One of the more significant, yet underplayed changes that took place during the 2016 college football season was the expansion of the Big Ten’s league schedule.
The increase from eight to nine conference games put the Big Ten in step with the Big 12 and Pac-12, but out of sync with the ACC and SEC; both of which have retained an eight-game format.
The expansion was achieved by dropping one non-conference foe and adding an additional cross-division opponent. So, where in 2015 (and previously) members played four non-Big Ten schools, six divisional opponents and two from the opposite division (four, six and two) – in 2016 it was three, six and three.
Of the three non-conference opponents remaining on each slate – one is required to be played against a Power school. That means, effectively, that the additional cross-division matchup replaces a non-Power opponent hailing from the American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West or Sun Belt.
It also means that each program now faces 10 Power opponents as opposed to nine. It’s a big change.
Take a look.
Non-Conference (4): VIRGINIA TECH (ACC), Hawaii (MWC), Northern Illinois (MAC), and Western Michigan (MAC)
Divisional (6): Indiana, Maryland, Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan State, and Michigan
Cross-divisional from the West (2): Minnesota and Illinois
Non-Conference (3): Bowling Green (MAC), Tulsa (American), and OKLAHOMA (Big 12)
Divisional (6): Rutgers, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland, Michigan State, and Michigan
Cross-divisional from the West (3): Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska
Effectively, Ohio State dropped Western Michigan from 2015 and replaced it with Nebraska in 2016. Think about that for a moment – the Buckeyes swapped out a game with a MAC team for a Big Ten opponent.
And next year?
Non-Conference (3): OKLAHOMA (Big 12), Army (Independent), and UNLV (MWC)
Divisional (6): Indiana, Rutgers, Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan
Cross-divisional from the West (3): Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois
So, instead of playing an additional non-conference game vs. the MAC, or Mountain West, or C-USA – Ohio State adds Illinois.
Let’s keep things in perspective by saying that the Buckeyes haven’t lost a game to a non-Power school in the regular season since falling to Arizona (then a member of the WAC) in 1967. That was 50 years ago.
And though Ohio State has won eight straight over Illinois, it’s lost to the Illini as recently as 2007 – that’s only 10 years ago.
What’s even more significant is that the Buckeyes, like every Big Ten member, will rotate their cross-divisional opponents (the only current protected rivalry across the divisions is Indiana-Purdue). So, along with games vs. Purdue, Illinois and Minnesota – Ohio State will have to square off with Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.
Again, the additional cross-division game is played instead of a game with a non-Power opponent.
Non-Conference (4): ALABAMA (SEC), Miami Ohio (MAC), Troy (Sun Belt), and Hawaii (MWC)
Divisional (6): Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, and Minnesota
Cross-divisional from the East (2): Rutgers and Maryland
Non-Conference (3): LSU (SEC), Akron (MAC), and Georgia State (Sun Belt)
Divisional (6): Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota
Cross-divisional from the East (3): Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State
No Big Ten team got handed a tougher cross-division combo than Wisconsin did last season – basically dropping Hawaii and replacing it with Ohio State.
The Badgers haven’t lost a non-conference game to a non-Power opponent in 13 years – most recently falling to UNLV in 2003. With the schedule change, they’ll permanently replace those odds by rolling the dice with a trio from the following: the Buckeyes, Wolverines, Spartans, Nittany Lions, Hoosiers, Terrapins or Scarlet Knights.
Non-Conference (3): Utah State (MWC), Florida Atlantic (C-USA), and BYU (Independent – considered a Power opponent by the Big Ten)
Divisional (6): Northwestern, Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota
Cross-divisional from the East (3): Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan
Though Wisconsin will enjoy a sizeable reduction in schedule strength next season vs. its 2016 slate – it could have been even more advantageous had the Big Ten not mandated the expansion. Picture a game against Northern Illinois in place of the one with Michigan.
Despite the changes, Ohio State and Wisconsin both achieved double-digit win totals in 2016. The Buckeyes also managed to claim a CFB Playoff slot even though they lost straight-up to the eventual Big Ten champion, Penn State. The Badgers are the team that lost to the Nittany Lions in the conference title game.
It safe to say that both schools weathered the first season of the expansion.
Does that mean it’s really no big deal that the Big Ten has legislated that each of its members play an additional Power foe? Before deciding, take a look at the following statistics. Listed are each members’ combined winning percentage vs. the current Big Ten membership over the last 10 seasons (2007-16) compared to their mark vs. regular-season non-Power opponents during the same time period.
ILLINOIS – Big Ten: 31.9% vs. Non-Power: 66.7%
INDIANA – Big Ten: 19.4% vs. Non-Power: 61.9%
IOWA – Big Ten: 57.5% vs. Non-Power: 75%
MARYLAND – Big Ten: 33.3% vs. Non-Power: 66.7%
MICHIGAN – Big Ten: 50% vs. Non-Power: 88.9%
MICHIGAN STATE – Big Ten: 72% vs. Non-Power: 94.7%
MINNESOTA – Big Ten: 31.9% vs. Non-Power: 81.8%
NEBRASKA – Big Ten: 61% vs. Non-Power: 100%
NORTHWESTERN – Big Ten: 47.2% vs. Non-Power: 90.9%
OHIO STATE – Big Ten: 83.6% vs. Non-Power: 100%
PENN STATE – Big Ten: 59.7% vs. Non-Power: 82.6%
PURDUE – Big Ten: 27.8% vs. Non-Power: 57.9%
RUTGERS – Big Ten: 27.8% vs. Non-Power: 62.8%
WISCONSIN – Big Ten: 68% vs. Non-Power: 100%
According to actual results, Big Ten teams are, on average, 32.8% more likely to lose a game to an in-conference opponent than to one from the American, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West or Sun Belt.
And – the bigger story is – the Big Ten’s expansion to nine league games means each member school is 16 to 50% more likely to lose an additional game than it was in the eight-game format.
The impact is staggering – especially in the current CFB Playoff climate, where five Power leagues are competing for four playoff slots.
Is it any coincidence that eight of the 12 teams (or 67%) that made the first three CFB Playoff brackets played an eight-game conference schedule to get there?
Did the Big Ten sacrifice a competitive advantage to the ACC and SEC by expanding its conference schedule by one game?
Is one of the key components to leveling the playing field in the CFB Playoff era a mandate that each Power conference play an equal number of league games?
Historical statistical data courtesy of CFBDataWarehouse.com.