Non-conference schedules set to pick up

Big Ten athletic directors met in Chicago Tuesday. Among their most pressing concerns was the need for stronger non-conference scheduling.

CHICAGO— When Northwestern touches down in Berkeley this August, it will be doing more than starting its hyped 2013 season and catching some sun. When the Cats kick off against Cal, they'll be taking a risk. They'll also begin cultivating a relationship.

Like every other FBS program, Northwestern chose its non-conference schedule for this fall. With such flexibility came an inevitable cop out–Western Michigan (the replacement when Vanderbilt quit on its NU series by snail mail) and Maine combined to go 9-14 against relatively unheard of competition–but also some initiative.

Opening in California Memorial Stadium before returning to Evanston to play Syracuse for the second time in two years, the Wildcats give themselves a bit of a challenge during what many teams use as an extended preseason.

And it's just the beginning.

"We have to strengthen our own conference schedule," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said in a meeting of Big Ten heads Tuesday. "I don't think there's a question about that."

Alvarez's Badgers begin 2013 hosting paltry Massachusetts and FCS competition Tennessee Tech before a challenge with Pac-12 dynamo Arizona State. It's not a Wisconsin-specific vow, either. Every athletic director that talked to the media Tuesday emphasized the importance of building a credentialed non-conference slate beginning to the year.

"We collaborate a's sort of a co-op," Penn State's Dave Joyner said about the Big Ten's effort to reach out to other major-conference opponents.

Joyner added that when teams have scheduled games fall through–like Northwestern's bout with Vanderbilt–athletic directors work together to help find viable replacements. It gives the conference a more cohesive effort to improve its national outlook, and as Joyner pointed out, it could make all the difference come postseason play.

"The committee is going to have strength of schedule be an important element of figuring out who those teams are," Michigan's David Brandon said about the newly instituted four-team playoff in college football. "If you're playing better teams, it's going to make you better."

Brandon's Wolverines opened their 2012 season with a nationally televised game against defending champion Alabama at Cowboys Stadium last September. Three weeks later, they took on Notre Dame, who would go on to meet the Crimson Tide in the BCS title game. Despite his program taking two of its four losses before Big Ten play even began, Brandon is still a vocal proponent for a tough non-conference slate.

"Football can be pretty boring in September if you have all your teams playing down to competition," he said. "We don't want to be boring."

With Michigan's storied rivalry game with Notre Dame set to end after this season, the Wolverines are already looking for strong, major conference replacements. Among them, Brandon said, is Virginia Tech.

Those non-conference relationships like Michigan/Notre Dame is exactly what the Cats need in their effort to reach national prominence. Northwestern began picking up steam with consecutive games against Vanderbilt, and now the Wildcats will have back-to-back non-conference schedules featuring Syracuse, a program that's far from Notre Dame but is certainly not a Western Michigan or a Maine.

Of course, there's still a huge risk that comes with looking to develop relationships with Syracuse and eventually bigger programs. An improving team like Northwestern can't afford early season losses, especially on the verge of a nine-game Big Ten schedule that's set to begin in 2016. Without a breather with non-conference play, talented Wildcat teams down the road could be taking a few more losses than expected.

For now, Northwestern enjoys four very winnable non-conference games, something that's welcomed with open arms as the Cats prepare to host Ohio State in October.

But as the program continues to reach new heights, and as the Big Ten ardently works at reclaiming its reputation as one of the country's strongest conferences, don't expect too many more Maines.

Because nobody wants to be boring.

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