Hello, Stranger: Rutgers Makes First-Ever Visit to Iowa City

By RossWB on September 6, 2019 at 2:34 pm
hey there knight-guy
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
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This year college football is celebrating its 150th anniversary. One of the two teams in the first-ever college football game back in 1869? Rutgers. Which means they're also celebrating their 150th anniversary of playing college football. Iowa, which started play 20 years later, is celebrating its 130th anniversary of playing football. And on Saturday a little bit of history will be made: Rutgers will visit Iowa City for the first time ever. 

Obviously, there are a lot of FBS teams that Iowa has never played, and an even greater number that have never visited Kinnick Stadium (*waves hand at basically the entire SEC*). Rutgers' inclusion on that list (until Saturday) is a little stranger because Iowa and Rutgers are (deep sigh) part of the same conference. And have been for the last six years. In that span, Iowa and Rutgers have only crossed paths on the football field once, an Iowa trip out to New Jersey for an utterly forgettable 14-7 Iowa win on a boiling September day in 2016. Saturday, six years after joining the Big Ten, Rutgers will finally return the favor and make their first trip to Iowa City. 

But Rutgers' delay in visiting Iowa City is by no means strange; in fact, there are several match-ups that have yet to take place in the Big Ten since the latest gasp of EXPANSIONPALOOZA back in 2014. Here, take a look: 

B1G WEST RUTGERS HOME RUTGERS AWAY MARYLAND HOME MARYLAND AWAY
Illinois 2016
2018
2020
2017
2019
2021
2018 2021
Iowa 2016 2019 2014 2015
2018
Minnesota 2019 2016 2016
2018
2017
2019
Nebraska 2015
2020
2014
2017
2019 2016
Northwestern 2018 2021 2017 2020
Purdue 2017 2020 2016 2019
Wisconsin 2014
2021
2015
2018
2015 2014
2017

Three other first-time-since-joining-the-conference scenarios -- Minnesota making their first visit to Rutgers, Nebraska making their first visit to Maryland, and the Terps making their first trip to Purdue -- will also go down in 2019. And there are other scenarios that won't come to fruition until at least 2021. Maryland and Rutgers have never played at Welsh-Ryan Field and that won't change until 2020 (for Maryland) and 2021 (for Rutgers). Rutgers will make their first trip to West Lafayette to face Purdue in 2020. And Illinois will host Maryland for the first time in a Big Ten game in 2021. 

Obviously, most of these trips aren't exactly bucket list destinations for Big Ten fans. Not many folks are clamoring to make the trip to Evanston (unless they're just looking for an excuse to go to Chicago) or West Lafayette or Champaign-Urbana. It seems telling that Rutgers and Maryland both made early trips to some of the West's more hallowed stadiums, like Camp Randall in Madison (Maryland was there in 2014, their first year in the league; Rutgers went a year later) and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln (Rutgers' baptism in the Big Ten featured a trip to Lincoln in 2014; Maryland visited two years later). (Honestly, that kind of makes Rutgers' delay in visiting Kinnick even stranger, since Kinnick is just about as renowned as Camp Randall or Memorial Stadium; Maryland at least visited in 2015, their second year in the Big Ten.) 

But the real issue is just how these lengthy delays and infrequent games among ostensible conference rivals makes it hard to foster a sense of real togetherness. At least in football, Maryland and Rutgers still don't feel like members of the Big Ten, and that's in no small part because of how rarely Iowa has played them in the five years (going on six) that they've been a part of the conference. Familiarity breeds contempt, but nothing breeds familiarity like playing someone every year. Time makes it easier to accept any change, so eventually Maryland and Rutgers will probably seem like "normal" or "regular" members of the Big Ten, if only because it will get harder to remember a time when they weren't a part of the league as time goes by.

I can barely remember a Big Ten without Penn State at this point and Nebraska feels like an increasingly normal presence in the league as well. But one thing that helped increase that sense of familiarity and belonging? Actually playing them on a regular basis. When Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, Iowa played them in eight of the next ten seasons. Iowa has, of course, played Nebraska every year since the Huskers joined the fold in 2011. Those regular appearances make the newbie seem normal; by contrast, Maryland Rutgers are still the weird uncle you see every four years when he gets out of jail. 

Unfortunately, this whole issue is also a largely unavoidable problem when conferences sprawl to 14 members like the Big Ten has. There are far more teams than there are games to go around each season, so someone's going to left out of the mixer. Divisional play exacerbates the problem, since playing your divisional rivals each year ties up 2/3 of your conference schedule right off the bat. The Big Ten has attempted to alleviate the issue by moving to a nine-game schedule and scrapping permanent cross-divisional rivals (with the exception of Indiana-Purdue), and those are good steps to take, especially when you look at counter-examples.

Like, say, the SEC. Like the Big Ten, the SEC ballooned to 14 teams during the latest round of EXPANSIONPALOOZA, adding Missouri and Texas A&M to their ranks. Unlike the Big Ten, they have not moved to a nine-game league schedule. Also unlike the Big Ten, they persist in having a permanent cross-divisional rival for each team in the SEC. Do the math: six of their eight league games are occupied by divisional foes. One of the remaining two games is occupied by the same cross-divisional opponent each year. That leaves six other teams from the opposite division to gradually rotate through that one remaining game on the schedule each year. It's no surprise that that situation has produced some truly absurd results.

My personal favorite matchup in this context is Texas A&M and Georgia. The Aggies have been a part of the SEC since 2011, but in those eight years they have never -- repeat: never -- played Georgia. Two entire graduating classes of recruits at either school could played their entire careers at UGA or A&M and never played one of their ostensible conference rivals. That will (finally) change this year, when Georgia makes a trip to College Station to play the Aggies, but the Aggies won't return the favor and go to Athens until 2024 -- Texas A&M's 14th year in the conference. That's a really shitty scheduling system. So we can say a small thank you to the Delanybot 9000 for not being as bad as that. 

Again, this is an unavoidable problem to a large extent; the math just doesn't really work when you're trying to squeeze 13 opponents into a 9-game schedule each year. Scrapping divisions in favor of something like a pod system would help -- Iowa could play teams in the East more frequently if they played, say, Illinois, Northwestern, and Purdue less often. That would help make Maryland and Rutgers seem less like strangers; it would also help rekindle rivalries with teams like Michigan and Michigan State that lose their potency when they only play Iowa once every three or four years. A pod-based approach to scheduling isn't likely to come to fruition anytime soon, so we're stuck with the existing system, one that makes fellow conference opponents feel like strangers.  

P.S. I do recognize that there's a certain amount of irony in this post, given that Rutgers will soon replace Penn State as Iowa's crossover "buddy" in conference schedules; the Scarlet Knights will be on Iowa's schedule every year from 2022-2027. But until then the Scarlet Knights still feel more like interlopers than a Big Ten peer. 

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