2020 Out Of Focus
I'm a bit torn with this news (the news that Big Ten non-conference schedules are canceled). On one hand, if this gets us some form of college football this fall, so be it. Whatever it takes. On the other hand, the season I've been pointing to for years is basically gone.
I should explain that. On September 14, 2017 I wrote a post I called 2020 Vision. The 2020 schedule had been released, and I could hardly contain my excitement. We had just manhandled Western Kentucky with a dozen true freshmen in the starting lineup (at the time we thought it was the 11-win Western Kentucky from the season before, not the 6-win Western Kentucky they would become that season followed by the 3-win Western Kentucky in 2018). So as I looked forward, those freshmen would all be seniors, we'd start the 2020 season with three non-conference nobodies followed by Rutgers, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, and it made me all "it's totally happening".
As you might know, before that, I had been waiting for years for the schedule to align. Part of my 19 Point Plan after the 2009 season pointed to our ridiculous non-conference scheduling, and then we fixed that, and then I got all excited when Jim Delany talked about "weighted" crossover opponents (Wisconsin would play Ohio State and Michigan; Illinois would play Rutgers and Maryland). But that went away when they switched to East/West and then moved to nine conference games. So for an entire decade I was waiting for that perfect schedule where the Big Ten went easy on us and we went easy on ourselves. In 2020, we finally had it, and now the non-conference part is gone.
Which, fine, whatever. That was just going to help us maybe get that 8 or 9-win season. That can still scale, and we've only won five conference games three times in the last 30 years
Yes, we've only won five or more Big Ten games three times in the last 30 college football seasons - 1993 (when we didn't even go to a bowl), 2001, and 2007.
~places needle back on record~
so we'll be able to scale it and set some goals based on a conference-only schedule. We finished solo fourth in the Big Ten West last year so... just improve on that.
My point: I predicted 3-5-7-9 (wins in 2017 through 2020), and we went 2-4-6, and now there's no way to get to 8 or 9 (unless we... hahahahahahaha). That's fine. Whatever.
Now, with non-conference games officially cancelled, two questions.
If we go to 10 conference games, who is the 10th opponent?
This is assuming the plan is to take the current schedules and add one more other-division opponent. It's possible they blow up all of the schedules and start over, and maybe that even includes a few home-and-home series with your geographically-close neighbors (maybe we have home-and-homes with Northwestern and Purdue or something?), but for now let's just assume it's the nine current Big Ten opponents plus one more from the East. (And let's also assume that we actually have a season, which isn't guaranteed at all with that massive "IF" in the announcement linked above.)
The current schedule is as follows:
Big Ten West opponents (Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern)
So we'd be due a home game. That's the way they set it up with the divisions: in odd-numbered years, the Big Ten West teams have five home games and four road games. In even-numbered years, the Big Ten East gets the five home games. So it could be as simple as the seven Big Ten West teams adding a home game (from one of the four East teams not currently on the schedule). Those four not on our current schedule:
Heart says "gimme Maryland". Head says "it's the Big Ten - they're going to give us Penn State or Michigan".
Actually, there's a chance Michigan State is worse than Maryland this season. Here's the Vegas over/under for win totals (obviously before the non-conference games were canceled):
Penn State 9.5
Michigan State 4.5
We don't know if there's going to be a college football playoff this season (we don't even know if there's going to be a season), but it seems to me that with games like Ohio State-Oregon canceled (plus Penn State-Virginia Tech), the Ohio States and Penn States will be looking for some strength-of-schedule boosters so they can get into the playoff. Penn State plays Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa, so I'm sure they'd be eyeing a strength-of-schedule booster like Wisconsin instead of playing Illinois or Purdue. So looking over all of the schedules, I'll make a guess on who plays who:
Ohio State (already playing Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois): Wisconsin
Penn State (already playing Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern): Minnesota
Michigan (already playing Wisconsin, Purdue, and Minnesota): Iowa
Indiana (already playing Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue): Nebraska
Michigan State (already playing Northwestern, Iowa, and Minnesota): Purdue
Rutgers (already playing Illinois, Purdue, and Nebraska): Northwestern
Maryland (already playing Minnesota, Northwestern, and Wisconsin): Illinois
Maybe Illinois plays MSU and Maryland plays Purdue. But I could see them aligning the 10th game that way to max out the SOS for the Ohio States and Michigans.
OK, so if that's our schedule (West teams plus Ohio State, Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland), then, um...
This is an extend-or-fire season for Lovie - what's the bar now?
This non-con cancellation might actually bring a lot of clarity here. I shall attempt to explain.
I do believe this is an extend-or-fire season for Lovie. He has a contract through 2023. It's really tough for a coach to go into a season like next season (2021) with only a three year deal. When you're recruiting, you're not able to tell those parents that you'll be coaching their son for four years. Once your contract dips under four years, you're either getting an extension or you're probably getting fired.
With any extend-or-fire season, there's always a tricky middle ground. Ron Zook landed there in his extend-or-fire 2011 season. He won six games. Back to back bowls! That should earn a contract extension at Illinois, right? Well, he only won two Big Ten games and got to a bowl based on four non-conference wins, so did he really earn an extension? Like, maybe he could keep his job with back-to-back bowls and come back for one more year, but this was an extend-or-fire year. Does 6-6 (2-6) finishing on a six game losing streak really earn you an extension?
(It did not.)
That was the issue with this 2020 schedule for Lovie. It was by far our easiest schedule in 20+ years, and when you get that in an extend-or-fire season, it makes the decision so difficult. I told someone this summer that I could see a scenario where Lovie "retired" at 7-5 (4-5) and that person told me I was crazy. But this is year five of a long-rope rebuild that has started 15-34, and there are 25 seniors who will graduate after this season, so this is the year to prove what kind of program you can build. Would 7 wins be enough if next year is 4-8? Especially if four of those seven wins are Illinois State, UConn, Bowling Green, and Rutgers? Does that earn a contract extension?
That's why I think a 10-game conference schedule might help sort that out. Let's face it: the 2012 team probably would have beaten these Illinois State, UConn, and Bowling Green teams. Yes, I want easy non-conference schedules to boost our win totals and jumpstart our program, but in a extend-or-fire season, all that does is muddy the waters. Now, it's a lot clearer. Win at least five (what would have been an 8-win season had the non-conference games been played) to prove this thing is going somewhere. 4-6? Especially 4-6 in the Big Ten after conference records of 2-7, 0-9, 2-7, and 4-5? That's probably not good enough to earn a big contract extension. Show you're a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten program now by winning half your conference games.
Hmmm... maybe 2020 is coming into focus after all.