Filling Big 10 Schedules a Balancing Act

Fans are not the only ones who can't wait for those marquee early-season games, like Ohio State's trip to Miami this weekend.

''As a player, man, you love `em,'' said Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell, a former Buckeyes player. ''You believe you're invincible, and that's what sometimes makes you good.''

Miami has been stricken by scandal, but winning at Coral Gables isn't expected to be easy for Ohio State. So isn't this a risk, no matter the recruiting benefits that might come with a little exposure in talent-rich Florida?

''You want to be able to test your team,'' Fickell said. ''Some people get too caught up in, `Well, you know we've got to be smart before you get into your conference because if we lose a game we can't get in the BCS.' I don't think you can think about it that way.''

Said Illinois coach Ron Zook, whose team hosts 22nd-ranked Arizona State this Saturday: ''This is why you come to the Big Ten, to play in these kind of games.''

Satisfying ticket buyers, attracting recruits and toughening up players for the conference-game grind requires a balancing act by coaches and administrators.

They must schedule a minimum number of home games to keep ticket, concession and parking revenue up. They have to consider the importance of overall records for bowl bids. There's an aspect of goodwill, too, with helping smaller area schools who relish playing on a bigger stage and need Big Ten money to balance their budgets.

Ohio State paid Akron $850,000 to lose 42-0 in the season opener in Columbus, and the Buckeyes are giving Colorado $1.4 million to come to the `Shoe on Sept. 24.

This is how the matrix begins to fit together: Playing in Columbus is a thrill for the Ohio-born players on Akron's roster. It's greater exposure for the program. For the Buckeyes, it's a guaranteed home game and, usually, a sure win.

Akron's athletics department must generate about 25 percent of its own revenue, according to athletics director Tom Wistrcill, so taking home close to $1 million for playing one tough nonconference game is a no-brainer.

''We've got to go play these money games,'' Wistrcill said. ''That's life at a mid-major.''

Michigan will start next season against Alabama in Texas at the home of the Dallas Cowboys. The Wolverines still have two open dates to fill in 2012. They're already playing Air Force and traveling to Notre Dame.

''We've always played an aggressive schedule where I've been,'' Wolverines coach Brady Hoke said.

Nebraska coach Bo Pellini espoused the same philosophy.

''My view is to challenge your team to get ready for conference play, but obviously you can't play four top-10 teams every year,'' Pellini said. ''But I do think you want to put a product out there on the field and schedule games that are good for your fans. ... You can't always get what you want.''

Just ask Minnesota coach Jerry Kill.

He inherited a 2011 schedule with a season-opening trip to USC. The Gophers played well and lost 19-17, but during the week of the game he frankly said it wasn't his preference to play the Trojans on the road, despite the exposure and experience gained by the young Gophers.

''There's an art when you turn a program around. We have large plans for what I think it's going to take to turn the program around. Part of that is scheduling,'' Kill said.

Kill had a seizure on the sideline last week near the end of Minnesota's game against New Mexico State, a scary scene that overshadowed a rather ugly loss for the Gophers. Not only were they beaten at home by a team from a non-BCS conference that hasn't been to a bowl game since 1960, they paid $800,000 to do it.

Most Big Ten teams play at least one opponent from a BCS conference - the ACC, the Big East, the Big 12, the SEC or the Pac-12 - each season. This year, only Iowa (Iowa State and Pittsburgh) and Ohio State (Miami, Fla., and Colorado) are playing two.

Most of them also look for one FCS foe - Minnesota hosts North Dakota State and Wisconsin takes on South Dakota, for example - to fill out the four-game slate. That typically leaves two spots for teams from the five non-BCS conferences at the FBS level - Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt and the WAC.

It's not so simple, though.

Local and traditional rivalries are factored in. Iowa is committed to playing Iowa State, just like Notre Dame always lands on the schedule with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.

Sometimes, schools will sign two-and-one contracts, where a team like Miami of Ohio will visit Minnesota twice (including this Saturday) and the Gophers will travel there once.

''It's a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle,'' said Marc Ryan, an associate athletics director at Minnesota who works on scheduling.

Sometimes, finalizing agreements with other schools can take up to a year to complete, juggling dates and working out payments.

Minnesota, for example, has a parking arrangement at the nearby State Fairgrounds for home games through 2012, preventing the Gophers from playing on Labor Day weekend on campus for the first four years of TCF Bank Stadium.

Supply and demand economics are always in play. Just ask Purdue.

Ten months before their scheduled game, which was supposed to be this season's opener, Kent State backed out of the contract and was sent a bill for $425,000, the agreed-upon price to play that game at Ross-Ade Stadium, Purdue spokesman Tom Schott said. Kent State had found a game against Alabama instead - for $1.2 million. Purdue filled the slot with Middle Tennessee State.

The Gophers have their opponents set through 2014, but they, like the rest of their Big Ten competition, have an eye on 2017, when the conference season will go to nine games. That will probably reduce the number of high-profile matchups against teams like USC, because playing less than seven home games is not an option.

That means every other year, when they're playing four Big Ten home games instead of five, they'll need all three nonconference games to be at home.

''Then we're going to have three games, and you'd better win those three. You know, there's going to be a whole change in the Big Ten scheduling because of what's going to happen,'' Kill said.


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