bowling Green but won't see Spartan green.

It almost begs the question: Are the Hawkeyes and Badgers still in the Big Ten?

"We can't expand but have the same number of conference games," Commissioner Jim Delany told the Tribune. "That's called dilution. I know some conferences have chosen to do that. That's not where we're going."

Indeed, the Big Ten schedule will increase to nine conference games in 2016. That's better than eight. But with nine comes the awkwardness of four home games for one side of the conference and five for the other. Picture a seesaw with a left tackle on one end and a kicker on the other.

Here's the solution: 10 conference games.

Few coaches would support it. You can bet Purdue would rather play Western Michigan and Central Michigan — two of its opponents this season — than Michigan and Michigan State.

Why? Because everyone loves a winner. And you need six wins to play in a bowl game. And teams like to trumpet their bowl histories, even if the bowl is played in Detroit.

But with the way the schedules are now, some teams have no right to expect their fans to buy season tickets.

Is it any wonder Nebraska's 52-year, 333-game home sellout streak is in jeopardy? Here is the Cornhuskers' home schedule: Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, Miami (Fla.), Illinois, Rutgers, Purdue, Minnesota.

The Big House is also in danger of becoming the Pretty Big House. Michigan has sold about 12,000 student tickets, down from 20,000 last year. There are myriad reasons for the decline, but a home offering of Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio), Utah, Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and Maryland has to be one of them.

Ten conference games increases the chances that Wisconsin or Nebraska will visit — you know, teams that fans actually want to see.

Both Delany and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said conference officials have discussed switching to 10, mainly because it has become so "hard" — read: expensive — to lure decent nonconference opponents.

Ohio State will pay Kent State $850,000 to visit the Horseshoe on Sept. 13. When the Big Ten nixes FCS opponents beginning in 2016, the pool of opponents will shrink even more.

Alvarez said it's a big enough problem that this has been proposed: Big Ten teams squaring off in "nonconference" games that would not count in the standings.

Now that is goofy. A 10-game schedule still allows teams to play at least one meaningful nonconference game (think Wisconsin-LSU and Michigan State-Oregon) or to face Notre Dame, which is cutting back on Big Ten opponents anyway.

"Ten is not imminent," Delany said, "but it will be discussed in coming years as we struggle to get quality (nonconference) games. Coaches don't necessarily like it, and it doesn't necessarily lead to bowl eligibility, but it leads to better fan experience, better player experience, better television experience and it would be more impressive for the committee."

That would be the College Football Playoff selection committee — a group the Big Ten just might want to impress.

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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