Why the Big Ten ditched divisions and protected 11 games

ByESPN.com ESPN logo
Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Big Ten has unveiled its football schedule model for the 2024 and 2025 seasons when the league expands to 16 members with the arrivals of UCLA and USC.

All hail Flex Protect Plus!

The league's new model features no divisions and 11 protected annual games that are not evenly spread between the teams. The Big Ten focused on preserving the games its schools cared about most, from the obvious (Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA, Michigan-Michigan State, Indiana-Purdue) to the historic (Minnesota-Wisconsin) to recent regional rivalries (Iowa-Nebraska) to matchups for odd trophies (Illinois-Purdue, where the Purdue Cannon is at stake).

Every Big Ten matchup will take place twice in a four-year span, once at each team's home site. USC and UCLA will face every Big Ten team at least once before the end of 2025, and every Big Ten team will play once in Los Angeles in the same span.

Flexibility is at the core of the Big Ten's approach, and the league wants to -- get this, SEC -- play each other more often as both the membership and the CFP expand in 2024. But there are also some drawbacks and items to debate.

ESPN's Bill Connelly, Adam Rittenberg, Paolo Uggetti and Tom VanHaaren break down what the Big Ten's announcement means.

What are the ramifications of eliminating divisions?

Connelly: The primary effect is simply that the two best teams will actually play for the conference title. Looking at my SP+ rankings, the top two teams in the conference were East division teams eight of the past 10 years, and the East boasted the top three in four years during that span. It was certainly fun writing about unique division title runs -- Northwestern's in 2018 and 2020, for instance, and Purdue's (nearly Illinois') in 2022 -- but only three of the past 11 Big Ten Championships have been decided by single digits, and Michigan has won the past two by a combined 85-25. Division imbalance isn't the only thing that produces title-game blowouts, but it doesn't help.

On the downside, you get messy new issues when it comes to tiebreakers and the odd idea of, say, Michigan and Ohio State playing each other in back-to-back weeks. But it's hard to complain too much about anything that produces better conference championship matchups and results and everyone in the conference actually playing each other semiregularly.

Rittenberg: There likely will be repeat Ohio State-Michigan matchups in Indianapolis. But the league still gets a more compelling title game in most seasons, even if both teams likely will have CFP spots already confirmed. Although fewer teams realistically will be in the conference title mix, you also should have a few more that are still in CFP contention as the regular season winds down. The big upside with eliminating divisions is the removal of annual games that don't need to be played. A more robust schedule rotation is a win for fans, players and TV. Every player will have an opportunity to play in every Big Ten venue before his career ends. Also, the number of weeks with three or four nationally significant games goes up significantly in the new format.

Uggetti: From the vantage point of newcomers USC and UCLA, divisions could have been beneficial if both were inserted into the historically weaker West division. As Adam, Tom and Bill have pointed out, the East has dominated the title game and by extension the CFP conversation in recent years and so there could have been a world in which we'd be getting USC-Ohio State Big Ten title games. Of course in this new, division-less format that still might happen, which is why it's ultimately the best move as part of the conference's new look. USC got a taste of this last year after the Pac-12 eliminated divisions -- instead of facing the best team in the division formerly known as the North (Washington), the Trojans had to face Utah again in the conference title game. That turned out poorly for USC.

Is the Big Ten format fair?

VanHaaren: It depends on how you look at the current format. I think the current setup was unfair because we didn't always get the two best teams in the conference championship game. That being said, if there were no divisions in the past, we would have had a ton of Michigan-Ohio State games, which some fans might not like. I don't think there's a perfect way to do this, but I don't think the current format makes sense. Had the conference evened out the divisions, that might be a good solution.

Rittenberg: Usually, schedule formats are all about uniformity and trying to achieve an image of evenness/fairness. The Big Ten's stands out because there are notable differences in the number of protected games per team. Iowa has three while Penn State has none. I wonder over time how Penn State, which has been vocal about repeatedly opening Big Ten play on the road, views having a more active overall schedule rotation than other teams, including Michigan (two protected games) and Ohio State (one). The Big Ten says it polled all of its members about the games that really mattered and ones that could rotate in and out. But schools could change their positions once the format goes into effect.

Connelly: The new format is certainly more fair to teams in the East! Not including the abbreviated 2020 season, Maryland and Rutgers have each played all of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State every season since they joined in 2014. In that same range, Nebraska has played those three teams a combined eight times. The new format creates familiarity among all opponents but avoids a natural schedule imbalance based on division lines. Win-win.

What games are we losing and would like to keep?

Connelly: The good thing about this format is that we aren't really LOSING any games: Even the ones that aren't played annually still happen every other year on average. That's great for familiarity and continuity. That said, if we're preserving Illinois-Purdue (and hey, hooray for the continued relevance of the Purdue Cannon), I hate that we're whiffing on a chance to make Michigan-Minnesota annual again -- I want my Little Brown Jug!

Rittenberg: The model's overall flexibility really helps, but any year when Ohio State and Penn State don't play feels a bit strange. Since I started covering the Big Ten for ESPN in 2008, the Ohio State-Penn State game has had more leaguewide significance than any other annual pairing, even Ohio State-Michigan. Both environments are electric and the field always contains a good number of future NFL players. Here's hoping OSU-PSU doesn't rotate off for two seasons very often.

Games we're most excited for?

VanHaaren: I would have liked to see an Ohio State-USC game, but the Bruins and the Buckeyes should still be a good one. The one I have my eye on, though, is Michigan-USC, who haven't faced each other since the 2007 Rose Bowl. That game could have major ramifications for the conference title and for the playoff if both teams stay on their current track. USC's high-powered offense against a Michigan defense should be fun to watch and Michigan will travel to USC to play the game. I also like getting Penn State and Ohio State in 2024. The Nittany Lions are on an upward trajectory and will have a third-year quarterback in Drew Allar and third-year running backs in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen in 2024. That could be fun to watch.

Connelly: I agree about Ohio State-USC -- if you're going to make a move like adding USC and UCLA to a conference of eastern and midwestern programs, I would have figured you would aim to get the most recognizable helmets playing each other as frequently as possible and make that an annual rivalry. They're obviously still going to be playing a lot, but that omission was a surprise. But obviously with USC at Penn State, Michigan at USC, UCLA at Michigan, Ohio State at UCLA, etc., we're still getting lots of super-intriguing helmet games right off the bat.

Rittenberg: I really wanted both USC and UCLA to visit one of the mega stadiums in Year 1, which is achieved with the Trojans going to Penn State and the Bruins headed to Michigan. I agree with the others that waiting until 2025 for Ohio State-USC is a mini bummer, and USC's overall 2024 Big Ten road schedule lacks much pizazz outside of Penn State. The 2024 Big Ten home schedules for both USC and UCLA jumped out, as the Trojans get Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, while the Bruins will host Ohio State and Nebraska. Those fan bases love to travel and already have solid alumni bases in Los Angeles.

What does the travel schedule look like for USC and UCLA and who else is traveling a lot?

VanHaaren: It would've been helpful for either UCLA or USC to get Nebraska as an away game, but neither did. In 2024, USC has to go to Maryland, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and UCLA, which is a rough slate of travel. Outside of the UCLA game, that's roughly 32 hours of flying time round trip to the other four games. That is a lot of travel for one season and it will be interesting to see if it impacts the players toward the end of the season. Outside of the California teams, Nebraska is somewhat in the middle geographically, so they also have an interesting travel schedule. The Huskers travel to Iowa, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and UCLA.

Connelly: In the end, there's nothing the conference could do to make the travel situation good for USC and UCLA. That's just the hazard of bringing in two schools that are at least two time zones away from the other 14 schools. The flex rivalry approach is fun; I was good with creating three permanent rivalries for everyone and rotating six other opponents from year to year, but one of the downsides of that was creating random permanent matchups like, say, UCLA-Nebraska or something. This makes sure that no one from the east/midwest is traveling out west more than anyone else.

Uggetti: All right, I've crunched the numbers and USC's road slate in its debut Big Ten season will feature nearly 20,000 miles of travel with all of its road games outside of UCLA requiring a 2,000-plus mile trek each leg of the trip. It's not ideal, to say the least, but for both the Trojans and the Bruins, this is a small-ish price to pay for what they're getting financially by joining the conference. It's also important to remember that while travel for the football teams will be brutal during the season, the nonrevenue sports, which have to travel east as well, will be just as affected, if not more.

Rittenberg: I'm a bit surprised that USC has to visit both Penn State and Maryland in 2024, and both Rutgers and Ohio State in 2025. Those are some long trips. But ultimately we need to see where the games fall in the actual schedules. My sense is USC and UCLA often will get open dates either before or after their longest road trips. They won't be traveling often -- or at all -- for midweek games, like they do in the Pac-12. Rutgers seemingly gets the toughest east-to-west travel schedule in 2025, as the Scarlet Knights visit both UCLA and Nebraska.

What would division-less title games have looked like over the past five years?

Connelly: We obviously don't know what specific schedules would have looked like and how tiebreakers might have come into effect, but based purely on my SP+ rankings, we'd have gotten Ohio State vs. Michigan in 2018, Ohio State vs. Penn State in 2019, Ohio State vs. Iowa in the abbreviated 2020, and Ohio State vs. Michigan again in 2021 and 2022. That none of those matchups actually happened in real life certainly reinforces how the divisional structure held this conference back, but the presence of three extra Buckeyes-Wolverines games is certainly noteworthy.