MINNEAPOLIS – The Big Ten’s 2023 football schedule caused a big gulp for Gophers fans when it was finally unveiled last week.
The three crossover games against East Division foes assigned to Minnesota next fall? Michigan and Michigan State at home. Ohio State on the road.
That’ll be quite the test for the Gophers, who will be replacing sixth-year starters at both quarterback (Tanner Morgan) and tailback (Mohamed Ibrahim). This could also be the last time a Big Ten team ever receives such a daunting surprise, if the conference decides to follow the trend and ditch the two-division format once UCLA and USC arrive in 2024.
In that case, the Big Ten would likely designate up to three rivals for each program out of protection for the annual grudge matches – Michigan-Ohio State, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Indiana-Purdue and so on – that make up the rich history of the league.
Then teams would play the remaining opponents on an every-other-season basis to strike better competitive balance and maintain more scheduling consistency to thus avoid the post-expansion quirks like Purdue not visiting Michigan since, yes, 2011 or not playing at all since 2017. The Boilermakers, for the record, will play the Wolverines at the Big House next year.
“I think it’s less about the rivalries and more making sure that our players and our fans are able to step into every venue and able to experience the pageantry of Big Ten football and find a way to be able to put that into the schedule,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said this summer at media day. “It’s going to be complicated.
“But when you look at it from a holistic standpoint, I hope that’s the experience of our Big Ten student-athletes. Being able to play a game in Piscataway, New Jersey, and going out and able to play a regular season game in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl and everything in between, nobody else will be able to say that.”
One of the many mantras and slogans employed by the Gophers under coach P.J. Fleck is the “one-game championship season” approach to each week, a preparatory view designed to eliminate distraction and focus on the present.
Fleck, predictably, responded with a smile but little else when the topic of future schedules – including his own team’s challenge next year – was raised at his news conference this week.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions right now and not much certainty about what the Big Ten will look like in terms of how many teams, divisions, pods,” Fleck said. “Nobody really knows. All we have to focus on is right now. I’m glad we’re in the Big Ten. I’m glad we’re at Minnesota.”
The soon-to-expand College Football Playoff will factor into what the league decides for a future format, with the addition of more schools always possible.
The Pac-12 ditched divisions prior to this season. The Big 12 recently announced it will stick with a single group when four new schools join next year. The ACC is doing away with its divisions in 2023 as well. The SEC still has East and West divisions for 2023, but Oklahoma and Texas are on the way with no guarantee of future geographical organization.
The Big Ten created divisions – the ill-fated Leaders and Legends groupings that prioritized competitive balance over geographical proximity – in 2011 when Nebraska became the 12th member. The entrance of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 triggered another realignment, resulting in the current East and West divisions.
Even after the ninth conference game was added to the schedules in 2016, there are four other schools that each team does not face in a given season – nowhere close to a round-robin format. The pandemic-shrunken 2020 schedule also threw a wrench into the system.
The finalization of the Big Ten’s new TV contracts were delayed by the UCLA-USC addition, too, which in turn pushed out the 2023 slate and the ultimate decision for Commissioner Kevin Warren on the fate of the divisions.
Not all the wrinkles were ironed out.
Penn State, strangely, will play its first conference game on the road for the eighth straight year and the 13th time in 14 seasons, and athletic director Patrick Kraft issued a statement about the school’s “incredibly frustrating and disappointing” feelings.
“When I arrived on campus, I shared with the conference staff my concerns and repeatedly referenced their failure to address this issue in the past. I have been in communication with Commissioner Warren and I am confident that this issue will be addressed moving forward,” said Kraft, who was hired earlier this year.