BYRON, MINN. – The Gophers football program took heat last year for spending $800,000 to buy its way out of a home-and-home series with North Carolina. Now, the scheduling storyline certainly has changed.
Last month, Minnesota strengthened its 2014 and 2015 nonconference schedules and recouped a good chunk of that North Carolina money by scheduling a home-and-home series with Texas Christian.
And with one look at the Big Ten Conference schedules for 2014 and 2015, it’s clear the Gophers received the toughest draw in the West Division, with crossover games both years against Ohio State and Michigan. For comparison, Wisconsin’s two crossover games those two years will come against Maryland and Rutgers.
The 2014 schedule was announced two weeks ago, and the 2015 slate was announced Monday, just before the Gophers started the second leg of their barnstorming road trip, with stops in Byron and Austin.
“I saw that [schedule] right away and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is daunting,’ ” Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague said. “I mean, it’s very tough, but it is the Big Ten.”
The conference will divide into East and West football divisions for 2014, when Rutgers and Maryland bring the membership to 14 teams. The Gophers will be joined in the West by Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue.
In 2014 and 2015, teams will play the other six teams in their division and two crossover games. Each team’s 2015 Big Ten schedule will mirror its 2014 schedule with the home games moved to the road and vice versa.
It would be easy for Gophers fans to compare their schedule to Wisconsin’s and think there’s some kind of conspiracy.
“You can always have a suspicion toward scheduling, but I really don’t,” Teague said. “I know [Big Ten schedulers are] doing the best they can.”
Teague said the Big Ten and other conferences get help from a consulting firm with their schedules. Once a proposal is made, Teague said, “You look at it and there’s not a whole lot of debate about it, because they slice those scenarios 100 different ways. It can always be seen as unfair, but I don’t worry about it too much. You’ve just got to take what’s given to you.”
Beginning in 2016, the Big Ten is moving to a nine-game conference schedule, so teams will start playing three crossover games. The good news for the Gophers is the Big Ten plans to rotate the crossover opponents, so Minnesota shouldn’t have to face Michigan and Ohio State in 2016.
But three years from now is a long time, especially for a program trying to rebuild.
“Recruiting-wise, building-your-program-wise, you play a difficult schedule, it challenges you, I don’t think there’s any question,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “You either accept it and step up to the challenge, or you don’t.”
Kill advocated for the North Carolina decision, figuring it was better to be cautious early in a rebuilding process.
“I learned from [fellow coaches] Bill Snyder and Dennis Franchione, when you’re trying to get your team confidence and wins and things, you’ve got to be careful in what you do in the scheduling piece,” Kill said.
But Kill’s program will be in Year 4 by 2014. He said his staff can now sell the schedule as another reason to come to Minnesota.
“Hey, we’ll play anyone,” he said.