The Big Ten regular season will end before turkey day as it usually does. The final games of the conference slate are scheduled for Nov. 21, but the Badgers will play once more and the Fighting Illini will play twice. Illinois and head coach Ron Zook will travel to face defending Big East champion Cincinnati on Nov. 27 before hosting Fresno State a week later. Wisconsin will travel to Hawaii on Dec. 5 – two weeks following its Big Ten finale at Northwestern.
According to Zook, times are changing and his school's schedule reflects it.
To accommodate the later games, Illinois will have two open weeks this season. Wisconsin will have one. The other nine Big Ten schools have no break. The season begins for all Big Ten schools on Sept. 5, save Indiana, who open two days earlier vs. Eastern Kentucky on a Thursday night.
"You're playing 12 games now, and it's hard for guys to go 12 straight weeks," Zook said of his scheduling. "It's hard for coaches to go 12 straight weeks. You've got injuries. ... So I think (schools) are beginning to make some changes."
Several coaches came out in favor of somehow extending the season, from adding open weeks to expanding to 12 teams, adding divisions and a conference championship game. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said he was on the fence.
"As far as playing later and those kinds of things, you know, part of me is an old traditionalist," Tressel said. "I always enjoyed Thanksgiving weekend because my dad was a football coach, and typically his season had just ended. We got to see him for the first time since the massive Ohio Conference media day that he would head out to, so that was a special time.
"I also have an affinity for the fact that our players who really train all year-round in our conference setup, they have a chance to be home for an extended Thanksgiving weekend, which really there's nothing more important in any of our lives than our family and having the chance to be with them."
Tressel added that the arguments in favor of extending the season have validity, but the complaints that Big Ten schools have too long a period between its final regular season game and its bowl game do not exactly hold true.
"As far as how many days you have in between games, you know, the difference between 46 and 38 or something like that, I'm not sure it's that significant," Tressel said, citing the 43-day gap between Ohio State's 2002 victory over Michigan and the Buckeyes' Fiesta Bowl triumph over Miami (Fla.) for the national championship.
A pair of Tressel's players were split when asked about possibly delaying the end of the season.
"I think it's a chance to get more work in," tight end Jake Ballard said of the gap between the end of the season and the bowl game. "More in the weight room, more in the film room. I think the argument about the wait is blown way out of proportion. I think it gives us a chance to get to know our opponent better and get ready for that bowl game. ... I can't see too many positives about pushing the season back. I don't think it's a negative, but I don't think there's any problem with the way it is now."
Safety Kurt Coleman was in favor of trying to play another game after the end of Big Ten play.
"I don't think the gap directly affects the performance of the bowl game, but I think keeping the competition at a high level is crucial," Coleman said. "You're not going to sit down if you're running a marathon. You want to keep training for the marathon."
Even though Tressel did not exactly seem excited about the prospect of delaying the end of the regular season, several of his counterparts voiced their approval of the idea. Indiana's Bill Lynch cited the year-long commitments of players and how difficult a season can be physically and mentally without a break. Rich Rodriguez of Michigan spoke of his bowl-bound West Virginia teams and how those squads benefitted by playing later into late November and early December. Also, the conference's elder statesman, Penn State's Joe Paterno, called the scheduling moves by Illinois and Wisconsin "a smart thing."
"I felt that way when we played Southern Cal this year," Paterno said. "They had two games after we played, and it's a home game for them. So I think it's a tough deal for a Big Ten team to go out and play a team that's had two good, tough games after we've finished and we're sitting around.
"You can go out there and do some things, but there's not that intensity. There's not that kind of edge that you're going to need. As a result we didn't play very well in California, and I didn't do a very good job of coach. I didn't have them quite ready. So I think that's a good idea and something maybe we've got to look into."
None of the coaches seemed to be more enthusiastic about extending the season than Minnesota head man Tim Brewster. The third-year coach not only voiced his desire to move the end of the season back, but to see the Big Ten add a 12th team, divide into divisions and play a conference championship game.
"I think playing into the month of December would help us," Brewster said. "I look forward to the day when we add a team and we split the divisions and we play for a championship on national TV on a Saturday night in December. I mean, how good would that be for this conference, for the exposure of this conference? I think we're missing a little something there by not having that."
Tressel said Ohio State is "on board with whatever is best for the conference" when it comes to discussions of adding a 12th team or a conference championship game.
"Like any complicated matter it will continue to be discussed, and we'll come up with good solutions," Tressel said.