The Gophers open their Big Ten season at Michigan Stadium, a place they know well. At least the upperclassmen on the roster do.
The Gophers played there last season, too, and Saturday marks their third trip to the Big House in four years.
“I didn’t even know that,” said Mark Rudner, the man who oversees Big Ten football scheduling.
If you have a conspiracy theory about this scheduling quirk — and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory? — Rudner has probably already heard it. Rudner, a senior associate commissioner, has handled the conference’s football and basketball scheduling for three decades.
He hears complaints from coaches, administrators and fans with every schedule release. He’s often accused of giving (insert team name) an easier schedule than (insert different team name). Once, a coach called him “the fox guarding the hen house.”
“I guess the true measure of a schedule is, if everybody’s happy then we probably didn’t do something right,” Rudner said.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill hinted at scheduling hanky-panky before the season when a reporter asked for his thoughts on Big Ten interdivision games. For instance, Minnesota’s two crossover games are against Michigan and Ohio State; Wisconsin drew Maryland and Rutgers; Ohio State got the Gophers and Illinois.
“I think there’s a philosophy to that,” Kill said. “I won’t share that with you, but I’ve got a pretty good idea, after looking at the schedule, who got what, when.”
The implication — and others share this opinion — is that conferences give power programs easier schedules to bolster their chances of being in the national championship discussion. You know, grease the skids for certain teams knowing college football now has a four-team playoff.
That line of thinking is understandable, given the stakes involved. The financial windfall and prestige of having one — or two — teams in the playoff fuels every power conference’s motivation.
The Big Ten certainly needs that morale boost. The SEC and Pac-12 have sprinted from the pack like Usain Bolt, while the Big Ten has become a national punchline.
The money and pressure attached to college football today makes me skeptical of every entity. Trust nothing.
“I understand the stakes are high,” Rudner said. “But short of playing a round-robin schedule, you’re always going to have this sort of discussion around scheduling.”
This is where we pump the brakes on conspiracy theories. The Big Ten already has set its conference schedules through 2017. In 2016, the Gophers don’t play Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan. They get Maryland, Rutgers and Penn State in the first year of a nine-game conference schedule. The Gophers faithful can’t really complain about that.
Rudner said the conference is working on football scheduling deep into the next decade. The way college sports are evolving, the Big Ten might not even exist at that point. College football might consist of a couple of superconferences.
So, how could the Big Ten possibly know which teams will be good in 2028? OK, Ohio State will always be a safe bet. But trying to project this far out is merely guesswork.
“I’ve always felt that you can’t really look at schedules in one- or two-year increments,” Rudner said. “Certainly we have a lot of strong brands in our conference, but that doesn’t mean that in any given year they’re going to be at the top or at the bottom. That’s why we really don’t inject any sort of subjective thinking into it.”
Rudner said the Big Ten uses an outside company that specializes in scheduling for sports leagues and other businesses. The conference gives the company (Rudner declined to reveal its name) a set of parameters in formulating schedules.
Among the guidelines, the Big Ten makes sure teams don’t play more than two consecutive road games. Teams also should have two home games and two road games in the final four weeks of the season.
Rudner said he doesn’t make changes to schedules after receiving them.
“If I get a schedule that meets the parameters,” he said, “if I don’t use that schedule then it’s really not a random schedule.”
Still, randomness can look fishy if one team’s schedule appears more favorable than others. Especially in football, because fans and media love to project wins and losses before the season’s first snap, even though this sport, more than any other, rarely follows prevailing wisdom.
“I think every schedule I’ve created in football or basketball has engendered some sort of comment from somebody,” Rudner said.
Sometimes, that comment is “thank you.” Sometimes, it’s “@#%!&?!.” Eventually, it all evens out, presumably.
“You can look at the schedule and make it sing any way you want to,” Rudner said. “But at the end of the day, we’re just trying to create fair, balanced and equitable schedules as best we can.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org