In the matter of a few days the college sports world went from having five power conferences to four. In the same stretch the Big 12 rose from the ashes, the Big Ten became the bully in the room, and there are those suggesting that the SEC is now on the backfoot. And even with the seismic shifts, “Conference realignment,” a term that covers a wide range of sins, doesn’t seem to be over. In all this chaos a core question still feels unanswered: How does the Big Ten actually make this work?
First off, what is a conference exactly?
At their core, conferences are a collection of colleges (or Universities - the terms are interchangeable for this issue) that agree to have their sports teams play each other on a regular basis. Within that agreement they may have some sharing of costs or revenue (in a world before enormous media rights deals). Historically, this made scheduling easier, created the rivalries we love today, and made each season predictable for athletic departments running buses and train schedules for multiple teams a year in an era before computers.
Sometimes the member schools added a veneer of larger partnership or collegial similarity (the Big Ten and its “large research institutions” is an example), but mostly this was driven by regional proximity and relatively similar approaches to athletic spending.
Nowadays almost all of that is gone. Travel is easier and cheaper to setup and athletic department budgets have ballooned to astronomical levels in part fueled by Conferences becoming driers of massive media revenue deals. Academic similarity may still be claimed, but in a world where the Big Ten is dragging its feet on inviting Stanford and Cal into the conference, we can confidently say that is largely marketing and not reality.
So what remains? At least in theory a conference still means a group of schools that play regularly. The immense rise in non-conference high level featured games across all major collegiate sports, means the conferences mostly are defined by this consistent play. For example, Michigan State is playing Washington this year in the second half of a two year home and home deal. The Spartans also played Oregon twice in recent years. These matchups with west coast teams did not require these teams to be in the same conference.
So if a conference is really about creating a consistent section of your schedule against opponents your fans will love to hate year in and year out the Big Ten has a big task ahead of it with their schedules. This will particularly be true in Football.
Schedules: The difference between 10, 16 and 18 (or 20) teams
When the Big Ten actually was 10 teams (back now effectively in the stone age), scheduling was easy. Each team could play 9 conference games a year and then have plenty of room for non-conference opponents. Exactly the same number of conference games Big Ten members play now.
When the Big Ten expanded to 11 teams, schedules had to get more creative. Often this meant creating a rotating set of teams playing with the usual goal being every team play every 2 years. When it meant you only missed out on one conference opponent a year it didn’t feel like a huge loss.
After Nebraska joined, the Big Ten grew to 12 teams and organized into the Leaders and Legends divisions. Divisions created a consistent set of teams you played each year and then featured inter-division games that rotated. Those rotating games fully embraced the “every team, every two years” approach that still dominates the league today.
The same spirit was embraced as Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten and the conference grew to 14 teams. The divisions became “East” and “West” and allowed there to be consistent opponents each year that kept the spirit of the “Conference” concept (and specific rivalries) alive.
The move to 14 teams did mean that your team have one conference opponent in the other division that you didn’t play for THREE years, but like the initial rotation of one team you didn’t play every year, it didn’t feel like a huge loss. This creeping acceptance is the boiled frog approach the Big Ten is hoping will soften the blow of the recent double expansion.
When the league announced the expansion to 16 teams they had to go into scheduling craziness. It should be noted that the NFL has 16 teams per its conference alignment, and their scheduling process is a nightmare even with a longer season and more drawn out playoff process.
The Big Ten did pull out a relatively interesting approach to the 16 teams that moved away from divisions instead creating “protected rivalries”. To get everyone to play every two years - the stated goal in the 16 team schedule - it meant that almost every single opponent had to change each year. You could only repeat 3 teams a year and still play every team each year. Most every team picked one, or two protected rivals, except Iowa that topped out at three protected rivals.
The protected rivalries were designed to avoid fans revolting over that one (or two) games a year they cannot live without (looking at you Michigan State vs. Michigan), while still creating a league that saw the bulk of their conference opponents once every other year.
Now what does the league do with 18 teams? The work they put together for the 2024 schedule just blew up and will have to be started over. If the goal is to actually play each team every two years, mathematically each team can really only have ONE protected rival. In a world where Purdue, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa have more than two (again, seriously Iowa? THREE?) This seems unlikely.
What it will mean is the teams with two or three protected rivals will have to settle for playing every team in the league every three years.
If fans can deal with the three year rotation, then an expansion to twenty teams (the rumored goal) isn’t really any different.
Does playing every three years make it a conference?
This is the question that the Big Ten and its member schools - and by extension the fans that support these institutions - has to answer. Commentators have started to differentiate between a conference and an association. At more than 16 teams it’s clear the Big Ten is heading towards mini-association status.
This may mean larger revenue for everyone in the short term, but it will mean a lot less familiarity in the matchups. And long term, does less familiar matchups dominating the teams’ schedule put the TV ratings in jeopardy and thus the revenue brought in through TV.
Only time will tell.