The USC and UCLA. The Big Ten calls its plan the "Flex Protect Plus model," one which ensures schools will play one another at least once every two years with home-and-away meetings against everybody at least once every four years.as the conference prepares for the addition of
The league is sticking with a nine-game conference schedule but scrapping the East and West divisions. Going division-less is a trend sweeping nearly every Power Five league with the focus becoming the best two teams meeting in conference championship games.
That's the simple part of the plan. After that, things get a bit complicated -- particularly when it comes to protected rivalries, which are not apples to apples across the conference. For instance, Iowa has three protected rivalries (Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin) yet five schools only have two protected rivals, nine have just one and Penn State is a rivalry orphan with none.
Here are some primary takeaways from the Big Ten scheduling announcement.
This was the path of least resistance
Logically, the 3-6-6 model made the most sense. Each school would have three protected rivals and rotate between the other 12 conference schools six at a time. That ensures teams play one another once every two years and home-and-away every four years -- creating a "balanced" schedule for all involved. The problem with the 3-6-6 model and the 2-7-7 (same idea but with two protected rivalries) is getting 16 different schools to agree on their rivals. Particularly when two of those 16 schools (USC, UCLA) are located thousands of miles away and have no established history against the rest of the conference outside of Rose Bowls meet-ups.
The Flex Protect Plus model allows everybody to keep the games they want most. That's why Iowa gets three rivals in Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, yet Penn State doesn't get any. Iowa wanted to play those three every year, whereas Penn State probably said, "As long as we don't have to play Michigan and Ohio State every year, we don't care what you do!"
For an idea of how difficult it is to get everybody to agree, refer to the SEC's recent decision to stick with an eight-game schedule after nobody could agree on a nine-game model.
This also gives the Big Ten an out. The conference only released opponents for two seasons; it will simultaneously serve as proof of concept and allowed the league to iron out any wrinkles that could appear in the plan. Seeing this is college football, and we're all humans (at least I assume you are not an AI machine reading this), odds are high wrinkles will appear.
This will make for incredible television
I appreciate when conferences are forthright, and the Big Ten was just that in its release. When explaining why the conference chose the model, it said the goal was to "balance and maximize television inventory each season." When you see the conference has USC playing Michigan in 2024 and Ohio State in 2025, that didn't happen to keep USC from having to play both in the same season. The plan is to ensure it will have a USC vs. Michigan or USC vs. Ohio State on television every year.
With schools like Ohio State only having Michigan as a protected rival, should another school "level up" in any given year, the conference can then schedule a game between that program and other powers in any given season.
Television is why USC, UCLA, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland are in the Big Ten. While it may go against tradition and our finer sensibilities, it should be at the heart of scheduling decisions. In this model, it will be.
This allows mitigation of imbalance
For years there was a natural imbalance in the Big Ten due to the East and West divisions. The East was far and away the more difficult division, and it proved that by winning the Big Ten Championship Game every year of its existence. It was a miserable life for Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers and sometimes even Michigan State and Penn State. Now those divisions are gone, and the path to the Big Ten title becomes more difficult for teams that had been in the West.
Schedule imbalance may be mitigated, but it has not disappeared. With this model, every year will see a team with an "easier" schedule, and perhaps that school can take advantage and "sneak" into the Big Ten Championship Game. But there isn't a model option where imbalance won't exist. Even in a 3-6-6 model, some schools will have "easier" rivalries than others.
This model does have the ability to mitigate that imbalance as much as possible, though. As programs rise or fall, the conference can adjust, which will not only help it create strong television matchups but allow the league to maximize its College Football Playoff potential.
Maryland, Penn State fans should be thrilled
If you'd told me when the College Football Playoff began that 10 years in the Big Ten would have as many schools reach the playoff as the SEC, I might have been surprised -- only because the SEC has been so dominant. However, if you had told me the Big Ten would have three different schools reach the playoff, and none of them were Penn State, I'd be shocked.
But that's been Penn State's lot in the the Big Ten East where it had to get through Michigan and Ohio State every year. That's no longer the case. Penn State will play Ohio State in 2024 and Michigan in 2025. Sure, it gets USC twice, but that's a trade-off most Nittany Lions fans will take. While it still isn't easy, the path to the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff became less difficult.
Then there's Maryland. The Terrapins went from a world where they had to play Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State every year to a new life where their only guaranteed opponent is Rutgers. This is like loading up on AP courses in your junior year so you can take Bowling and Intro to Checkers as a senior.
You'll see UCLA-Rutgers more than Ohio State-Penn State
OK, that's not a takeaway; I just think it's funny. Geographically, UCLA is the Big Ten's westernmost school, and Rutgers is the easternmost, so for them to play in each season goes against the whole idea of minimizing travel, doesn't it? Ah, well, no schedule is perfect.
This model is surprisingly ... good
I'll be honest; as somebody who grew up in the Big Ten footprint and has followed the conference his entire life, I hadn't been happy with many of the league's decisions lately. While I understand why it's expanded this way , I am not a fan of the moves that have been made.
When I first heard rumors of the flex model gaining steam within the league, I was prepared to hate it. But I don't. Now that I've seen it, it strikes me as one of the most thoughtful decisions the Big Ten has made in a long time.
That doesn't mean it's perfect, nor does it mean that problems won't arise. They will. But as a Big Ten alumnus, I'm pleased with what the conference has done here. Other Big Ten fans should be, too.