Changing the Big Ten’s Non-Conference Requirement is a Good Move

Big Ten's Non-Conference

Since 2016, the Big Ten’s non-conference scheduling had to include at least one Power 5 team. Of course, not every matchup would be pitting the Big Ten’s best against another top team. It happened a few times and it was often celebrated.

This requirement set up Ohio State against Oklahoma, TCU, Oregon, and Washington (later canceled). Michigan squared off against the likes of Florida, Washington, and Notre Dame (Independent but treated like Power 5 for some reason). Penn State drew Pitt (every season from 2016-2019), Auburn, and West Virginia this year. Fans have been treated to some great games thanks to this requirement.

Brett McMurphy reported that it’s rumored that the Big Ten may do away with their requirement. Removing the Big Ten’s non-conference requirement to play other Power 5 teams feels a tad myopic. But, in the long run, it’s the right move.

The Big Ten’s Non-Conference Power 5 Requirement is Outdated

If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

Since 2006, every national champion has been from a certain section of the United States, save for one. In addition to proximity, they all share one common trait: four non-conference games. Additionally, 14 of those 16 champions matched up against an FCS team. Given, Alabama was scheduled to play UT-Martin in 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to play an all-SEC schedule.

More difficult schedules are not correlated to championships.

A loss to a tough non-conference foe is not the end of the world, of course. In 2014, Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech but went on to win it all. In 2021, the Buckeyes lost to Oregon and were primed to make it back to the CFP if not for a loss to Michigan.

The Big Ten is a different animal than most of the other Power 5 conferences when it comes to scheduling. What sets them apart — at least, as of now — is their nine-game in-conference schedule. The Pac-12 is the only other P5 conference with that requirement. That leaves them with just three non-conference slots. With the inclusion of USC and UCLA in 2024, there’s a decent shot that a Big Ten team will have to play four top-15 teams in a single season.

Financially, It’s Smart; Emotionally, It Feels Wrong

Making decisions based on emotions and wanting to keep hold of tradition is likely not worth it. That’s why making this decision is still a good one.

Honestly, financially, scrapping the Big Ten’s non-conference requirement is smart. But not for the reason you’d think.

For the top of the conference, there is no need to schedule tough games. They can just cupcake their way through each and every season. Side bar: even with the requirement, there were a few instances where a Big Ten team scheduled within the parameters and still ended up with a 10-ply soft schedule that you could wipe a baby with.

In that 2016 mandate, teams were also forbidden, for the most part, from scheduling FCS schools. With the conference abolishing the rule, more FCS schools will find their way to Big Ten schedules. The conference and teams will have to pay more upfront to have Group of 5 and/or FCS teams show up for their slaughter. However, it will be made up in the long run with the top-end Big Ten teams participating in top-tier bowls.

More Easy Wins Means More CFP Teams

The Big Ten’s non-conference schedule last year allowed two teams to make it into the CFP despite the two teams having faced off. Ohio State was able to recover thanks to taking down Notre Dame (and, not to mention, MAC Champion, Toledo). If the script were flipped and the Buckeyes smacked Michigan, the Wolverines did not have enough equity to fall back on because their non-conference slate was pathetic.

On one hand, loading up with cupcakes could pay dividends. On the other, if a team’s resume is 3-0 against terrible non-conference opponents and 7-0 against non-Ohio State or Michigan teams, would they have enough juice to argue for a CFP spot? In the current four-team format, absolutely not, as we saw with Penn State last year.

The CFP is expanding to 12 teams starting in 2024. 10 wins will be enough, so it’s going to be difficult to keep any of the top three Big Ten East teams out.

Objectively, this move is very much akin to Major League Baseball’s decision to ban the shift and have a universal DH: it’s the right move but it just feels wrong.

This decision will benefit the top of the conference, there is no doubt. Additionally, it could very well help the bottom of the conference. We could see the Big Ten sending most of their 16-team roster bowling in the near future.

Local Flavor

During the BCS era, you had to have a strong schedule to get a head up on another. In the four-team CFP era, having a quality win (or quality loss if you’re SEC) puts you ahead of another team with a similar resume.

Last year, Ohio State had a win over Notre Dame and an ugly loss to Michigan. In all reality, they lucked out when USC lost their championship game. Had USC won, the Buckeyes were primed to decline a Rose Bowl invite to avoid a rematch with Utah. With the new 12-team format, one loss, no matter if it happens in Week 0 or in the Conference Championship, will not kill a season.

All in all, this could be a win-win for the Big Ten and local teams as well. Michigan State has been scheduling Group of 5 teams within the state for a few years now. They love to help out their sister athletic programs with the payoff. We could see more of that with Ohio State playing Ohio teams, Penn State playing Pennsylvania teams, etc.

Making B1G Money Moves

With the CFP expanding to 12 teams after this year, more money is to be made. If there’s one thing the Big Ten has shown it prioritizes, it’s making money. Allowing its members to schedule softer non-conference games would allow for a maximum payday.

Of course, this revocation does not mean they cannot schedule decent Power 5 teams. Ohio State has matchups with Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and Oregon coming up. Michigan has bouts with Texas, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame on tap.

In all honesty, this article started off as a piece defining why removing the Big Ten non-conference requirements would be a bad idea. After really thinking about it, it’s obvious that it’s a good idea for the conference as a whole. To be the best, you have to play the best. In any given year, a Big Ten team could have to run through three of four highly-ranked foes AND THEN face off against a conference champion in the CFP.

Removing the requirement of playing a Power 5 team with one of the three non-conference slots available will allow Big Ten teams to pad their wins and earn that payday. As fun as seeing these awesome Big Ten’s best vs the SEC’s best, it’s no longer as necessary as it once was perceived to be.

For as much as we love the giant clashes between Power 5 programs, this is likely the best option for the Big Ten. They are truly vying to be in constant contention with the SEC and there will be a yearly contest to see which conference sends more to the re-vamped CFP.


Big Ten's Non-Conference

Photo courtesy: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports