While this isn’t a pressing issue at all, there is an upcoming problem facing the Big Ten’s baseball scheduler. Unlike most other sports teams in the Big Ten over the last few years, baseball has been blessed with an even 10 teams. With Wisconsin not fielding a team since the early 90s, and the addition of Penn State shortly thereafter, the conference has been able to avoid bye weeks.
Starting next year with Nebraska’s move to the conference, the baseball standings will stretch to an 11th team, complicating scheduling that’s already hampered by weather. A bye week is now mandatory as only 10 teams can play each other while the 11th sits dormant.
That bye situation is tougher to deal with than it might seem. This means that you must have an odd number of byes every week if you have more than one team with a bye (11 teams with 2 byes means 9 teams for 5 games, someone still not playing someone). This necessity for at least one bye per week makes the 8 week schedule impossible. At least one week will require an even number of byes.
Adding a Week to the Conference Season
With that, the primary option would be to change the length of the conference regular season*. There’s two ways to do that, adding the week to the front of the regular season or dropping the conference tournament. Both of those have their pros and cons.
In moving the start to the conference season up a week, the conference tournament and it’s RPI boost/potential extra bid to the NCAA tournament is preserved. That’s arguably a good thing. The downside to starting the conference season a week earlier is the plight that is northern baseball. That weekend is usually teams’ first attempts at baseball outside, and the weather that weekend has a history of snow and rain outs. This past year, teams were lucky. Hedging that bet might not be best for teams.
The second option is to drop the conference tournament and add a ninth week of games where the conference tournament once stood. This idea seems reasonable as the conference tournament hasn’t really been a force in getting extra teams into the NCAA that win. Indiana is the only recent team to get a huge RPI boost in winning the auto-bid, but they were two-and-out of the NCAAs. The tournament also isn’t a money-maker for the conference, especially when you put the predetermined spot on a campus that’s not participating.
But despite some of those slight positives, would-be tournament teams do lose the opportunity to boost their RPI, and teams lose that chance to play their way into the NCAAs. Both of those are tough losses for some programs.
I think the option of changing the season length like this would be the most logical option, but let’s look at other ideas.
*I’ll point out that if the expansion of the season (post Uniform Start Date) added a week to the beginning of the season instead of the end of the season, as argued by many of the northern baseball schools. Had the rules committee, the city of Omaha/CWS, and ESPN been able to broker the deal to have it added to the end of the season, all this would be moot
Six Conference Series
A second option that would be viable is to drop the conference regular season to just 7 weeks, and have teams play only 6 conference series before the tournament. This gives teams the opportunity to try and schedule another pair of non-conference series, one during what used to be the first weekend of conference play and another during their bye.
This gets a bit tricky as many of the northern teams have enough trouble trying to schedule opponents for home series (see the tomato cans like IPFW and Oakland that Michigan has scheduled recently). Finding a quality opponent willing to travel north that late in the season is going to be near impossible. That leaves RPI vacuums from the Horizon League, Missouri Valley, Summit League, or Ohio Valley Conferences as likely culprits to drain teams’ RPIs.
To alleviate this problem, the conference could go back to 4-game weekends and just leave the bye as an actual bye week. This would put the conference season back to 24 games, where it was before expansion. This seems like a capable scenario, but it’ll be interesting to see how coaches view this. The reason 4-game series were dropped was to reduce RPI loss against the lower teams in the Big Ten and to save their pitching depth, as 4 games tended to drain everything they had.
As far as divisional structure, things get no better here. With 11 teams, one division is going to have an odd number of teams. This just complicates all of the previous scheduling to the point of not working at all.
For example, if the 6-team division plays each of it’s five division rivals, it has played 5 series. The 5-team division will have played 4 series. How do they make up that lost series? Do they get a bye weekend and the 6-team division not? Is that fair? I would say definitely not. And it’s not like they could play an extra week of divisional games (like playing a divisional opponent a second time). One team would have a bye and still not play an extra series.
This just can’t work.
The only way I see the conference schedule working out is by adjusting the season length. I don’t think coaches would really go for the 4 game weekends, and I’m not sure I see the coaches wanting to drop the conference tournament. This means that adding a week to the beginning of the conference season is the only logical approach.
It sounds like baseball fans need to invest in a better set of blankets. That weekend in early March isn’t the home opener against a tomato can that you can just skip guilt free.