Minnesota's football team wants to be "uncommon" this season, but this probably isn't what Jerry Kill meant.
Kill took a public-relations beating this week when the Gophers announced that they had cancelled their upcoming home-and-home series with North Carolina, a transaction that cost the university $800,000. The Gophers' fan base reacted unhappily to the watered-down nonconference schedule, though Kill's understandable calculation is that winning games will be more popular than losing to better teams.
What didn't help the Gophers' relationship with their fans, though, is some unfortunate timing: Just as Kill schedules Kent State and South Dakota State, the rest of the Big Ten is moving in the opposite direction. Football scheduling has been in the news lately as several Big Ten schools, at the behest of Commissioner Jim Delany, have begun beefing up their future schedules, not only for the sake of prestige, but also to help the conference qualify for the four-team postseason tournament that begins after the 2014 season.
It's going to be similar to the NCAA basketball tournament: A committee will choose the entrants, and you'd better have one or two impressive nonconference victories.
"That committee is going to have to look, with the eye test, at conferences. But it's also going to look at competitive results between conferences, and we think going forward that [improving schedules] is the best way to prepare for the new postseason model," Delany said before the season. "You're going to see enhanced schedules coming from the Big Ten."
Millions of dollars are at stake, of course; while the Big Ten will retain its automatic entry to the Rose Bowl (in years when it's not a national semifinal), the conference stands to generate a second $20 million-plus payday by placing a team in the tournament, as it has for eight consecutive seasons under the BCS system.
As this dismal season has proven, those nonconference games are going to be important for the Big Ten. That's why Ohio State last week announced a two-game series with Texas, a home-and-home that's still a decade away. And Wisconsin recently added a home-and-home with BYU, an independent that is trying to build a national brand.
Michigan wants to add a brand-name opponent to fill the void left when Notre Dame canceled their series for three years. Michigan State's future schedules include Alabama, Oregon, Miami and Boise State, and Nebraska has UCLA, Miami, BYU and Tennessee coming up. And the Buckeyes will play Oklahoma, TCU and Texas in the next decade.
None of this is meant to imply that Minnesota should be dialing up Alabama or renewing that USC series again (though the Gophers represented themselves well in those games). The Gophers' conference schedule is always plenty tough, and their goals are far more basic: Restore the program to respectability.
But the contrast in nonconference scheduling -- with the UNC cancellation, and Navy's backing out of its contract with Minnesota after it joined the Big East, the Gophers are the only Big Ten team without a BCS conference opponent for the next four seasons -- illustrates once more how big that gap between Minnesota and restoration really is.