B1G 2023 schedule brings challenges, quirks, unclear future

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 15 Minnesota at Illinois
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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.

Former Navy coach Niumatalolo joins UCLA staff

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LOS ANGELES – Former Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo is joining UCLA’s coaching staff as director of leadership.

The school said in an announcement Friday that Niumatalolo will serve as an advisor to the Bruins’ football staff and players.

Niumatalolo led Navy for 15 years and was the winningest coach in school history at 109-83. The Midshipmen, however, finished with losing records the past three seasons, including 4-8 the past two.

Navy played in 10 bowl games under Niumatalolo. He also was the only coach to win his first eight games in the storied Army-Navy rivalry.

Troy, Jon Sumrall agree to new 4-year contract through 2026

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TROY, Ala. ⁠— Jon Sumrall agreed to a new four-year contract as Troy’s coach after leading the Trojans to a Sun Belt Conference championship and national ranking in his debut season.

The school announced the deal, which runs through 2026, but didn’t release details.

The Trojans went 12-2 and won their final 11 games, second only to national champion Georgia, including the league championship game and the Cure Bowl against UTSA. For the first time, they finished a season ranked, ending up 19th in The Associated Press Top 25.

“When we appointed Coach Sumrall in December 2021, we challenged him to return Troy football to the top of the Sun Belt Conference,” Chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. said. “It didn’t take long, as the 2022 season was the best in our FBS history.”

Troy held all 14 of its opponents to under their season average in scoring, beating UTSA 18-12. The Trojans beat Coastal Carolina 45-26 in the Sun Belt title game.

“Last year was an amazing accomplishment for everyone associated with Troy football and was the product of relentless effort from our players and staff, athletic administration and university leaders,” Sumrall said.