It was a big week for the Big Ten. News trickled out from the media days and beyond regarding the future of the league and its schedules, the site for the inaugural championship game in 2011, and the presence of four Big Ten teams in the top 25 pre-season rankings. Miss some of all of it? Well, never fear, we here at SB Nation Chicago have collected it all into one handy guide!
Big Ten shifting to a nine-game conference schedule
Starting around 2015, the conference intends to shift schools to playing a schedule with nine in-conference games. This would entail the dropping of a single non-conference opponent for each school, which, due to contractual obligations, can't realistically happen for another three to four years. The shift would allow the schools in the conference to continue playing all but two of the other Big Ten teams every year, even with the addition of another school to the conference in the form of Nebraska.
As theorized on SB Nation's own The Rivalry, Esq., this would probably shake out by having each school play five teams in its own division, one or two permanent "rival" teams from the other division (such as OSU / Michigan, Wisconsin / Minnesota, or Northwestern / Illinois), and two or three rotating schools from the other division. While such a move may make it harder for any team in the conference to run the table (and therefore get to the national championship game), it would have the upside of ensuring fans that even with a division alignment they will still get to see their schools play the heavy-hitting schools of the conference.
Keeping the name, but changing the logo
With the expansion to twelve teams, many were wondering if the conference would be giving up its famous "Big Ten" brand in favor of something a bit more ... accurate. Now we have our answer. The Big Ten will remain the "Big Ten" conference, but will change its current logo. I just hope the new logo maintains the current iteration's fashion of stealthily indicating the true number of schools in the conference.
Big Ten 2011 championship game to be in Indy
Despite our own strenuous objections, the conference has decided to hold the first championship game, in December 2011, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The site is, for now, temporary, with the conference planning on undertaking a yearlong study period to find a permanent home for the game.
It is possible that Indy will become the permanent home of the championship, but other venues such as Chicago's own Soldier Field, Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Ford Field in Detroit, and Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland are also jockeying for the honor.
More expansion? Not for a while
Though the conference expanded in a whirlwind fashion this summer, any further expansion is not on the table for the near future. Commissioner Jim Delany said as much at the media days. While it is possible (and, I'd argue, likely) that the conference will end up past 12 teams at some point, the Big Ten has no plans to make that happen quickly.
Though this might be disappointing from a fan perspective, it makes complete sense. The original expansion effort was never supposed to occur as quickly as it did earlier this year. The only reason that Nebraska ended up a member of the conference in a matter of weeks was the unprecedented boldness of the Pac-10 and the almost imminent collapse of the Big 12. Without further cataclysms, fans shouldn't expect to see new teams enter the conference until at least 2013-2014 and beyond.
Coaches on the hot seat
Though JoePa hasn't announced any plans to retire, a few other coaches in the conference could be headed for the exit if the 2010 season doesn't go well. Though given innumerable chances by the administration, Illinois' Ron Zook appears to be near the end of his rope. If the Illini can't post a winning season in 2010, it's quite possible that Zook will jump ship to another school, or the university will bring in someone to run the on-the-field operations with Zook retained in a recruiting role.
Tim Brewster up in Minnesota is also walking a thin line. Though Minnesota hasn't been a Big Ten powerhouse in ... decades ... one wonders just how long the fans and alumni will tolerate the constant failure that Brewster seems to guarantee for that program. If the Gophers continue on a downward trajectory, don't be surprised to see some calling for Brewster's head even more strenuously than they already do.
Finally, the ever-controversial Rich Rodriguez finds himself in a precarious position at Michigan. The NCAA sanctions against the school, along with the current investigation of West Virginia during Rodriguez's tenure, magnify any continued failure of the Wolverines. If Rich Rod can bring Michigan to a BCS bowl this year, he'll almost certainly retain his job, but things don't look nearly so comfortable otherwise.
Besides the desire to avoid embarrassment on the part of the administration, Rich Rod has been allowed to stick around beyond his two dismal seasons because of the terms of his current contract. Signed in 2008, Rodriguez is being paid about $2.5 million per year. The contract's initial term was for six years (so, through 2014), with a $4 million buyout clause. That buyout clause, similar to what Notre Dame was dealing with in the Charlie Weiss fiasco, makes it hard for the administration to palate pulling the plug within the first half of the contract.
However, the buyout amount decreases by $500,000 for every year of the deal. Going into the 2010 season, the buyout is set at $3 million, which is still more than the cost of having Rich Rod stick it out for another season. In 2011, though, it will fall to $2.5 million - exactly the price of keeping him on for the next year.
Though there is a clause in Rodriguez's contract that would allow the school to fire him without penalty for major NCAA infractions, the university hasn't seemed inclined to do so at this point. If Rich Rod's team posts another losing record, it remains to be seen, if given the choice between paying him the same amount to go away as to stay in the 2011 season, whether the administration will once again stand pat on him.
Divisions? More than geography at play
Though the conference did not announce the new divisions during the media days, we did get an indication of how things may shake out. It seems that the conference has acknowledged that a straight geographic split (either East-West or North-South) makes little sense. Doing so would result not only in the abandonment of certain school rivalries, but also the possibility of overloading one half of the conference with power house schools.
What seems more likely, instead, is a scenario voiced this week by Wisconsin AD (and former coach) Barry Alvarez. Alvarez stated in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that there are six teams in the conference that have, over the last two decades or so, distinguished themselves as winning programs (Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, and soon-to-be member Nebraska). Grouping all six, or four out of six, in a single division would potentially result in lopsided divisions. The more logical scenario, then, would be for the conference to split up those six schools and ensure that at least three were in each division.
Though fans might find a non-geographic split of the conference confusing, it would be the best option for the conference. As proof of this, one need only look at the former Big 12. The Big 12 split into geographic divisions (North/South) and ended up having a complete imbalance. Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Okie State anchored the South, with only Nebraska and ... Mizzou as legitimate football programs in the North. This ensured that conference's championship game each year was almost always weighted heavily towards the South. Though having a conference championship is great, a lopsided and predictable game is not. It's not like we want the MLB All-Star game on our hands here.
Four Big Ten teams in the pre-season rankings
Finally, the end of the week brought the news that the Big Ten has at last garnered a certain measure of respect. The preseason USA Today coaches poll, though not always known for being based in reality, ranked four Big Ten programs in the top 20.
OSU led the rankings, coming in at No. 2. Iowa was next at No. 10, with No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 14 PSU following closely behind. Incoming member Nebraska landed at No. 9 during its last Big 12 season, and Michigan State and Northwestern, though not making it into the top 25 of the rankings, also garnered votes.
Though I find the rankings for Iowa and Wisconsin to be a bit low, I'm encouraged to see the conference finally gaining some preseason respect. Perhaps now we will get a reprieve from the constant "the Big Ten is dead!" stories that seem to occupy about as much air time on ESPN as the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Despite the volume of conference news Big Ten fans were deluged with this week, some of the most important questions remain unanswered. While we likely won't hear of a permanent site for the championship game or of JoePa's retirement plans until next year and the conclusion of this year's season, the division alignment announcement is expected to be released within the next month. Stay tuned to SB Nation Chicago to get the latest information as it comes out.