© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
The old saying “be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it” certainly applies to the scheduling in the Big 10 conference. Seems the coaches made one itsy-bitsy scheduling request in the off season and all h-e-double hockey sticks has broken loose because of it.
A short review is in order. In the day, there were only ten Big 10 teams and no tournament. Thus, every team played its conference foes twice – a home and away series. Life was easy for schedulers, and when the season was over a true conference championship had been earned.
Then Penn State joined up and the Big 10 Tournament was added. As a result, the conference went to its current format of having each team play 6 teams twice and 4 only once. What is more, the schedule was built like a sandwich. For example, the first school the Boilers would play in the Big 10 season (which always seemed to be the Wisconsin Badgers) would also be the last. In the middle of the home and homes were the 4 games against the teams the Boilers would meet once. The team that got the lucky break of only playing the toughest teams once, and the double lucky break of hosting those once yearly match-ups, had a better than average chance of winning the regular season title. Even though this system is inherently unfair, it is the best one can do given the odd number of teams and a 16 game season.
From the head coaches’ standpoint, however, there was one big problem with the status quo. At times a team might have 3 straight road games. This placed an unfair burden on the student-athletes who were trying to attend classes, and on the head coaches who were trying to win games. The coaches called for an end to extended road trips. So the scheduling wonks went back to their computers and out popped the 2006-2007 season. The schedule honors the request that no team play more than 2 consecutive away games. In every other way, however, it is completely unbalanced.
The games are no longer in a sandwich format, and there are numerous back-to-back contests on the docket. Purdue – who has just completed 4 games against 2 teams in a week’s time before playing 4 other teams even once – has a fairly typical schedule. One consequence of the current schedule is that it makes it virtually impossible to compare teams until the very end of conference play. This is because an average team can look great if it plays mostly poor teams at the beginning of the year, and awful if they are first pitted predominately against the top of the conference. One can expect a whole lot of shaking in the standings before the season is over when this disparity is finally equaled out.
Take, for example, the Northwestern Wildcats. Every year they have one of the tougher Big 10 schedules by default – they don’t get to play themselves. But 4 of the 6 conference teams they have played to date are .500 or better. At the conference’s halfway point, their opponents have a combined 30-17 record. One has to think that this represents more of a problem to team morale than 3 away games in a row every could. This difficult road for the hapless Cats has left its mark, and, if their play against Purdue on Thursday is any indication, they have quit for the season. One has to wonder what their record (and attitude) would be like if they had been scheduled like the Boilers. In the reverse of Northwestern, Purdue always has a relatively easy schedule because they never play themselves. But there’s easy and then there’s ridiculous. At the half way mark, the Boilers have only played one game against a team with an in-conference winning record; the combined in-conference total of Purdue’s first six opponents is 15-33.
While 8-0 looks mighty nice, Purdue’s undefeated record has been at the expense of the conference’s cellar dwellers up to this point. Staring on Monday, things are about to get much tougher for the Boilers in the Big 10.
It all boils down to this: Northwestern might actually be better than they have looked so far, and Purdue might be worse. Since the one winning team the Old Gold and Black has played was third-best MSU in East Lansing, chances are the Boilers aren’t pretenders coasting along due to a cream puff schedule. It’s certainly likely that Purdue’s league-best scoring margin and scoring defense have benefited from the lightweight competition, however. Not a very comforting thought going into THE GAME against Ohio State (whose conference opponents to date have managed a combined 21-34 record).
Purdue and Ohio State are so far ahead of the rest of the conference the scheduling imbalance doesn’t mean too much to them. As Purdue has already beaten MSU and OSU plays the Spartans in Columbus, it is very possible that neither the Boilers nor the Bucks will fall to another Big 10 team this season. It’s just as likely that Minnesota, Iowa, or even Illinois will pull an upset. Even with a slip or two, however, unless the Boilers or Buckeyes take a nosedive they are locks to finish first and second in the regular season. The fact they only play once this year in Mackey pushes the odds for winning the regular season championship towards the Boilers.