As things stand at the moment, Indiana football is assured of having nine of its 12 games against Power Five opponents every year.
If you’re trying to build a program that wins at least as much as it loses on a consistent basis, that’s plenty.
But the news this week that IU was cancelling the rest of the Louisville series — the home-and-home part in 2024 and 2025 — was met by some with frustration and jeering.
Culminating months of reporting by multiple outlets, the Indy Star reported this week IU plans to replace the 2024 Louisville game with an FCS opponent, meaning all three non-conference games will involve non-Power Five competition. The Hoosiers will host Florida International and Charlotte in the other games next year.
And this seems to be the model for IU going forward.
Indiana and Louisville entered the contract in 2015 when Kevin Wilson was still the head coach. Here’s what you need to know about that timing: The contract was entered just weeks after the Big Ten required its teams to play nine league games, along with one mandated nonconference game against a fellow Power Five school, and they could no longer schedule FCS opponents.
Since then the league has signaled the Power Five nonconference requirement is a thing of the past, and one FCS opponent is allowed per season without jeopardizing postseason opportunities.
So much has changed since 2015, and things are still changing of course. The College Football Playoff is expanding, as is the Big Ten itself, with USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington coming on board next summer. The bottom line is this: the calculus for building a college football program with sustained success in 2023 entails a much different set of variables than what existed in 2015.
And IU isn’t alone in what has become a scheduling trend in the Big Ten and beyond.
Earlier this year, Ohio State canceled a home-and-home series with Washington, instead opting to schedule additional home games against non-Power Fives.
Michigan terminated a home-and-home series with UCLA in 2022 and 2023 and replaced those dates with home games against Hawaii and East Carolina. They also canceled a series with Virginia Tech.
Rutgers also canceled a home-and-home with UCLA.
Those are just some of the recent examples across the Big Ten. There are others in the league and around the country.
For some programs in the upper echelon of the sport, the expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams in 2024 is the driving force behind scheduling a less competitive nonconference schedule. Especially in the era of hypercompetitive leagues like the Big Ten and SEC, there’s really no sense in knocking yourself out of the CFP in September.
Indiana’s goals are a bit more modest. Three nonconference wins each year would mean they only have to go 3-6 in the Big Ten to reach bowl eligibility. While that’s certainly not the resume of a college football powerhouse, it looks like a reasonable foundation to build from if Indiana can indeed consistently get to a 6-6 floor more often than not.
The approach guarantees Indiana at least seven home games every season, with eight every other year. More home games mean more revenue, something that’s now even more important as booster dollars are being diverted to name, image and likeness endeavors. Some will point to the caliber of the competition and wonder just how many people will come to Memorial Stadium to watch the Hoosiers face lower level teams. And that’s reasonable.
But consider this — When Indiana faced FCS opponent Idaho in 2021, they drew more than 47,000 to Memorial Stadium. For Idaho. But that was the first home game after a 6-2 2020 season when IU actually did sniff the CFP. That was at least a clue — if they build it, the fans will come.
Something similar happened in the late ’80s under Bill Mallory when IU drew more than 40,000 for home games against Toledo and Eastern Michigan. Fans will support a consistent winner.
It’s not a formula without risk, but it does seem more reasonable to assume that an easier schedule with more winning seasons bodes better for the long-term viability of the program than a more difficult schedule with more losing seasons.
And in its simplest form, like it or not, that’s where we are.
At least for the moment.
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