Some think that playing easy teams hurts the Big Ten's reputation... unfortunately those games are the only things saving the conference from obscurity.
Teddy Greenstein has an interesting piece over at the Chicago Tribune regarding the Big Ten schools and their non-conference opponents. As part of the Big Ten's re-alignment, the conference is looking to move to a nine in conference game schedule at some point around 2015. The delay in the switch is mainly due to contracts various schools in the conference have with out-of-conference opponents that do not expire until that year or beyond. So far so good, right?
Well, apparently not.
In an interview with Greenstein, Commissioner Delany has suggested that the Big Ten may not even switch over to this nine game schedule when 2015 comes around. The reason? Money. According to the commissioner, the schools in the conference are concerned about the possibility of having to play another road game every year. Home games make money for the programs, and that money is what the schools principally rely upon when funding football. Switch to a nine game in conference schedule, and all of a sudden each team has another road game every other year. A road game that doesn't make them money.
Greenstein derides this and argues that the Big Ten should make the switch as soon as possible because non-conference games against the likes of this week's opponents (Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, and Austin Peay) are, "bad for the fans, bad for the perception of the Big Ten, and bad for recruiting."
So, is he right? Well, I'm certainly no fan of non-conference games. I find them vastly less exciting than in conference match-ups. They're sort of like the NFL pre-season to me. I would agree with Greenstein that fans sometimes get a raw deal, in that home games against cupcake teams are rarely ever exciting, but cost the same amount of money to attend as a game against a marquee non-conference opponent or an in conference opponent.
However, I think he is completely off-base with his assertion that these types of games are bad for the perception of the conference. The reality of college football today, with the BCS system, is that to make it to a BCS bowl game or the National Championship, you have to win as many games as possible (and, for the National Championship at least, probably go undefeated). Don't do that, or do it from a non-automatic qualifier conference, and you're shut out. Greenstein admits as much in his piece. Yet, he still argues that easily won games that boost the records of the Big Ten schools hurt the conference's perception.
He's wrong, however, because the voters don't really care all that much about how you get your victories, or even who they're against. Just that you get them. The Wisconsin Badgers nearly (and probably should have) lost to an unranked Arizona State team last week, and yet because they won their ranking stayed at No. 11. Iowa, by contrast, made a good comeback effort against a lower ranked Arizona team, but still lost, and fell eight places in the rankings. It's enough to make you wonder if the voters actually watch any games or just read the box scores. And even beyond win-loss records, conference reputations seem these days to be determined mostly on the basis of bowl game wins. Go to good bowls and win them, and your conference rep goes up. Don't and you're derided as the second coming of the Big East.
Want proof? Just look at the change in the Big Ten's reputation from last year's season to this year. Though many people are still under the delusion that the SEC is a fundamentally better conference than the Big Ten, the Big Ten's 4-2 record in bowl games last year (almost 5-1, with Northwestern's 3-OT loss to Auburn) has vastly changed the perception of the conference. And that's just in one year. If the Big Ten keeps this up, and maybe adds a national championship again at some point, they will easily overtake the SEC and the Big 12 in the eyes of college football fans as the superior conference.
But to do that they need to win good bowl games. And they can't win if they don't play. Under the current system, this is only possible if the schools in the conference boost their win-loss records with games against cupcakes. Like it or not, far from being hurt by these games, the conference's reputation depends on them.