Pods? 3-5-5?

May 14, 2022

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Cuz it's not enough to simply catch that dream
You gotta grab that dream and catch your dream's dream
~Mouse Rat

One consistent theme in my 13 years of writing about Illini football on the internet: my dream of Illinois football having the easiest schedule in the country. I understand that many fans will buy tickets for Illinois-USC but won't buy tickets for Illinois-Akron, but I'm not worried about ticket sales. Until we win consistently, nothing else matters. And the best way to win consistently is to schedule the easiest opponents possible. We can worry about scheduling marquee games once we go to three consecutive bowls.

Because of my "find us the easiest path" stance, I filter all expansion talk directly through it. Maryland and Rutgers are being added to the Big Ten and everyone is angry because it makes the conference football product worse? I love it. Please add Kansas next.

Now there's talk of pods. Instead of divisions, major conferences would move to a "pod" system. You get three protected rivalry teams you play every year and then you play the other teams on a rotating basis. If you've read any articles about the ACC meetings this week, you might have heard talk of "3-5-5" schedules. That would be the pod system. The first year you play the three teams in your pod plus five additional conference teams. The following year you play the three teams in your pod plus the other five conference teams. And once you've cycled through four years, you've played every conference team, home and away, at least once.

I wrote about this back in January. And I talked about my dream: a pod with Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue. It would be so incredible that I can barely write about it right now. It's my dream's dream. We'll get to that in a bit, but first, let's talk about that screencap up at the top showing Iowa State and Kansas as part of the Big Ten.

Full disclosure: I just chose that one for the "whaaat?" reaction. It comes from the "use lists for engagement" account of all "use lists for engagement" Twitter accounts: Big Game Boomer. He's an Oklahoma fan who puts baited lists out on the internet nearly hourly. And if we've learned one thing about the internet the last 25 years, it's that people will always go for the bait when a list is intentionally wrong.

This bait shows a 16-team Big Ten with Iowa State and Kansas. I doubt that would happen, but it's worth talking about conference expansion before we talk about pods. The dust has mostly settled on "Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC" and all of the ripple effects that hit nearly every small conference (Cincy and Houston to the Big 12, leading to panic from the AAC, leading to a possible CUSA implosion, and so on and so on). The next big question (at least in my mind): what's the next move by the Big Ten?

Let's start with this chart from Navigate (a sports market research company). You might have seen it bouncing around Twitter in the last few months:

That's projected revenue for the Power Five conferences over the next eight years. And this was before the rumors came out that the Big Ten television package (being negotiated right now, to be announced in the next few weeks) will be somewhere north of $1.1 billion. So maybe take that light blue line and push it up higher, closer to the SEC number. The point here: the B1G and the SEC are continuing to separate themselves. By the end of this decade, the Power Five conferences might just be a Big Two, Little Three scenario.

So then what? How do you balance five conferences when two of them have much greater earning potential than the other three? With all this talk about college football separating from the NCAA and becoming something much closer to a direct developmental league for the NFL, would that scenario possibly just include the Big Ten and SEC separating from the NCAA, with the Big Ten adding two more teams and then those 32 teams are their own tier of college football?

I'm getting way ahead of myself. No one really knows where all of this will go. The only real known thing right now: on the business side of college athletics, it's hard for any other conferences to compete with the SEC and Big Ten right now.

Why? A lot of reasons. Very smart television decisions, for one. The Big Ten Network (and the alliance with Fox Sports) has been a win for the Big Ten. The SEC smartly aligned with ESPN and developed the SEC Network. Being the home of Alabama and Ohio State doesn't hurt, either.

But the biggest reason, at least in my mind, is you and me. The television contracts for the SEC and the Big Ten are bigger because of all the eyeballs. TV markets, yes, but passion is a big part of it, I think. To completely oversimplify this: a Wisconsin fan and an Arkansas fan will scream "I don't care what it costs to watch all the games, take my money" a lot louder than the Washington Huskies fan in Seattle. Number of angry calls if the Boston College game isn't on TV: 34. Number of angry calls if the Penn State game isn't on TV: 27,929.

To me, the chart above boils down to that passion. The Big Ten and SEC found the best ways to monetize that passion. The Big 12 could have been third here, but the loss of Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma took so much of their clout away. The east coast and west coast? I just don't think the passion is the same. A better way to say that: the passion is there, but not in bulk.

Here's a good article from the Raleigh News And Observer discussing all of this from the ACC's point of view. A snippet:

Addressing that revenue gap, to the extent that it can be addressed, has been a focal point for the ACC here this week during its annual spring meetings. Jim Phillips, now in his second year as the conference's commissioner, said on Wednesday that generating more revenue is "top of mind" for the league, which stands to be dwarfed in revenue by the SEC and Big Ten in the coming years.

Both of those leagues will enter into new TV rights contracts in 2024. The ACC's deal with ESPN, meanwhile, stretches into 2036 and, barring the unlikely addition of Notre Dame as a full-time, football-playing member of the ACC, there's little indication that anything can be done to renegotiate it in a way that's more favorable for the conference.

It makes for a somewhat grim financial picture for the ACC, and one that speaks to a defining reality of major college athletics: more is never enough. The ACC generated nearly $500 million in revenue during the 2019-20 fiscal year, a record for the conference. In the same year, though, the Big Ten generated $769 million. The SEC last year surpassed the $800 million mark.

Conference revenue is derived from several sources, including bowl games and the NCAA tournament. Nothing, though, is more important to any conference's bottom line than its TV broadcast rights. The value of those contracts has skyrocketed in recent years, and the success of the Big Ten Network and the SEC Network has pushed those leagues into a different financial stratosphere.

They are not so much members of the Power Five these days as they are their own entity; a Power Two that has pulled away from the field, at least financially. When their new rights deals go into effect in two years, the distance between the SEC and Big Ten and the other three Power Five leagues will only increase. That is the tide the ACC is fighting.

I've wandered way too far into The Future Of The Sport territory when all I really wanted to talk about was the continuing push towards pod-based scheduling. So let me shift gears here and talk about pods. Because they work with a 14-team Big Ten and they work with a 16-team Big Ten after Notre Dame and USC are added to the conference.

That was a joke. Probably.

The ACC discussed pods at length this week. There are rumors that the Big Ten is currently discussing the same as part of the TV contract negotiations that are going on. Every team gets three rivals and then you rotate through the other ten teams 5 & 5 with the conference title game being the first place team against the second place team, not the winner of each division.

And pods don't have to be "these four teams are all each-other's rivals" (although some of them could be). You could see Illinois get their three trophy games (Northwestern, Purdue, and Ohio State) while Ohio State gets Illinois, Michigan, and Penn State. Just because Ohio State-Michigan would be a thing and (in that scenario) Illinois-Ohio State would be a thing doesn't mean Illinois-Michigan would be a thing.

In the article I wrote in January (linked above), I copied some of the scenarios that were floating around. And I included links to several pod articles dividing up the 14 teams in the Big Ten. A Bill Connelly article had the scenario I described above (Illinois gets Northwestern, Purdue, and Ohio State; Ohio State gets Michigan, Penn State, and Illinois). The list I linked from The Athletic had two self-contained pods in the western part of the conference (Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin were all one pod and Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue were another pod) with the six "eastern" teams all split into different pods (Ohio State gets Michigan, Penn State, and Maryland; Michigan gets Ohio State, Michigan State, and Rutgers and so on).

That would drop the Big Ten from nine conference games to eight conference games, but it would also open up the schedule for an "Alliance" game. Every year, every team in the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac 12 (sorry Big 12) would hold a spot for an Alliance game. And if they held off on scheduling that until the year before (hold the spot and then determine the matchups later), you could set up a marquee game between USC and Clemson and then a "both teams just fired their coach" matchup between Maryland and Washington State. The TV partners are happy with this because they get to assemble Ohio State-Florida State if Florida State is back or they can pair Florida State with Colorado if they're still struggling.

It would also mean (back to my dream) that Illinois would probably get Oregon State or Duke. Which, again, is all I want until we're fully rebuilt. I don't even want to dip my toe in the marquee matchup pool until the water is at least 86 degrees.

Given all of this, let's design my dream schedule. It will include:

  • Our Big Ten pod being Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue.
  • An eight game Big Ten schedule.
  • One Alliance game per year.
  • Three of the easiest non-conference games I can find (with one being FCS) to round out the schedule.

You, too, can design your own dream schedule using these Four Easy Steps. Yes, I'm ignoring future home-and-homes on the schedule (like Missouri) and replacing them with the one Alliance game. It's quite possible the home-and-homes will stay, meaning the schedule would include eight Big Ten games plus an Alliance game plus the Missouri home-and-home plus two small schools, but this is my dream and I get to design it.

Imagine something like this:

Year One
at Duke
Florida International
Murray State
at Purdue
Michigan State
at Rutgers
at Iowa
at Ohio State

Year Two
Oregon State
Western Illinois
Miami (OH)
at Indiana
at Maryland
at Penn State
at Northwestern

To those of you who just said "Illinois should not be playing Murray State and Western Illinois," may I present to you Alabama playing The Citadel, Western Carolina, and Mercer the last few seasons. To those of you saying that college football has finally moved in the direction of interesting non-conference games and here I am trying to turn back the clock to late-90's Kansas State scheduling, I'd like to point out that we are the University of Illinois Fighting Illini and we're paired with Kansas as the only two Power Five teams with less than 40 wins the last 10 seasons. You can go on and on with your "shoulds" if you want, but I'm trying (and have been trying since 2009) to clear the easiest path out of the forest.

And pods offer that opportunity. Sure, Northwestern, Purdue, and Indiana could all be 9-3 teams the next 10 years, but I'm willing to risk it. Reduce conference games from 9 to 8, give us the basement teams from the ACC and Pac12 as our Alliance game, lock us in with Northwestern, Purdue, and Indiana every single year, and schedule three wins. That way, every single season starts with "go 6-1 against the three scheduled wins, the Alliance game, and Purdue-Indiana-Northwestern to get to a bowl." If you go 5-2 or 4-3 or 3-4, you need extra wins from MSU-Rutgers-Minnesota-Iowa-Ohio State or Michigan-Wiscinson-Maryland-Penn State-Nebraska.

That's my dream's dream. Give me pods and then give me an easy Alliance game and then purchase three wins.

And then, finally, back-to-back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1992.


Joe Edge on May 14, 2022 @ 05:32 PM

'And then, finally, back-to-back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1992.'

Yes, Yes, Yes...

larue on May 14, 2022 @ 06:47 PM

It's clearly true that the SEC and the B1G are pulling way ahead of everybody else in the money race, but the B1G formed the alliance with the ACC and the PAC12 for a reason. I believe that reason is primarily to oppose the SEC and their client state, the Big 12, when it comes to reshaping the future of college athletics.

I think there is virtually nothing the SEC won't do to stay on top of the college football world. Call me naive, but I think there are things the B1G will not do. That's a theory that will probably be tested in the relatively near future.

FME on May 15, 2022 @ 12:05 AM

It sounds like the B10 is already walking back from the alliance. OSU AD said the conference would rather keep the 9 game conference schedule

The Pac-12 gets terrible ratings. It would be great for them, but the B10 would actually be giving up money to do it

Eagle on May 14, 2022 @ 08:56 PM

If we're honest, that's the path Northwestern took while we were playing Gunther's schedule and seldom getting to bowl games. Northwestern was getting to bowl games which helped with recruiting which produced even more wins. Ignoring the pussycats fall from grace in the last couple years, this is a process that has proven to work over a long period of time.

Shemp89 on May 15, 2022 @ 02:18 PM

Beat me to it Eagle. That is my all-time favorite piece / series by Robert...the examination of that period when IL and NU had similar teams but very different non-conf scheduling. Dug our own grave there.

I used to be a "schedule interesting non-conf games" guy. Decades of losing records has changed that.

MuckFichigan92 on May 15, 2022 @ 11:25 PM

In Guenther's days, attendance > views. Now, xxx > attendance. The now-called NW sched was the Kansas State or even Wisconsin sched. Bowling + Spring practice > attendance. De-emphasizing the gate with nonsense opponents should pay off with a stronger program, just don't look at NW the past couple of years.

sstortzum@aol.com on May 15, 2022 @ 11:06 AM

you mean back to back bowls since 2010 / 2011........

sstortzum@aol.com on May 15, 2022 @ 11:09 AM

Nevermind missed the addition back.....

rml on May 15, 2022 @ 08:29 PM

Ug. Count me in the (small?) group that hates this. I roll my eyes at Northwestern and their scheduling, (bowls or no). I would rather push for all teams getting practice time in December (even if you aren't bowling), and play real teams during the yea. Yes, I would MUCH rather watch us play a good team and lose (with a tiny chance of winning a shocker that we would rejoice over forever) than watch us play some lousy team. But to each his own.

bkenny on May 16, 2022 @ 09:34 AM

You've already watched this play out, we don't have to live in the world of hypotheticals. You enjoyed these games? You want more of these?

@ ASU 45-14 vs Washington 34-24 @ Washington 44-19 @ UNC 45-14 UNC 48-23 @ USF 47-23 vs USF 25-19 @ Virginia 42-14

Completely illogical.

accy88 on May 16, 2022 @ 05:28 PM

We have plenty of tough opponents in the B10 that are a tiny chance of winning a shocker. We don't need to add nonconference opponents that would be a shocker win.

Constant losing keeps us constantly losing. And no one shows up to those nonconference underdog games. So quit playing them.

wells4 on May 15, 2022 @ 09:19 PM

In the scenario where the Big Ten and SEC separate from the rest of college football and create their own tier.... why wouldn't this new NFL developmental tier just tear up their previous conference associations and cherry pick the programs that they want to be a part of it?... IE... why would Illinois and Northwestern get invites over Notre Dame and USC?

IlliniJedi on May 16, 2022 @ 01:25 PM

I am of the opinion that if the Alliance impacts football scheduling, then the Big Ten will definitely drop down to 8 conference games to accommodate both a Pac game and ACC games. If we honor a Mizzou agreement, that leaves one cupcake per season. Also, I am on record of wanting our three trophy games as our protected rivals. Illibuck lives!

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