Revenge of the Cupcakes: Iowa and Non-Conference Scheduling

Iowa has one more non-conference game remaining on the slate this year, a home tilt with Central Michigan, before we enter Big Ten play. Thus far, it's been one of the more dramatic non-conference seasons in recent memory thanks to nail-biters against Northern Illinois and Iowa State and a scrappy game with UNI. The drama seems to owe more to the fact this this a young, rebuilding Iowa team learning new systems without a great deal of experience and/or talent than it does to the quality of the opposition -- NIU, ISU, UNI, and CMU are not exactly the stuff of legend. (Then again, who knows what the rest of this year will bring -- maybe they'll all win 8-10 games and we'll find out in December that this was a much tougher slate than we ever imagined. Hey, I said it was possible, not likely.)

This year marked the first year since 2005 that Iowa didn't play two BCS opponents in non-conference play. 2005 was the last year before the regular season was permanently expanded to 12 games; from 2006-2011, Iowa played two BCS opponents every year -- the annual Cy-Hawk clash with Iowa State and a second game against either Syracuse, Arizona, or Pitt. Next year's non-con schedule is also BCS-free (other than Iowa State): Northern Illinois, Missouri State, and Western Michigan (yes, them) are coming to Kinnick. A second BCS opponent returns to the schedule in 2014: Iowa heads to Pitt alongside home dates with ISU, UNI, and Ball State. Iowa finishes up the four-game Pitt series in 2015, along with a trip to Ames and home games with Illinois State and North Texas (a possible Dan McCarney homecoming).

That's it as far as non-conference games with other BCS opponents, though. There's currently an empty spot on the 2016 schedule which could be filled by another BCS team... but recent events make me wonder about the likelihood of that happening. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are already playing 9-game conference schedules. The ACC revealed plans to move to a 9-game conference schedule when Syracuse and Pitt join up (although the recent kinda-sorta addition of Notre Dame might have them rethinking that plan). The SEC is pondering a 9-game conference schedule (with Nick Saban already stumping for it). The Big Ten was also going to move to a 9-game conference schedule... until they put the kibosh on that idea and more or less replaced it with the "scheduling agreement" with the Pac-12. Of course, that also fell apart... mainly because of the Pac-12's 9-game conference schedule.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if the 9-game conference schedule was a dealbreaker for the Pac-12, it's likely to be a deal-breaker for any other BCS league that the Big Ten might consider for a scheduling arrangement. And with basically every other BCS conference moving to a 9-game conference schedule (or strongly considering it)... well, it might be hard to find willing BCS participants for non-conference games, even on a case-by-case basis rather than a formal league-to-league scheduling arrangement.

It also suggests that the a 9-game conference schedule might be back in play for the Big Ten. Frankly, that might not be a bad idea. If it's going to get harder and harder to schedule other BCS teams for non-conference games, playing an extra game against a Big Ten opponent would be preferable to doubling down on MAC opponents. It might also have the benefit of allowing us to cycle through opponents from other divisions more frequently, meaning that we wouldn't go too many years without playing Wisconsin or Penn State or Illinois. Or, as Dochterman pointed out months ago, it could be configured to allow a second regular cross-divisional opponent (aka, the "get Wisconsin back on the schedule every year" plan).

To be sure, there are issues to sort out with the 9-game conference schedule -- by definition, the home/away splits are going to be uneven; there will be slightly less TV inventory for the Big Ten's broadcast partners; it increases the number of losses for each team, which could be bad for bowl positioning and will definitely be bad for coaches' job security (a big reason why the Big Ten coaches were so opposed to it when it was previously discussed) -- but those are hurdles to be overcome, not walls that cannot be scaled. The Pac-12 has had 9-game conference schedules for a few years now and the Big XII is entering its second year with 9 conference games; neither conference seems to have been crippled by this move. In fact, right now those leagues are perched behind the SEC as the second and third-best leagues in the country. (Mind you, I don't think they're that good because of the scheduling -- I just don't think the scheduling has had a negative effect on them.)

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the rise of 9-game conference schedules. On one hand, it's nice to play familiar faces more often; one of the things we love about college football is its distinctly regional quality and the rich history we have with our conference mates, so enriching that history by playing those regional rivals more often seems exciting. On the other hand, it's fun to be exposed to new teams and new players from new leagues, too. A 3-game non-conference schedule will make it virtually impossible to schedule two home-and-home series with other BCS opponents in a given year; given the 5/4 split of home/away games in conference play, playing home-and-home series with two BCS opponents virtually guarantees that teams would be playing no more than six home games every other year, which is an unpalatable (and possibly untenable) idea for many athletic directors.

For Iowa, a 9-game conference schedule likely means the end of games against the likes of Pitt or Arizona or Syracuse. Iowa has one non-BCS opponent that's written on the schedule in permanent ink: Iowa State. So long as their program and the Big XII remain viable major conference entities (and there's no indication that might change anytime soon), Iowa's going to be playing them every year. That's just the way it is. (On the other hand, that one guaranteed non-con game against a BCS opponent every year? That's still one more than Minnesota fans are likely to see for the forseeable future. If Jerry Kill has his way, they'll be full speed ahead on Glen Mason's "cupcakes, cupcakes, and MOAR CUPCAKES" scheduling model. He's even trying to get out of a series with noted football powerhouse North Carolina.)

And if (when?) the Big Ten moves to a 9-game conference schedule, the other two non-conference slots are likely to be filled by an FCS team and a MAC (or MAC-ish team; hello, Sun Belt!) team. One possible caveat: neutral site games. They represent a more palatable -- and profitable -- way to "lose" a home game from the schedule and might be another way to schedule a game with a non-BCS opponent. In the meantime, be hospital to the Central Michigan fans who visit Iowa City this weekend. Chances are good we'll be see them again before too long.

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