The annual Big Ten spring meetings are underway in Chicago, allowing conference athletic directors to gather for the first time this year. Among the most pressing topics on the docket are continued improvement of non-confernece schedules, stirring up the bowl lineups and tie-ins and improving the Big Ten's nationwide image.
Unsurprisingly, Wisconsin Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez was largely at the forefront of the early-week proceedings, particularly regarding more rigorous non-conference scheduling. UW has already locked up a 2015 neutral-site meeting with Alabama and a home-and-home with South Florida, and another possible neutral-site meeting with LSU has generated chatter for much of the past month.
Tuesday, Alvarez told ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg that no deal with LSU has been finalized, but talks are continuing and "Hopefully, we finalize that in the near future." Alvarez initially said the 2014-15 Big Ten schedule could be announced Wednesday, though it turns out that won't be the case.
Also on the subject of tweaking non-conference play, Alvarez gave perhaps the most rational assessment of the path forward. Flat-out rejection of FCS schools has been the widely-regarded next step, though absolutes in that regard usually aren't all they're chalked up to be.
Wisco AD Alvarez says "we have to be smart" about potential ban on FCS games. Says could be "lack of inventory" w/FBS foes.— Teddy Greenstein (@TeddyGreenstein) May 14, 2013
Other notes from a busy, wide-ranging day:
Stronger non-conference schedules
Reception to the Big Ten scheduling tougher early-season slates has been generally positive, though some have wondered if the conference will be able to consistently complete with the likes of the SEC and the Big 12. As mentioned above, Wisconsin will get Alabama and possibly LSU in the near future; other Big Ten schools have announced agreements to play Notre Dame, Oregon, TCU, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.
While those concerns may very well be valid -- heck, Wisconsin hasn't even played an SEC school since 2007 -- Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said they also may be missing the point altogether. With the new College Football Playoff making the strength of schedules significantly more important, schools will need solid showings against reputable opponents more than they will 70-point blowouts against Austin Peay and such. From CBSSports.com's Jeremy Fowler:
"It's boring for the fans in the stadium, it's boring on television -- we don't want to be boring," Brandon said. "We want to strengthen the schedule to create more excitement early in the season."
Others, including Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, touted falling attendance numbers as an additional argument for stronger non-confernece schedules. Surprisingly, that financial aspect seemed to take a backseat to talk of improving the Big Ten's chances at competing for a national championship in the new playoff.
New bowls likely to include Pinstripe and Holiday
The Big Ten aligning itself with the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York isn't a new idea, nor is it difficult to comprehend. The conference has stated its desire to broaden its reach, and the East Coast television markets are the principal channels through which to achieve that. Scott Dochterman of The Gazette (Eastern Iowa) reported on Tuesday that the Big Ten could soon send its third-ranked team to the Holiday Bowl. No deals are official yet, though it's believed the Pac-12 will send its second-ranked team to the bowl, which is played at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, starting in 2014.
"They really take care of the student-athlete experience, they make sure that's a high level," Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. "Historically, they have a great brand because of the great football games that have been played over the years.
"If that ended up being one of our bowls, I can speak positively to the experience there."
"I think all of us are very positive about the Holiday Bowl," Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez said. "When I was at Iowa, we played in it for years. It was a great bowl. I don't think we've signed anything, but I know that's one that we'd be interested in."
The Big Ten previously sent teams to the Holiday Bowl from 1991-94 after also placing teams in a San Diego bowl in 1986-88.
As for the Pinstripe Bowl, it appears all but certain the Big Ten and ACC will be the tie-ins for 2014 and beyond. Previously, the Big East/American Athletic Conference and the Big 12 played in the bowl.
"I think New York City around Christmastime is one of the most beautiful places in the world, or around the holidays," Penn State Athletics Director Dave Joyner said. "I think people will find it's a really great place to play."
"It sure seems like it," Alvarez said about the Pinstripe Bowl joining the Big Ten lineup. "I think everybody's in favor of that."
Don't forget, the Big Ten also will have an expanded presence at the Orange Bowl, playing an ACC squad there at least three times over the next 12 years. Furthermore, the conference is expected to extend its agreements with the Capital One and Outback Bowls, as well as share bids to the Music City and Gator bowls with the ACC. Dochterman says it's likely the Big Ten will add at least one Texas bowl, most likely the Heart of Dallas Bowl (formerly known as the Cotton Bowl).
Of course, the Rose Bowl will still be the crown jewel. The Granddaddy of Them All will feature the Big Ten champion in eight of the next four years, and serve as a semifinal game in the other four.
Barry's still a boss
Barry Alvarez is devoting the latter years of his career as Wisconsin's AD to being a source of news, and we in the media appreciate it.— Mike Hlas (@Hlas) May 14, 2013
That's nothing new on our end. Alvarez's "I don't use search committees; search committees use me" line back in the post-Bielema mess was equal parts thrilling and comforting, but we've also seen him be progressively forthcoming with news and insight that are actually worth writing about.
Alvarez did share some disappointing news when he all but shot down the possibility of a Big Ten Championship Game held at Chicago's Soldier Field. Apparently cold-weather football would turn off recruits and fans.
Earlier Big Ten games?
Could we see Big Ten games earlier in September? It sure sounds like a good idea.
"You'll see the Big Ten schedule spread out," Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner said. "You're not necessarily going to see them right in the beginning. You might see an earlier conference game."
"You won't see a lot of that, but my understanding is one of the things we would like to look at is if there are two programs that have an open date and haven't scheduled a non-conference game, you may see some Big Ten football in September," Brandon said. "I don't think that would be bad at all."