Nick Saban and I (finally) found something we agree on. And, no, it isn’t our contempt for all things LSU. Coach Process has pressed all Power Five teams to play 10 Power Five opponents. In fact, Saban urged Power Five teams to “play all Power 5 games,” dispensing with those autumnal scheduling sacrifices. In Saban’s ideal world -- and mine too for that matter -- those cut the check games would, mercifully, disappear. And we, college football fans, could bid adieu to such glorious match-ups as Bama-Western Carolina, Florida-UT Martin, and, well, Iowa-Middle Tennessee State.
While Iowa does play 10 Power Five opponents, the Hawkeyes are no stranger to scheduling cotton candy on Saturdays. Over the past five years, Iowa has played Miami (that would be the Ohio, not Florida, version), Northern Illinois, and Illinois State. And over the next five years, Iowa will tangle with Kent State, South Dakota State, and Western Michigan. If the Big Ten championship falls through, well, at least Iowa can compete for the MAC crown.
Snide comments aside, I understand the realities of college football scheduling, particularly for a “developmental program” like Iowa. Gary Barta and Kirk Ferentz want to guarantee Iowa’s bowl eligibility and the cushy non-conference slate provides a running start to six wins. While the Iowa State game can be tricky, Iowa, conservatively, should enter Big Ten play 2-1 (and most years the Hawks should be 3-0). And in Ferentz’s eyes, the non-conference slate is grin-and-bear-it foreplay before the ultimate score: winning a Big Ten title.
That said, it's time to revisit Iowa’s scheduling philosophy. Under Barta and Ferentz, there has been a rigid adherence to the seven home games (or else) mantra. The end result: Iowa plays Iowa State (for better or worse, as Pat and I have discussed ad nauseam) and then schedules two of (insert rotating MAC or Mountain West pu pu platter) for a yearly Woodshed 52242. As a longtime Hawkeye fan, these two games are about as appealing as grocery store sushi. But under Barta, the rigid adherence to the seven home games (or else) template trumps everything, including scheduling worthwhile non-conference games. When pressed on the topic, Barta’s default response is, "Playing Iowa State is a very, very challenging game" and/or "We have to play nine conference games," and/or “We have to pay the bills.”
Let's drop the first truth bomb: Georgia, Colorado, and Utah all wage yearly slugfests with in-state, non-conference foes. And in contrast to our Hawkeyes, these schools will sacrifice a home game for an interesting, even sexy, inter-conference match-up at times. They are not wedded like a bad tattoo to the seven home games (or else) mantra. Georgia plays Georgia Tech and Oregon in 2022 and only hosts five home games that year. Colorado plays Colorado State and Texas A&M in 2020 and only hosts six home games that year. Utah plays BYU and Baylor in 2023 and, you guessed it, only hosts six home games that year. Instead of scheduling two also-rans, these schools provide their fans with worthwhile match-ups -- match-ups, incidentally, befitting those exorbitant season ticket prices. Why can't Iowa, even occasionally, do the same and provide its fans with one (just one!) mouth-watering non-conference foe?
Moreover, Iowa isn’t the only school dealing with a schedule with nine conference games; the Big 12 and the Pac-12 also mandate league members play nine conference games. Despite the league-mandated nine conference games, other Power Five schools are scheduling two legitimate/Power Five opponents outside conference play. In the Big 12, West Virginia played Missouri and NC State this year; in 2021, the ‘Eers battle Maryland and Virginia Tech. In the Pac 12, CU has A&M and Minnesota on tap in 2021; in 2022, the Buffs tangle with TCU and the Gophers. Oregon plays Georgia and BYU in 2022; the Ducks face Oklahoma State and Boise State in 2025 and 2026. And in the ultimate hoss move, USC is set to play Alabama and Notre Dame in 2020. Even Purdue, our most hated rival, is scheduling up. The Boilers face two Power Five non-conference opponents in 2019, 2021, 2023, and 2024.
And, finally, the Iowa athletic department isn’t exactly cash-strapped. Iowa earned $116 million in revenue for fiscal year 2018. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Iowa earned $52.6 million in Big Ten Conference television revenue during the 2017-18 budget year (this was a $16 million spike from the 2016-17 budget). With these bloated television contracts serving as de facto sugardaddies for the Iowa athletic department, Iowa can afford the loss of an occasional home game. Iowa, by the way, is paying MTSU a cool $1.55 million (it will pay Kent State $1.85 million in 2021) for the privilege of trekking to Iowa City and, most likely, getting depantsed.
From my perspective, the collective debate (and hand-wringing) about the Cy-Hawk is only part of the discussion. Why can’t Iowa, if it is so inclined, keep the Cy-Hawk and schedule another legitimate opponent? The excuse medley (seven home games or bust, nobody plays 11 Power Five games, Iowa athletic department needs the dollars) is more stale than Kinnick's Burrito Lift.
And look, of course, I’ll watch Iowa trample MTSU because I am an admitted sucker for Hawkeye football (and dazzling Tyler Goodson runs during mop-up time). But until Iowa schedules a legitimate, non Iowa State opponent, this Hawkeye homer will spend the first month of the season questioning why the self-anointed Bullies of the Big Ten aren’t picking on someone their own size, instead of the most convenient MAC/Mountain West punching bag.