Jan 26, 2022

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No, not Podz. Pods. Football schedule pods. I want to talk about football schedule pods.

A report came out today in The Athletic where Iowa AD Gary Barta talked about the Big Ten AD's discussing future schedules beyond 2022. I've written about this before (both here and in a newsletter) where I talked about the "Alliance" and how the Pac-12 Commissioner is ready to drop to eight games and schedule yearly games with the Big Ten or ACC tomorrow. That's close to his exact quote, actually. Before they finalized their 2022 schedule, he was claiming that they'd be up for making it happen in 2022.

The Alliance, as you may have heard, is the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac 12's response to the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma. If the SEC's schedules are going to get stronger, the Alliance's schedules are going to stay strong by creating an environment where a Clemson-Ohio State game can be scheduled a year in advance. Just look at it like a Big Ten/ACC Challenge for football (or Big Ten/Pac 12).

The issue with that and the Big Ten: would the B1G really stay at nine conference games and then add a tenth "Alliance Challenge" game? Add that in with the already-scheduled P5 opponents on every's schedule (for Illinois it's one more year of Virginia, then home-and-home with Kansas, then home-and-home with Duke, then Missouri eight of the ten years after that) and, well, are we really headed for a schedule where Illinois plays nine conference games plus the Missouri game plus an ACC or P12 opponent? Only one cupcake when Alabama regularly schedules three?

Today's article suggests that the Big Ten is considering two things: dropping back to eight conference games again AND eliminating divisions (the title game would just be the top two teams). Eight conference games feels a bit inevitable at this point (the ninth conference game would be replaced with a Pac12 or ACC matchup). Eliminating divisions is fuzzy but there's some interesting things there as well. Since I'm a wide-eyed Illini football optimist, always looking for "you know, this could really help Illinois" (narrator: "it never helps Illinois"), here's how both of those things could help.

For the eight conference games + an Alliance game, the obvious answer there is that if the schedules are made yearly (like the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in basketball where they pick the opponents each year to try to align top-10 teams with top-10 teams and basement-dwellers with basement-dwellers), it could only help Illinois. They'd want the flexibility to schedule USC and Florida State if those two schools return to prominence. Which means there wouldn't be some "Illinois drew Clemson one year and Oregon the next" kind of thing. Ohio State and Clemson would play. Illinois would get Syracuse.

And yes, I know that if we get better, we get better opponents. If we have a couple 8-4 seasons, they might schedule Illinois-Washington or whatever. My point: right now, that ninth game is a random Big Ten East opponent. Could be Rutgers or Indiana, could be Ohio State or Michigan. With a proposed "keep the flexibility to be able to schedule Ohio State-Clemson a year in advance" system, we'd likely get dose after dose of Syracuse and Arizona (or whoever finished last or second-to-last the year before). Even if we start winning, Illinois, ahem, won't be a marquee matchup. This is good news (to me).

I also think the elimination of divisions could be a good thing for Illinois. Here's what Scott Dochterman said in the article in The Athletic ($$):

There also are serious discussions about the Big Ten ending divisional play with schools playing three opponents annually and cycling through the other 10 teams either every other year or two years on, two years off.


There are many proponents of pods. Maybe the most vocal is ESPN's Bill Connelly (I cite his SP+ ratings constantly here during the fall). If there's anything remotely close to a conference discussing pods, he hashtags it:

He's also written about it many times over the years. From an article he wrote in 2019:

Just ban divisions altogether.

I've written about this before, but it has picked up steam in the run-up to Auburn-Florida. Let's walk through the basics of what we'll call the conference pod structure.

1. Instead of divisions, each team has a set of three permanent rivals. We have taken to calling them pods. Having three for each team satisfies most rivalry needs, as you'll see below.

_2. You play your three permanent rivals every year, and you rotate between the other 10. _Home-and-homes against five of them for two years, then home-and-homes against the other five the next two years. Within a student's four years on campus, you have played everyone in the league at least twice. Now that's a conference.

This same structure, by the way, would work beautifully for the ACC, which also plays eight-game conference schedules, doesn't even use geography for its divisions and features even more divisional imbalance than the SEC. And while the three-five structure works with perfect symmetry, it would work for conferences with nine-game conference schedules, too. (Hello, Big Ten.)

So with this article today mentioning "schools playing three opponents annually and cycling through the other 10 teams", let me go find a list that Connelly and Jason Kirk put together years ago with suggested pods for the Big Ten.

Here it is. And here's the chart they put together for the Big Ten:

So, to these guys, it would be our three trophy games. IlliBuck, The Cannon, and The Hat. I feel like The Cannon and The Hat would almost certainly be in there if the Big Ten did this (due to the regional rivalries). I'm not as certain about IlliBuck. (I'm also certain the The Cannon And The Hat is a new gastropub opening in a renovated typewriter factory in Red Hook.)

As they explained when they did this exercise, there has to be some level of balance to the whole thing. If Ohio State is locked in with Michigan and Penn State, maybe adding the trophy game with Illinois balances that out a bit. Same with Michigan. They'd absolutely be locked into their two rivalry games (Ohio State and Michigan State). So for their third, someone like Minnesota (Little Brown Jug trophy game) makes sense.

It sucks that Ohio State would be a guaranteed loss every year (although, as someone who cut his teeth on late-80's, early-90's Illinois football when we lost to Michigan seemingly every damn year but won the IlliBuck six of seven years from 1988 to 1994, I've always had this "sure, put Ohio State on the schedule - we can be a thorn in their side" feeling towards that game), but I think I like that system. Also, this reminds me how mad I remain about the 1993 Ohio State game. I had a massive project due on that Monday. So I went to the game, watched us lose 20-12, and then walked directly from the stadium to the studio where I worked on that project the rest of Saturday, all day Sunday, and overnight Sunday night. All while fuming over the missed chances in that game. As I recall, we had the ball inside the 10 FOUR TIMES and kicked four field goals for our 12 points. Chance after chance after chance. I need to look that up to see if my memory is correct.

Here's the stats: We had drives stall at the 4, at the 9, at the 12, and at the 19. So it was four trips into the redzone, four field goals, lose 20-12. Grrrr. WE COULD HAVE HAD A SEVEN GAME WINNING STREAK OVER OHIO STATE IN FOOTBALL.

Back on track here. If the Big Ten goes to an eight-game schedule, the rotation would be simple (if those three trophy games are our three protected rivals). One year, it's those three teams plus five B1G opponents, then the next year it's those three teams plus the remaining five Big Ten opponents. Those rotate every other year (home and away) so every student gets a home game with every Big Ten team while on campus. And those of us who opted for the five-year plan get some bonus games.

Here's a sample of how that might go if they started with this during the 2023 season. I'm just guessing at the "other five" rotations here.

2023: Northwestern, at Ohio State, Purdue, at Rutgers, Michigan State, at Nebraska, Indiana, at Penn State
2024: at Northwestern, Ohio State, at Purdue, Iowa, at Maryland, Michigan, at Wisconsin, Minnesota
2025: at Northwestern, Ohio State, at Purdue, Rutgers, at Michigan State, Nebraska, at Indiana, Penn State
2026: Northwestern, at Ohio State, Purdue, at Iowa, Maryland, at Michigan, Wisconsin, at Minnesota

That's a "rotate the opponents every other year" schedule. And it requires that some of the three protected rivals be back-to-back home games (or back-to-back road games) in order for each team to have four at home and four away. You could also have a system where those games rotate home and away every year and it's two-on, two-off for the two groups of five opponents. You play the Rutgers-MSU-Nebraska-IU-PSU rotation one year, play it again the next year with the locations reversed, and then the following two years you do the same with the Iowa-Maryland-Michigan-Wisconsin-Minnesota rotation. Do that and you can keep your three rivals on a continuous home-and-away rotation.

Again, those are just guesses as to the opponents (both protected rivals and rotations). But that's how the system would work. Those eight games, plus an Alliance game, plus two additional non-conference opponents.

Is it better for Illinois? Hard to say. I'd love it if our three protected rivals were the three campuses closest to us - Northwestern, Purdue, and Indiana. But if we get that, someone else is getting a very difficult rotation of protected rivals because I just swapped out Ohio State for Indiana.

I do like the concept of it, though. Let's just say that it starts like this in 2023 and that the Alliance pairs us with Arizona. So we'd be removing one Big Ten game and replacing it with Arizona. Then here's the two schedules:

Current 2023 schedule: Toledo, at Kansas, Penn State, Florida Atlantic, at Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin, at Maryland, Indiana, at Minnesota, at Iowa, Northwestern
Proposed: Toledo, at Kansas, Arizona, Florida Atlantic, at Ohio State, Purdue, at Rutgers, Michigan State, at Nebraska, Indiana, at Penn State, Northwestern

I can get down with that, I think. Basically swapped that six year series with Penn State for whoever the Alliance gives us (I'm guessing Arizona here, but it's likely a bottom-of-the-barrel team). Ohio State is on permanently while teams like Wisconsin and Iowa would be every-other-year. We'd play Rutgers and Maryland just as much as we'd play Minnesota and Nebraska. It brings a lot more Michigan and Michigan State into the equation (three times every six years instead of the current two times every six years), but as mentioned above it removes the whole "play Penn State six consecutive years" thing we're locked into.

So maybe the best way to say that is this: In this scenario (again, guessing at the rotations of "twice every four years" teams), we're swapping out Penn State every year for Ohio State every year. We're keeping Northwestern and Purdue on the schedule every year, and then the other teams on our current schedule every year (Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) have been replaced by an Arizona (or equivalent) every season plus a random mix of other games. So yes, if we get to pick off one team every year when we drop to eight conference games (sometimes it's a Michigan, sometimes it's a Maryland) and replace them with the Alliance opponent, and if they do it like the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, we're swapping out for a lesser opponent probably 90% of the time. Bring on Syracuse and Colorado.

I'm gonna stop writing now because if I keep going I'll find something that makes me realize that this will be a net negative for Illinois football. I want to go to sleep tonight believing that more Illini wins are coming.

Shut up, narrator.

Edit: The Athletic came out with their own guesses for the protected rivals today. Figured I'd add that here:


HNLINI on January 27, 2022 @ 01:05 AM

Rare is the story where the narrator has less information and context than the protagonist. That is why the narrator is usually correct.

SactownIllini on January 27, 2022 @ 04:07 AM

Thanks for the analysis, Robert. What happens with the B10 Title game in your scenario?

Robert on January 27, 2022 @ 05:15 AM

Just like the Big 12, it would just be 1 vs 2.

rml on January 27, 2022 @ 12:09 PM

I love love love the thought of playing everyone, everywhere, every four year span.

rml on January 27, 2022 @ 12:17 PM

I guess there is a possibility that somebody will get five traditionally tough opponents in one of its two groups, and get traditionally easy opponents in it's other group, setting up alternating two year cycles of (ahem) relatively easy paths to bowl eligibility, and relatively hard paths. That would annoy me, but some folks might lick their chops at the prospects.

IlliniJoe81 on January 27, 2022 @ 02:59 PM

I'm sold on this now. Great article.

Bear8287 on January 27, 2022 @ 07:24 PM

Purdue probably approves of this schedule.

neale stoner on January 27, 2022 @ 08:00 PM

The first chart is a gift to Wisconsin. I’ll take the second.

STLINI on January 27, 2022 @ 08:02 PM

Any pod that avoided Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State would be my best case scenario.

Tolkien73 on January 27, 2022 @ 09:49 PM

Love this. Thanks, Robert!

HailToTheOrange on January 28, 2022 @ 12:53 AM

As a Bay Area transplant, bring on games at Cal and Stanford

O&B4life on January 28, 2022 @ 03:43 AM

I go back and forth on this. With the elimination of divisions, it’s almost impossible to see Illinois making the big ten championship game. I also think you could easily end up with 2 or 3 teams tied for 2nd place if only playing 8 conference games. Winning the West has always seemed attainable and a really good measuring stick for the program. But yes, playing every school twice in a 4 year span would be nice.

ILLhaveaBrewski on January 28, 2022 @ 12:29 PM

I think Northwestern and Purdue would Def be on the schedule. I think Wisconsin would give us a traditionally tougher opponent, but the grouping if Minnesota, Wiscy, Nebraska, and Iowa always playing each other makes sense.

IlliniJedi on January 29, 2022 @ 01:49 AM

These people don't understand Big Ten history or the merit of trophy games. After Illinois, Northwestern has played Wisconsin most often, to separate them for the sake of iowa or nebraska is criminal. Also, Rutgers, Maryland and Penn St have to play each other, otherwise what is the point of having them?

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