Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Options for Embracing a Wild, Wild West of Scheduling

August 18, 2020

Depending on who you talk to, college football’s power brokers are all at the same time charting a path forward that gives it the best possible chance to play football in the fall months of 2020, delaying an inevitable complete shutdown of the sport, looking out for the health and safety of the players and staff involved in holding games, and exploiting amateur athletes for a profit they’ll see none of.

Nearing the midway point of July, no one really seems to know what’s going to happen with the 2020 college football season. Some have fears. The state of Florida reporting more new coronavirus cases on Sunday than the entire country of South Korea has had period serves to highlight the dire circumstances our country faces in reopening things to a public that seems at best indifferent about following the guidelines being given to them.

Some (read: Nebraska’s athletic director Bill Moos) still hold out hope football can be played. Moos told Sam McKewon at The Omaha World-Herald he was fighting for a 12-game conference schedule.

Either way, the Big Ten is in an unbelievably better situation right now than the SEC is when it comes to the viability of playing football in September, October, and November. Coronavirus situations for states that fall within the Big Ten’s footprint don’t seem to be as dire as they do elsewhere.

Still, the path forward for the league appears to be a 10-game conference-only schedule, though reportedly the number of games is still up for some debate. The Big Ten may have bought itself some time. I don’t know. I’m less optimistic than I was two weeks ago, but that the Big Ten seems willing to throw caution to the wind and say, “We’re going to get weird with it,” at least offers hope.

At the very least, the league certainly seems to have manufactured a good deal of flexibility moving forward. It can simply adjust timetables for games already on the schedule, or it can completely wipe the slate clean and throw anything and everything at the whiteboard in the coming weeks to see what sticks.

Since there’s been no announcement yet from the conference about just how many games it will try to play in 2020, let’s have a fun thought experiment. Here are four ideas for Nebraska’s schedule this season.

Option No. 1: We’re playing 10 games, so who’s Nebraska adding?

This one’s the easiest and the least messy. Nebraska has four home games currently, and five trips away from Memorial Stadium. They are as follows:

  • Home: Purdue (Sept. 5), Illinois (Oct. 10), Penn State (Nov. 7), Minnesota (Nov. 27)
  • Road: Northwestern (Oct. 3), Rutgers (Oct. 24), Ohio State (Oct. 31), Iowa (Nov. 14), Wisconsin (Nov. 21)

As the Huskers were originally scheduled to have seven home games this season, it stands to reason the 10th game being hypothetically added back would be a home game. If not, I imagine someone in the league office will be getting their face ripped off through a telephone.

The options for addition would be Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Michigan State. Just from a pure entertainment standpoint, you’d probably want to see Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh come to Lincoln so we can get Frost-Harbaugh Vol. 3, but that might not be the closest of affairs and Nebraska probably doesn’t want to have to play the top three teams in the West and the top three teams in the East in the same season. That would be overkill.

Indiana would also be entertaining considering what happened the last time the two teams played. Indiana left Lincoln feeling jaded by the Huskers after an away-from-the-field issue, but nevertheless left with a 38-31 win. “This is what it’s come to?” Husker fans asked at the time of the game. “We’re losing to Indiana in football now?” Tom Allen’s Hoosier teams are usually brutally physical, and if the alternative is a rebuilding Michigan State or a Maryland team one year removed from getting thumped by everybody on the schedule with a pulse, I think Nebraska will opt for the latter.

Maryland does seem like the team. After going to College Park a season ago, it’d be natural for the Terps to come to Lincoln the following year. Both have immediately relevant tape of the other to help with preparation. Nebraska will (privately) feel like Maryland can replace one of the “winnable” games on the schedule that was axed this week. Maryland’s options would be Purdue, Nebraska, Iowa or Wisconsin; seeing as the Terps are already on the tougher side of the league, Wisconsin and Iowa are probably off the table. It would feel like its best chance at a competitive game would be Purdue or Nebraska.

If this is the route the Big Ten takes, it won’t be able to just add a game to each team’s schedule and then mosey along on its way. Nebraska presently has a month gap between Game 1 and Game 2 on the calendar. We’d need a re-drafting of the calendar. ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg reported the Big Ten had interest in front-loading divisional games in order to make sure they get in. In his interview with the local papers, Moos said he’d want to see divisional games in the middle of the season.

An option Brandon Vogel floated on this week’s podcast makes a lot of sense: five games for everyone, then a bye week break, then another five games. If everyone started on Sept. 5, it would mean no Big Ten games the weekend of Oct. 10, but it would ensure the easiest way to make up games if teams get hit hard one particular week and have to cancel one. You’d have multiple windows to easily reschedule games, one at the midway point and then several at the end. The league could also push back the start date and still have multiple weeks to hold for rescheduling.

Option No. 2: A nine-game schedule, you play who you planned to, and we just adjust when

Let’s say the Big Ten’s leaders can’t come to a consensus on adding an additional conference game to the schedule. Everyone wants to add the easiest game possible, the league wants to schedule something like Wisconsin-Ohio State to make up for the marquee non-conference games it lost but neither the Badgers nor Buckeyes want that, and not everyone can get what they want. So, the conference just says stick at nine and we’ll play from there. (I have no insider information that this would even happen, I can’t imagine Nebraska would be on board.) So instead they just agree to keep things at nine and try to get in as many games as possible.

Would Nebraska be able to talk the conference into rescheduling it’s last two games and placing them into the month-gap between Sept. 5 and Oct. 3? If so, it would be able to play Purdue on Sept. 5, then play Wisconsin on the road on, say, Sept. 12, hold a bye week, then play Minnesota at home on Sept. 26. Travel to Northwestern the following week (Oct. 3), then home for a game against Illinois on Oct. 10. Then you have another bye week.

One of the road opponents would need to agree to swap with NU in order to get to five home games in Lincoln. But of the five road opponents this season for Nebraska, three of them (Northwestern, Iowa, Wisconsin) are in the same boat as NU. Rutgers and Ohio State each have five home games, so one of them agreeing to swap would just put them at the disadvantage.

It’s unlikely, but we’re living in a world of uncertainty right now so it’s really anyone’s guess what actually happens.

Option No. 3: Fun with home-and-homes

Here’s where we get weird. (This was another of Brandon’s ideas, just slightly modified.)

Scrap the present schedules altogether, we’re creating something new. Notre Dame is left in the wind if each of the Power Five conferences goes to a conference-only schedule, and it looks like that’s where we’re headed. If the ACC and SEC follow suit and the ACC can’t work something out with Notre Dame, the Irish lose 10 of their 12 games. So let’s add them to the Big Ten for one season to get to 15. Then we split things up into three pods of five, based on proximity.

  • Pod 1: Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois
  • Pod 2: Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame, Michigan
  • Pod 3: Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers

Pod No. 3 isn’t close outside of The Game participants, but the bill’s coming due for spreading out the footprint so much.

Now, each team plays a home-and-home with the other teams in its pod. That would get us to eight games for each school. Pick two from the other pods to get to 10. Notre Dame gets to 10 guaranteed (two additional out-of-pod games below) and can try and cobble together whatever else it wants.

A hypothetical final 10-game schedule for each team:

  • Illinois: Iowa (x2), Minnesota (x2), Nebraska (x2), Wisconsin (x2), at Penn State, home against Rutgers
  • Indiana: Michigan (x2), Notre Dame (x2), Northwestern (x2), Purdue (x2), at Iowa, home against Penn State
  • Iowa: Illinois, (x2), Minnesota (x2), Nebraska (x2), Wisconsin (x2), at Ohio State as currently scheduled, home against Indiana
  • Maryland: Michigan State (x2), Ohio State (x2), Penn State (x2), Rutgers (x2), at Northwestern, home against Notre Dame
  • Michigan: Indiana (x2), Notre Dame (x2), Northwestern (x2), Purdue (x2), at Michigan State as currently scheduled, home against Ohio State
  • Michigan State: Maryland (x2), Ohio State (x2), Penn State (x2), Rutgers (x2), at Wisconsin, home against Michigan
  • Minnesota: Nebraska, (x2), Iowa (x2), Wisconsin (x2), Illinois (x2), at Purdue, home against Northwestern
  • Nebraska: Illinois (x2), Iowa (x2), Minnesota (x2), Wisconsin (x2), at Rutgers, home against Purdue
  • Northwestern: Indiana (x2), Michigan (x2), Notre Dame (x2), Purdue (x2), at Minnesota, home against Maryland
  • Ohio State: Maryland (x2), Michigan State (x2), Penn State (x2), Rutgers (x2), at Michigan, home against Iowa
  • Penn State: Maryland (x2), Michigan State (x2), Ohio State (x2), Rutgers (x2), at Indiana, home against Illinois
  • Purdue: Indiana (x2), Michigan (x2), Northwestern (x2), Notre Dame (x2), at Nebraska, home against Minnesota
  • Rutgers: Maryland (x2), Michigan State (x2), Ohio State (x2), Penn State (x2), at Illinois, home against Nebraska
  • Wisconsin: Nebraska, (x2), Iowa (x2), Minnesota (x2), Illinois (x2), at Notre Dame, Michigan State at home

All of the major conference rivalry games are preserved. The pods are fairly balanced, and everyone gets to 10 games. Notre Dame would have to agree to comply with all of the Big Ten’s regulations and protocols with regards to the coronavirus, but the school has seemingly enough money to do the same thing as any other Big Ten institution, and if the tradeoff is a 10-game schedule guaranteed, then why not?

As I don’t believe we’ll be watching football in December and the divisions have been cut-up, the team with the best record at the end of the year gets the Big Ten title.

Option No. 4: Buddy up with those close to you, regardless of conference affiliation

This is anarchic in concept, to be quite honest. The only way something like this would happen is if the major conferences decided they weren’t going to play a season this fall, and the individual schools revolted against that decision (which Nebraska wouldn’t) and agreed to just host games anyway with whoever would agree to play them. I don’t know how money works in this scenario, I don’t know how TV rights packages work in this scenario, and I don’t know how eligibility gets impacted in this scenario. Seeing as this will never happen, it kinda feels like the minutiae don’t really need to be sussed out.

What if Nebraska just put together a schedule of the teams based on proximity to Lincoln?

(In reality, the physical distance between Point A and Point B doesn’t matter as much to Nebraska and the Big Ten right now as the consistency of protocols in both places. To the Big Ten, Nebraska flying 1,200 miles to Rutgers is a safer option than South Dakota State driving the 270-some miles to Lincoln because the Big Ten can assure that both Nebraska and Rutgers are testing at the same frequency and following the same health and safety guidelines whereas it can’t have those assurances with the Jackrabbits. Even though South Dakota is in a similar spot as Nebraska when it comes to virus exposure, it’s more about the protocols in place. But if NU is rebelling against the league, it could hypothetically just make whatever team is playing it agree to procedures of its choosing.)

If we were to look at teams a minimum of 300 (ish) miles away, Nebraska could play a nine-game schedule that looked something like this:

  • Kansas at home on Sept. 5
  • South Dakota State at home on Sept. 19 (the originally scheduled day)
  • Kansas State on the road on Sept. 26
  • Iowa State at home on Oct. 10
  • South Dakota at home on Oct. 17
  • Missouri on the road on Oct. 24
  • Northern Iowa at home on Nov. 7
  • Drake on the road on Nov. 14
  • Iowa on the road on Friday, Nov. 27

That would be fun. Can I interest anyone in a 7-2 Nebraska football team?

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