COLUMBUS: If the Ohio State football team runs the table this fall, its worthiness as a national championship contender will be hotly debated because of its perceived soft schedule.
The Buckeyes are doing what they can — as is the Big Ten — to ensure that such criticism becomes muted, if not moot, in the future. The league’s 2016 and ’17 schedules, released last Thursday, reflect that goal.
This year, for example, the Buckeyes don’t play Michigan State or Nebraska from the Legends Division. Ohio State figures to be a favorite in every game until possibly the finale against Michigan.
In 2016, the first year of the nine-game conference schedule, Ohio State will play all of the Big Ten’s traditional contenders. In addition to the Spartans and Cornhuskers, the Buckeyes will play Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern and, of course, Michigan.
That didn’t happen by accident. Big Ten senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner said the conference deliberately configured the schedule to pit more top teams from each division against each other. Rudner called it “parity scheduling.”
He said the plan benefits players and fans. Players want to test themselves against top competition, and fans want to see the most competitive games.
“Ideally, we’re hopefully going to have as many [pivotal] divisional games scheduled in November as possible so you build to a crescendo toward our championship game,” Rudner said. “I can’t wait for it to happen.”
Tentative conference schedules for 2016 and ’17 were shown to school officials last week. Martin Jarmond, Ohio State’s executive associate athletic director in charge of scheduling, was sitting next to Athletic Director Gene Smith. Jarmond said Smith didn’t flinch.
“If he did have a reaction, he didn’t verbalize it,” Jarmond said. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s really, really strong.’ I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, that’s a tough schedule.’ I just thought that those are going to be really good games for our fans.”
Ohio State’s 2017 schedule also breaks with recent tradition. First, there’s the season opener at Indiana. Not since 1976 have the Buckeyes opened their season with a conference game. And not since 1998 have they opened with a true road game.
More significantly, Ohio State has only six home games. Smith has said the Buckeyes need seven home games per season to fund their 36-sport athletic program. A typical home game brings in about $4.5 million in net revenue, Jarmond said. But he added that the loss of that seventh game in 2017 will not cause hardship.
“The good thing is it’s enough in advance that we know we’re going to take a hit,” Jarmond said. “We can adequately plan for it.”
The lack of a seventh home game that year was unavoidable if the Buckeyes want to play an upgraded schedule. With the nine-game Big Ten schedule, Ohio State will play only four home league games in odd-numbered years. In 2017, the Buckeyes are committed to playing at North Carolina, which they won’t seek to change. Ohio State also plays Oklahoma that year in Columbus in the second year of a home-and-home series.
Several factors are driving the push for more difficult schedules. The first is the new College Football Playoff starting next season. Strength of schedule will be one component judged by the selection committee.
“We don’t want to put ourselves in position to be adversely affected by something we can control,” Jarmond said.
The second is the acknowledgment by athletic administrators that fans have choices other than shelling out big bucks to attend games against lesser opponents. With the proliferation of high-definition televisions, fans need incentives to go to a game. Quality of opponent is a factor in that.
Finding those suitable opponents is becoming increasingly difficult, in part because of the widespread realignment that has transformed college sports. Ohio State’s goal is to schedule a nationally elite team each year, have a second game against a top-40 school and the third against one that ideally is no worse than middle of the pack in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision, Jarmond said.
“It’s almost like a puzzle,” Jarmond said. “You look at it and study. Every team has this challenge. It’s not just Ohio State. You just have to find a willing partner.”