Jim Delany made some big news yesterday by telling the Chicago Tribune that the days of the eight-game schedule are numbered:
After spending Monday in meetings with coaches and athletic directors at conference headquarters in Park Ridge, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the Tribune the status quo of eight conference games "is not even on the table right now."
It will be nine or 10, with the decision to be made this spring.
"The thinking is we like to play each other, and those are not hollow words," Delany said. "We are getting larger (with Rutgers and Maryland), and we want to bind the conference together."
Perhaps they're not entirely hollow words, but everything the conference does must be filtered through the lens of the Big Ten Network. The BTN is quite obviously the reason why the league went after relative athletic lightweights Rutgers and Maryland. Those schools don't really have any kind of ties to the conference's members and would appear to be pretty odd fits, but they reside near large television markets.
By expanding the conference schedule, the league gets more good inventory for the Big Ten Network. Indiana versus Michigan State may not excite many outside those fan bases, but it's a heck of a lot better than Eastern Kentucky at Purdue (a 3:30 ET game on the BTN on September 1 last season).
Having more conference games also figures to bolster attendance, a big concern in college football right now.
The Pac-12 and Big 12 already have nine-game schedules. The ACC announced it would do the same but turned back. The Big Ten is now going to do it. Will the SEC expand the slate?
Every couple of months or so, a report comes out somewhere that the SEC has not ruled out an expanded schedule. It will also include the standard objections to a larger conference slate: coaches don't want it, it makes scheduling more difficult for teams with ACC rivals, schools want cupcakes for fundraising, mediocre teams might miss bowls, etc.
Even though this is an important issue, my read on the situation is that it's merely a bargaining chip with CBS and ESPN. It's been more than a year since the addition of Missouri and the new TV deals still aren't done. We know the conference is hatching a channel like the Big Ten Network, but none of the financials are done yet.
Most likely, the length of the schedule will come down to whether the TV networks will pay enough to compensate for the loss of a cupcake game. The coaches don't want a ninth game, but they voted unanimously against the new recruiting rules that nevertheless went into effect not too long ago. I'm not sure if the four schools with ACC rivals can overrule the other 10. The conference already couldn't fill up its bowl slots this year with an eight-game schedule and two more teams. If the money is there, the league will go to nine games.
The SEC is a leader in many areas, but when it comes to the conference television network, the Big Ten is the unquestioned leader. Where it goes with its network is probably a template that other conferences will go. I wouldn't be surprised if the SEC sits back and watches the Big Ten's greater-than-eight experiment go, just like it did with the existence of a conference TV network, but I suspect the league will have nine-game slate sooner than later.