The Big Ten football schedule is put together very differently than some other Power Five conference slates.
There are significant differences in what the schedule consists of, who puts it together, and what their primary goals are.
In general, the SEC certainly appears at least on the surface to incorporate more input from member schools in putting each season’s schedule together.
One obvious difference is in the number of league games each school plays. Members of the Southeastern Conference face eight conference opponents each season, and four non-conference teams. Many SEC teams schedule at least one opponent from the FCS level.
The Big Ten officially discourages its members from playing FCS teams among their three non-conference games. Big Ten schools also play nine conference games every year.
That nine-game conference schedule is aimed at getting TV partners more quality inventory to show, but was strongly opposed by the league’s coaches at the time it was implemented.
Pat Fitzgerald said Big Ten coaches voted 14-0 AGAINST going to nine league games. "But hey, we do what we're told."
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) July 31, 2015
Instead of adding a conference game to the schedule, the SEC simply shifts its non-conference games around more within the season to ensure that there are at least four conference games on virtually every weekend.
Other games have been shifted as well.
Kentucky and Florida played on the second or third Saturday in November in every season from 1967 to 1991. During Steve Spurrier’s first season with the Gators, they headed north to Lexington on November 17, 1990. The weather was chilly; the high temperature barely hit 50 and the wind was blowing about 10 miles per hour – hardly the ideal conditions for his Fun ‘N Gun offense.
Starting with Spurrier’s second trip to Lexington in 1992, the game between the Wildcats and Gators has been played in September every year except two, when it was moved to mid-October.
Before that September 1992 game, Spurrier told reporters “You never know what kind of weather you could get up there in November.”
With the game safely placed early in the schedule, the Gators ran off wins in every matchup against Kentucky until 2018.
Mark Womack, the SEC’s Executive Associate Commissioner, who coordinates football scheduling, said that moves like that are not a guarantee, but they can be a consideration for the league.
“You look at those kinds of things, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to everybody. It’s something that if it fits into making the schedule matrix work, that’s okay. But if it doesn’t, that’s not going to prevent that game from being played there,” he said.
The positioning of games down the stretch run of the season is also very different as compared to the Big Ten.
The SEC tends to space their premier games out. Alabama always plays LSU on the first Saturday in November. Both teams have had a week off before that matchup every season since 2013.
After that LSU slugfest, the following week the Tide has then faced Mississippi State, historically one of the league’s weaker teams, every year from 2013 to 2019. Then, they face an FCS team before the Iron Bowl showdown with Auburn.
The week off allows the Bayou Bengals and Tide to heal up before their game. After it, the Bulldogs provide a softer followup. They have only finished above .500 in conference play once since 1999. Then Mercer or Charleston Southern provides the functional equivalent of an off-week to heal up and start some early work on Auburn.
Compare that to the Big Ten’s schedules, which have forced Ohio State to face a College Football Playoff semifinalist Michigan State team and a Cotton Bowl champion Penn State squad in the week before Michigan in 2015 and 2019. They’ll be home for Penn State and then at Michigan again in the final two weeks in 2021.
In 2025, they finish with Penn State, Michigan State, and at Michigan in the final three weeks of the regular season. Then, potentially, the Big Ten Championship Game the week after that.
The Nittany Lions closed with a home game against Michigan and a road game at Michigan State in 2015. In 2025, they’ll wrap up the year at Ohio State, home for Michigan, and at Michigan State in consecutive weeks.
Michigan isn’t likely to have a brutal back-to-back to close the year until 2025, when they finish at Penn State and home for OSU.
The “SEC/SoCon Challenge” weekend in the penultimate week of the season has drawn a lot of derision from other parts of the country. And Mike McComiskey, the Big Ten Associate Commissioner for Technology, says that the Big Ten’s schedule could actually be a benefit.
“I think you can make the same argument from the other side. Playing relevant games at that point of the season as the committee is reviewing strongly people’s games, games against those caliber teams are going to pop to the committee a lot more than an FCS opponent is or a bye week and can put those teams in a position to make a much bigger statement to the committee,” he said.
The Big Ten has had talks about trying to intentionally space out what are perceived to be the tougher games on a team’s schedule, but decided against it.
“It’s been discussed in the past, but in the end, they’ve asked us not to necessarily do that,” McComiskey said.
Part of the reason is that the Big Ten announces its schedules so far in advance. The league’s 2025 schedule is already out, and releasing it five years or more before the games are played can make things unpredictable. McComiskey pointed to Michigan State as a team whose profile changed a lot in the past. The Spartans went from 6-7 in 2009 to a College Football Playoff semifinalist in 2015.
“There are certainly teams that have that historically strong, but even those teams have had off-years,” said McComiskey. “We try not to play crystal ball that far in the future. You just don’t know who’s going to be there, coach-wise student-wise, they’ve asked us not to do that prediction.”
The SEC hasn’t released its 2025 schedule yet. Nor has it announced the schedules for 2024, 2023, 2022, or even 2021. As of January 14, the only SEC conference games with definite dates announced are for the 2020 season.
That home stretch isn’t the only time that Big Ten teams can face a brutal multi-week slog.
Ohio State will face Iowa, then play back-to-back road games at Michigan State and Penn State this October.
Penn State plays at Michigan, then has a week off before playing home games against Iowa and Ohio State in the same month.
Michigan plays Penn State at home, then at Michigan State and at Minnesota in consecutive weeks in October.
Any of the three will be fortunate to escape from October unscathed.
Then Michigan and Ohio State play November schedules consisting entirely of a combination of Indiana, Maryland, Illinois, and Rutgers before The Game.
In 2012, Alabama had to play LSU, which finished 14th in the final AP poll, one week before traveling to face Texas A&M, which finished the year ranked No. 5. The Tide lost that game to Johnny Manziel and the Aggies, which almost certainly would have kept them out of the BCS title game if Ohio State had been eligible to play in the postseason.
Only once since then has the Tide faced SEC teams that finished the year ranked in the AP top-25 in back-to-back weeks.
In 2017, they had to play #18 LSU and #19 Mississippi State in consecutive weeks. Every other year, their toughest games have had at least a little cushion around them.
LSU has only faced teams that finished the year in back-to-back weeks once since 2014. That was when they had to play #7 Florida and #8 Georgia back-to-back in 2018, losing to the Gators.
In contrast, Ohio State closed the 2019 regular season against No. 13 Penn State and No. 17 Michigan.
The 2016 Buckeyes had back-to-back road trips against teams that finished No. 9 (Wisconsin) and No. 7 (Penn State).
And in 2015, it was No. 6 Michigan State and No. 12 Michigan to close the regular season for OSU.
The Buckeyes aren’t unique among Big Ten teams in that department. For instance, in 2017, Penn State had back-to-back road games against an Ohio State program that finished the year ranked No. 5 and Michigan State which finished 15th.
As McComiskey said, it’s not always possible to know exactly who’s going to be good when you’re scheduling five years out.
Of course, the Big Ten doesn’t have to schedule that far out. The SEC hasn’t yet released its 2021 schedule. If they wanted to tweak something to reflect a change in some program’s status before releasing it, they could still do that.
McComiskey said the conference schedules 5+ seasons in the future for the convenience of its members.
“Our institutions do like to be able to know kind of who they’re playing when, as they’re scheduling their non-conference games. There are a number of schools that are scheduled out past 2025 right now, but they still have more flexibility as to who and when. They can slide those from year to year if the conference schedule comes out,” he said.
Just like the league isn’t forced to schedule far into the future, no one says the Big Ten has to play nine conference games each year. Or that the Big Ten has to basically treat each schedule as a blind draw, sometimes sticking its College Football Playoff contenders with difficult games back-to-back.
Fans of Ohio State and other Big Ten schools love to mock the SEC for playing weak opponents in late November or taking other steps to set their schedules up to allow their teams to succeed.
But the SEC is playing to win, and doing it within the rules. The Big Ten could do the same thing.