CHICAGO – For two years in a row, the Big Ten has been locked out of the College Football Playoff, the biggest stage in the sport.
Of course, two years of missing the Playoff could be a coincidence, especially after the league sent a representative in each of the first three seasons. Still, it's a concern for a conference that considers itself in the top two in the country in football strength, a concern that has sparked discussions about how to fix it.
Penn State coach James Franklin, who saw his Nittany Lions shut out of the Playoff despite winning the Big Ten title in 2016 (though Ohio State did make it that season) spoke at length about the issue Friday at Big Ten Media Days. Franklin is in a unique position because he has also been a head coach in the SEC, which has sent six participants to the CFP in five years.
“The hard part I think with that is the set of criteria that you've been told are going to impact being able to make the playoffs, strength in schedule and things like that,” Franklin said. “There's a lot of variables there. There's a lot of things you can't control. And also the people that are in that (selection committee) room are different every single year.
“So I think what we've got to do is control the things that we can control.”
Among the “things that we can control” at the front of several Big Ten coaches' minds seems to be the conference's nine-game league slate.
The Big Ten adopted the schedule prior to the 2016 season with the assumption that the extra league game would boost a league champion's strength of schedule, which is a stated criteria of the CFP selection committee.
Instead, however, the extra game has seemingly provided another opportunity for a top team to lose.
The only CFP criteria that has carried through all five of its selections has been that two-loss teams are at a severe disadvantage. No such team has made the field yet. That leaves some Big Ten coaches wondering whether the nine-game schedule needs a second look.
“What you would like to see is an even playing field,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “Whether everyone plays nine conference games and so many Power Five teams, or whether everyone plays eight conference games ... it doesn't matter to me. I do think it would be better if it was an even playing field.
“(In the Big Ten) you are going against great competition every week and I think it has taken its toll a little bit on the Big Ten. To me, Ohio State was one of the top four teams in the country last year. They just had off day against us and we played well and it cost them.”
Franklin and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald mentioned the nine-game schedule as a factor that needs to be “discussed”, which seems to be mostly coach-speak for “strongly consider changing.”
“When you play nine conference games, you're going to have more losses within your conference,” Franklin said. “Just obviously mathematics tell you that.”
Outgoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who has run the conference for 31 years, was upbeat about the Big Ten's chances for Playoff appearances and championships in the immediate aftermath of his tenure.
He was not shy, however, about expressing his displeasure at the CFP selection process. He cited 12-1 league champion Ohio State finishing behind 11-2 SEC runner-up Georgia, which only played eight conference games, in the final pre-bowl CFP standings in 2018 as an example of the lack of attention paid to strength of schedule and conference championships.
Delany dismissed the possibility of going back to an eight-game schedule and laid the blame for the Big Ten's shutouts in 2017 and 2018 on the ever-changing selection committee rather than the extra conference game.
“I've been disappointed, quite honestly, about the strength of schedule,” Delany said. “I said it earlier. I said it last year. We're not going to change. There may be pressure to change, but I think that's short-selling our fans, our players, our TV partners, and I'm hoping that the committee catches up with the intent of the (CFP) founders.”
“I don't think we went (to nine games) for the CFP alone,” he added.
Delany's ire is likely connected to the fact that the Big Ten went all-in on schedule strength in 2015, prohibiting teams from scheduling FCS (formerly Division I-AA) opponents – a rule that was rescinded in 2017 for teams that are only scheduled for four conference home games – and requiring at least one non-conference Power Five opponent on the schedule.
There are 11 Big Ten teams without an FCS opponent on their schedule this season. In the other four Power Five conferences, there are just five combined teams with no FCS games on the docket.
There is no shortage of belief within the conference that Big Ten teams can play with anyone in the country. The disagreement and frustration arises when it comes to figuring out how best to make that happen.
“The people in our conference feel like we have (the ability) to compete with anyone, anywhere, at any time,” Franklin said. “We want the opportunity to do that.”