BIG TEN SPOTLIGHT: 10-2 start has more shine than 2016 mark
The Big Ten went 10-2 in nonconference play last week. It was the same number of losses it had on opening weekend a year ago.
The difference was four FCS teams served as first-week fodder in 2016. There were none this year, and the Big Ten is better off for it.
Maryland coach D.J. Durkin said his team probably is further along in its development after its 51-41 win at then-No. 23 Texas than it was after the Terrapins’ starters came out early in the second half of a 52-13 win over FCS Howard in last year’s opener.
“More than anything, going on the road in Game 1 and being in a hostile environment and getting the win, you find out more,” he said. “There was adversity in that game. We did find out a lot about our team, ourselves.”
This is the first year the conference is seeing the effects of its policy announced in 2015 that mandates no nonconference games against Football Championship Subdivision opponents, except those already on the schedule. The purposes are to strengthen the profiles of teams considered for the College Football Playoff and to create more attractive matchups for fans.
Commissioner Jim Delany said this summer the policy would be modified to allow a team to play an FCS opponent in years when that team has only four conference home games. Schools generally need seven home games a year for budgetary reasons, and Delany acknowledges it can be difficult to find three Bowl Subdivision teams willing to visit in a single year. Even at that, Delany said he expected there to be only four to seven games a year against opponents from the lower division.
The Big Ten has two games against FCS opponents this year, fewest in the nation. The Southeastern Conference has 14, with each of its teams playing one. The Atlantic Coast Conference has 13, with all but Boston College playing one. The Pac-12 plays eight games against FCS teams and the Big 12 plays seven.
The Big Ten’s FCS games are Towson at Maryland on Saturday and Morgan State at Rutgers on Sept. 16. Maryland signed its contract with Towson in 2012, and Rutgers set up the Morgan State game in 2010. Neither Maryland nor Rutgers has FCS opponents lined up after this year.
Rutgers, coming off a 30-14 loss to Washington, this week hosts an Eastern Michigan team from the Mid-American Conference that went to a bowl last season. Last year the Scarlet Knights’ second game was against Howard, and they rolled up 512 yards in a 52-14 win.
“Honestly,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said, “I would rather play a team from the MAC like we’re doing than playing an FCS team because you do find out a little bit more about your team.”
Last year Big Ten teams played seven games against FCS teams, with North Dakota State upsetting Iowa. That was in addition to 14 nonconference games against power-five opponents and major independents Notre Dame and BYU. Maryland and Purdue played no power fives.
This year there are again 14 games against the power fives and major independents, and Illinois essentially plays an equivalent by visiting 21st-ranked South Florida of the American Athletic Conference.
Purdue plays two power fives. The Boilermakers lost to Louisville last week and meet Missouri in two weeks. They also have two power fives in both 2018 and ’19 and five meetings with Notre Dame between 2021-27. The only FCS team on their future schedule is Indiana State, in 2022.
“It’s about getting in game settings, getting in big-time venues against great opponents, seeing how you measure up and where you have to go,” Purdue first-year coach Jeff Brohm said.
Minnesota played an FCS opponent seven of the previous nine years and has South Dakota State on the 2019 schedule. The Gophers have not won or shared a Big Ten title since 1967, and they are no threat to win one in the near term. First-year coach P.J. Fleck, pointing out the strength of the Big Ten, was non-committal on whether he would schedule FCS opponents in years that he can.
“I know there are teams that need to do it until you get your program to a point where you can compete for Big Ten championships every year,” he said. “That’s the challenge we all face as you move your schedule forward, especially in the Big Ten with nine conference games.”