Big Ten looking for non-conference scheduling payoff

CHICAGO -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Oregon, TCU, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, possibly LSU --all non-conference Big Ten opponents for the next four years.

The Big Ten could win several of these games or none. To Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon, worrying about taking a few L's would miss the point.

The conference needs to embrace a new kind of expansion, for the sake of fans, athletic department accountants and even playoff selection committee members.

Expand the scheduling footprint to any Top 25 program willing to spare 60 minutes in September.

The Big Ten will hold its spring meetings this week at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower and will likely unveil its 2014-15 football conference schedule later this month.

But the weeks before Big Ten play will be crucial, Brandon said, because of how boring that month can get when schools play down to competition.

“It’s boring for the fans in the stadium, it’s boring on television -- we don’t want to be boring,” Brandon said. “We want to strengthen the schedule to create more excitement early in the season.”

That 41-14 loss to Alabama last season shook up Ann Arbor faithful, no doubt. But playing up challenges teams to improve, Brandon said.

Michigan still gets Notre Dame before the Irish start “chickening out” in 2015, as coach Brady Hoke called it. The Wolverines will also play Utah in 2014 and Oregon State/BYU in 2015.

Brandon said he wouldn’t have used the word "chicken" to describe Notre Dame’s exit, but he made it clear he’s disappointed.

He wants good games.

 “Yes, you’re going to take a few losses,” said Brandon of scheduling tough. “But, ultimately, you’ll become more competitive.”

Conference peers seem to agree. Several Big Ten athletic directors on Tuesday brought up the need to spark the non-conference intrigue after a year that saw five league teams dip in attendance (Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue, Penn State, Illinois).

Blame the 60-inch TVs. Or the matchups.

“We’ve got to do our part with in-game experience and also who we’re playing,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said.

Michigan State has Alabama in 2016 and Notre Dame/Oregon twice in the next four years.

Ohio State will see Oregon, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech in the next decade.

Wisconsin, already with Alabama on the 2015 schedule, is working on adding LSU in a neutral-site game.

Northwestern faces Stanford in 2015.

All attractive matchups that, if Brandon has his way, impress the playoff selection committee enough to slide a Big Ten team or two into the semifinal. The league could use the lift. Since the inception of the BCS National Championship Game with the 1998 season, Ohio State is the only school to represent the Big Ten (three times).

The conference commissioners already have made clear non-conference scheduling is part of the selection criteria.

The league doesn’t have to knock off the SEC. Start with simple goals -- be around when it matters.

“We want to compete for one of those four spots,” Brandon said.

The Big Ten plays a mean "Monopoly" game among the power conferences with nearly $26 million in per-school revenue this year.

But tougher scheduling -- and winning those tough games -- can help the league’s contract renegotiation efforts as the ABC/ESPN deal expires after the 2015-16 season.

“[Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany] is going to the table to re-negotiate TV contracts and we have to improve that inventory,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. “Our non-conference schedule is not strong at all.”


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