CHICAGO — A round of applause, please, for Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon, who said out loud at the Big Ten administrative meetings what many of us have been thinking for years.
“Football can be pretty boring in September when you've got all your teams playing down to competition that isn't going to create great contests.”
He's got more.
“It's boring for the fans in the stadium and it's boring on TV,” Brandon said. “We don't want to be boring. We want to strengthen the schedule to create more excitement early in the season.”
Brandon wasn't speaking just about Michigan. That was the theme for the league as a whole from the athletic directors meetings.
It was sweet music to those tired of watching Big Ten schools play patty-cake the first month of the season against the MAC and the WAC, scuffle internally the next two months and then get pounded in bowl games while wondering why.
The Big Ten finally is admitting what any rec-league coach can tell you: to get better, you must play better competition.
What this league's soft schedules, fascination with the Rose Bowl and undue hype over various “trophy games” got it in 2012 was this: no team in the Top 15 in the final coaches poll and one player in the first round of the NFL draft (the second-to-last pick).
“We have a lot of work to do,” Brandon said, “to regain our footing in terms of playing competition that is going to be attractive to our fans and help us compete at the national level.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany stirred this issue over the winter in talks with his athletic directors.
“It doesn't make any sense,” he told ESPN.com in February, “to be playing people from different divisions with fewer scholarships.”
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Can someone overnight that message to Iowa A.D. Gary Barta, who has games set against FCS foes Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Illinois State, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa again in the next six seasons?
The internal agreement among Big Ten A.D.s not to schedule FCS schools supposedly doesn't take effect until 2016, when the league starts playing a nine-game conference schedule.
Barta, when asked about the 2016 and 2018 FCS games he has scheduled, said he's “having talks” about those deals.
Stop talking, Gary, and cancel them now so your $3.8 million-a-year coach can play someone closer to his own income bracket. The Hawkeyes might be the league's biggest offender when it comes to boring September football.
As smart and altruistic as all this upgraded scheduling sounds, don't forget how this is driven by money.
Delany goes to the negotiating table for a new TV deal in 2016-17. The better the Big Ten football schedule throughout each month of the season going forward, the more money he will extract from broadcast executives.
“We want to get people to watch us on TV,” Brandon said. “We want to leverage the sport because it is so important to our departments in terms of funding. We're not going to be able to leverage games when we play teams who aren't interesting.”
Disappointingly, we're already hearing blowback from some athletic directors.
The surprise is that one of them was Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez, who in February was all in favor and called the Big Ten's previous nonconference scheduling “ridiculous.”
“We have to strengthen our nonconference schedule, there is no question about that,” Alvarez said at the Big Ten meetings. “I just hope there is enough inventory that fits so we're able to do that.”
Finding enough FBS opponents with openings in their schedules is a legitimate concern, but hardly an insurmountable problem.
Still, Alvarez warned about needing wiggle room to finish a schedule in certain seasons.
“You basically have a three- or four-week window to schedule,” he said. “There's just not that many (available teams) out there, and those that are know they are pretty valuable.”
The day is coming when a Big Ten school will need to pay $1.5 million to $2 million for certain nonconference home games. But that will hardly bankrupt the big-stadium schools.
Big Ten members also have agreed to something of a clearinghouse concept in nonconference scheduling — sharing dates and leads to help get all slots filled, plus tapping databases from TV networks to find matchups.
More conference games in September and some night games in November should be next on the Big Ten's to-do list. For now, be happy with the movement toward stronger nonconference schedules, regardless of the impetus.
“Ultimately,” Brandon said, “it will put us in a position where we'll have better football programs because we play better competition.”
Better late than never.
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