Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
At least UNI still has Iowa State.
Barry Alvarez continues to be the Deep Throat of Big Ten expansion/realignment/scheduling/whatever -- well, minus the whole "anonymous source" bit, at least. He doesn't give a damn about who knows that it's him spilling the beans about the Big Ten's plans. His latest revelation? The Big Ten is planning to stop scheduling football games with FCS opponents.
"The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous," Alvarez said on WIBA-AM.
"It’s not very appealing…"So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools."
That's interesting -- and potentially welcome -- news. Fans don't get jazzed about them (with the possible exception of a game like UNI-Iowa, which offers some in-state intrigue) and the games themselves are no-win situations for the BCS teams involved. Win big and you've merely done what you're supposed to do -- you're a BCS team playing a team with vastly fewer resources. Win by a little and fans and pundits give you the stinkeye. And god help you if you lose to an FCS team...
Appalachian State helped put the nail in Lloyd Carr's coffin at Michigan and Tim Brewster's calvacade of catastrophes against teams from the Dakotas led to his demise at Minnesota. (Miss U, Timmy!) Hell, if those two (!!!) blocked kicks hadn't stymied UNI's upset bid in 2009 and kicked off a season of heart-stopping escapes and near-misses for Iowa, would Kirk Ferentz still be the head coach at Iowa? It's hard to know for sure, but I think there's a good chance he wouldn't be.
The games themselves are also increasingly expensive. Iowa paid Eastern Illinois $400,000 to come and take a whupping in 2010. Numbers for the Tennessee Tech game in 2011 and the UNI game in 2012 weren't readily available, but they almost certainly cost Iowa at least that much and, in all likelihood, even more than the $400K they dropped on EIU. Of course, the reason the reason teams continue to pay these enormous fees is because the home games themselves are still immensely profitable; per the Gazette's Scott Dochterman, Iowa clears roughly $2.8 million per home game, so even if they have to write a check for a cool half-million dollars to UNI or EIU or Alphabet Soup College, they're still coming out ahead in the deal. But if you can take home that home game money without having to cut such a big check to your opponent... well, that's even better.
The big unanswered question regarding Alvarez's assertion is when it would start. As you can see from the table below, Big Ten teams have a lot of games against FCS teams already penciled into their calendars.
10 of 12 Big Ten teams have a game against an FCS team scheduled for next season (including Alvarez's own Wisconsin team). 11 of 14 Big Ten teams (including newbies Rutgers and Maryland) have games scheduled against FCS teams in 2014. Those numbers dip to 9/14 in 2015 and 5/14 in 2016, but that's only because several schools haven't gotten around to scheduling that far out yet. That's a lot of games against FCS opponents that have already been contracted for by Big Ten teams. Contracts can certainly be broken, but not for free.
One of the interesting effects of this claim -- and the recent news that the Big Ten is moving to either a 9- or 10-game conference schedule -- is what it all means for the seven home games concept. For years, we've heard from athletic directors at big-time schools that seven home games is practically sacrosanct -- without at least that many home games, it becomes vastly more difficult for the athletic department to prop up the rest of the sports it offers. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, the attitude from ADs was essentially "Give me seven home games or give me death."
But it's hard to reconcile the "seven home games or GTFO" mantra with some of these recent developments. Alvarez says that the non-conference scheduling in the Big Ten is "ridiculous" and he's 100% right. In 2013, Big Ten teams could play just five non-conference games against teams in next season's preseason top 25, and even that assumes that Northern Illinois, fresh off their Orange Bowl defeat, can earn a spot in next year's preseason poll (which might be plowing new ground for #MACtion; I don't recall the last time a MAC team started the season ranked -- it may have never happened before, frankly.). And three of the games will be against Notre Dame.
But while Big Ten schedules may be "ridiculous," there's a reason teams kept scheduling games against lower-division opponents that were neither exciting nor particularly cheap: they would come to your stadium without demanding anything more than a paycheck in return. The problem with more challenging opponents is that they tend to want a home game in return. If, as Alvarez intimates, the Big Ten is serious about a league-wide push to improve the quality of its schedules, that's attainable. But adding more games against decent opposition is going to be mean a few more road games and make it much more difficult to hit that "seven home games" sweet spot.
One alternative would be for Big Ten teams to simply replace games against FCS teams with more games against non-BCS opponents from the MAC, Sun Belt, MWC, etc. The problem with that idea is that it still doesn't really do much to significantly improve your strength of schedule (unless you're grabbing Boise State, maybe) and those games tend to be even more expensive than the games against FCS squads -- Iowa paid $900,000 to bring Arkansas State to Iowa City in 2009 and $1.05 million to bring Louisiana-Monroe to town in 2011. If you're still going to be playing those games (and paying those fees), Iowa might as well schedule UNI instead -- at least the money is staying in-state and we can get a few warm fuzzies for helping to keep an in-state school's athletic department afloat. We need to know more about what Big Ten teams are actually going to be doing to "improve" their schedules in the future, frankly.
Considering that most athletic directors would stampede over their own mothers for a shiny nickel, it's clear that if they're (possibly) leaving money on the table by willingly moving away from the current model of "seven home games or else," then there must be some good rea$on$ for it. My hunch is that they've received reliable information about the value of their impending media rights negotiations and ESPN/ABC (or FOX or NBC) is going to be backing up a Brinks truck to Park Ridge, IL. The only thing they want to see for their money is more games against opponents with a pulse. If the price is right, it seems like the Big Ten can (and will) facilitate that desire.