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Neutral Site Cash Grabs: The Future of Non-Conference Scheduling?

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you've probably noticed the growing trend of college football teams playing non-conference games at neutral sites.  It's not a particularly new trend; in the '80s and '90s we had the Kickoff Classic, the Pigskin Classic, and the Eddie Robinson Classic, although the concept up and disappeared for a good chunk of the '00s.  Our beloved Hawkeyes even played in three of those contests... and came up short in all three (they lost 23-22 to Tennessee in the 1987 Kickoff Classic, 24-14 to North Carolina State in the 1992 Kickoff Classic, and 27-7 to Kansas State in the 2000 Eddie Robinson Classic). 

More recently, the banner has been picked up by the Chick-fil-A College Kickoff, which has turned into a de facto ACC-SEC Challenge series at the Georgia Dome.  Now Jerry Jones is horning in on the action, too; Oklahoma suffered the first of many losses last year to BYU in their season opener at Cowboys Stadium and Oregon State and TCU are playing there this year (hope Jerry's prepared for swaths of empty seats...).  But perhaps Jerry Jones realized his error in going after two fanbases of, um, limited size to fill his enormous pleasure palace this year; according to MGoBlog, he's thisclose to getting Michigan and Alabama to pack the rafters for a non-conference tilt in 2012.  It's happening despite the fact that Michigan already has a non-conference road game scheduled against Notre Dame that year, which means that, at most, they'll get six home games in 2012, something typically verboten at big-time BCS schools with fat athletic department budgets to feed.  (It seems even more verboten at a place like Michigan -- they had eight home games a year ago, after all.)  So why's it happening?  Look no further than Brian's first two bullet points:

  • Game is happening because a desperate Jerry Jones "overpaid."
  • Michigan will be the nominal home team (important mostly for TV rights) and receive more money.
  • Uncle Jerry pulled up the Brinks truck and told Michigan AD Dave Brandon "have fun."  And so we have Michigan-Alabama on the docket in JerryWorld as opposed to Michigan-Toledo Tech in the Big Mausoleum.  As Brian points out, this isn't quite ideal -- part of the thrill of college football is in the atmosphere, the pageantry, and the traditions, which you get at on-campus games and which is invariably lost when games are played in antiseptic pro stadiums.  A home-and-home series in Ann Arbor and Tuscaloosa would undoubtedly be preferrable, but if that option wasn't on the table (and it apparently wasn't), then this compromise is better than the alternative.  But what does all this have to do with Iowa? 

    Well, neutral-site non-conference games aren't just the purview of the South or Texas, either: Iowa took on Northern Illinois at Soldier Field in 2007 and is planning to do so again in 2012. Soldier Field's also hosting a neutral site game between Wisconsin and Northern Illinois in 2011.  In all three cases, the Big Ten team is skipping out on playing a true road game at Huskie Stadium and Northern Illinois is sacrificing whatever homefield advantage they might get there (NIU fans were outnumbered at least 3:1 by Iowa fans in 2007 and similar ratios should be in play in the upcoming Wisco and Iowa games) for a lot more money.  Perhaps more interesting than a tricked-out game against a MAC team is the possibility of an early season Big Ten-Pac 10 match-up at the Rose Bowl.  Obviously it wouldn't have the meaning of a game there against a Pac 10 team on January 1, but it would still be intriguing (until it devolves into Indiana against Washington State, at which point it becames a giant waste of time and resources).

    Given the nature of big-time athletic departments today, Iowa's unlikely to sign off on a neutral site game in a year when they already have a non-conference game on the road -- unless they can get a big fat guarantee, of course.  Iowa's typical non-conference scheduling philosophy also complicates the ability to do these neutral site non-conference games, since between the annual Iowa State series and the other BCS team they try to schedule for a home-and-home series, Iowa's usually going on the road once a year in non-conference play.  (The Soldier Field game doesn't threaten Iowa's seven home game policy, since the other non-conference games that year are home dates against ISU, UNI, and Central Michigan; it's, um, not a banner slate of games.)  Still: would you like to see Iowa play in one of these high-profile non-conference games, even if there was no possibility whatsoever of the game being at Kinnick or there being a potential road trip to a college destination like Austin or Gainesville or Athens?