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B1G Thoughts: Breaking down Flex Protect Plus, the new B1G scheduling model

After a years worth of debates, the Big Ten finally announced its new scheduling model called Flex Protect Plus. So what is it and why should you care?

Michigan State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Every week after the Big Ten slate of games, I will bring you some B1G thoughts on everything that happened! This will include analysis, stats, key players, moments, and maybe a joke. Check out the I-70 Football Show in the Land-Grant Holy Land podcast feed for more in-depth analysis and to preview the next week of B1G games.

On Thursday, June 8, new Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti joined “Big Ten Live” on the Big Ten Network to announce the conference’s new scheduling model and protected rivalries.

For the past year, we’ve known that the conference would almost certainly get rid of divisions and that it would continue a nine-game conference schedule in 2024 after becoming a 16-team league with the additions of USC and UCLA. We did not know, however, which scheduling model the league would choose and which of the various historic rivalries would be protected.

After Thursday’s announcement, we are no longer in the dark. The conference announced a flexible mode called Flex Protect Plus, where each team was able to protect whichever rivalries — up to three — that they valued the most.

So what is the flex-protect model, and what does it mean for fans?

The Who:

The Who is simple — the Big Ten is now a 16-team conference that spans from New Jersey to California. As of next fall, the conference will consist of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers, UCLA, USC, and Wisconsin.

The What:

The Flex Protect Plus is a scheduling model that allows ultimate flexibility... look, no one ever said the name was clever.

Instead of forcing each team to have three protected rivals, the league decided to respect its history and only protect the most important and historical rivalries. The conference has tried to force rivalries before with Maryland, Rutgers, and Penn State, but fans never bought in. They tried again with Nebraska and Wisconsin, but instead, a more natural rivalry formed between Nebraska and Iowa.

The conference decided, even though it makes the scheduling tougher, to make everyone happy and essentially let each school determine which rivalries matter to them and their fanbase. By going this route, the conference trimmed the fat and only put out the best spread it could while taking into account team preferences and traveling for the new West Coast schools.

Ultimately, the Flex Protect Plus model ended with 11 protected rivalries, with every team besides Penn State having at least one protected rival and Iowa with three.

The 11 protected rivalries:

  • Illinois-Northwestern
  • Illinois-Purdue
  • Indiana-Purdue
  • Iowa-Minnesota
  • Iowa-Nebraska
  • Iowa-Wisconsin
  • Maryland-Rutgers
  • Michigan-Michigan State
  • Minnesota-Wisconsin
  • Ohio State-Michigan

It may be surprising that Penn State and Ohio State weren’t protected, but if you listened to the noise coming out of Penn State, they wanted it to be known that they do not have any rivals in the conference and would be fine with any scheduling model as long as they were not in the East division with Ohio State and Michigan. Fans may consider OSU and PSU a rivalry, but clearly, the two schools do not.

For programs without three protected rivals, the Big Ten will select one to three teams that will play each other in home and homes for a two-year cycle, creating a 3-6-6 scheduling arrangement where each program will play three opponents twice and rotate the other 12 teams during the two-year cycle.

The When:

The Flex Protect Plus model will start next year for the 2024 football season, coinciding with the arrival of USC and UCLA and the full commitment of the new television media deal. The media deal technically starts this July, but CBS still has the SEC for the 2023 season and is not a full participant until 2024.

The Where:

The where is complicated. The Big Ten stretches from New Jersey to California and the conference and teams will have to be mindful of who is playing where and how that will affect their players.

Currently, Big Ten teams leave immediately following games to head home. A team traveling to California or vice versa may have to deal with return trips that don’t see them get home until the early morning. Teams will have to figure out the best schedule to travel home, and how to get their equipment back to campus as well. Generally, a team’s equipment is driven by a semi-truck to away games, but a semi from State College to Los Angeles may not be feasible.

This is something that the conference will constantly have to take into consideration and is another reason for the added flexibility.

The Why:

So after a year of discussion, why did the conference come up with this model? If you ask them they’ll say a few things.

One is that they wanted to preserve the historic rivalries of the conference. Eight conference rivalries have been played over 100 times, and six of them were kept in this model — only sacrificing Illinois-Ohio State — who will play in 2024 and 2025 — and Michigan-Minnesota.

Illinois-Purdue, Iowa-Wisconsin, and USC-UCLA have all been played over 90 times and were also protected. Even Iowa-Nebraska have played 53 times, making Rutgers-Maryland the only protected rivalry without a real history.

Secondly, they did not want to box USC and UCLA in by forcing them to have rivals across the country. While it makes scheduling more difficult, this model allows them to be intentional with who plays who, when, and where. USC and UCLA knew what they were getting into by joining the conference, but it was still important to support them and ease their travel.

Lastly, the conference wanted to find the balance between scheduling great games for the three media partners — CBS, Fox, and NBC — while also creating a competitive balance that gives the conference the best chance to get multiple teams in the new 12-team playoff that also starts in 2024. While maybe creating more work on the back end, this model is the best chance at making everyone happy — all 16 teams, including their coaches, players, and administration as well as the television partners.

The How:

So you may be wondering, how is the conference going to maintain this schedule and pick the “two-play opponents” for each team.

We may never know exactly how they choose the two-play opponents or why, but I expect them to be teams that either have rivalries that weren’t protected — i.e. Ohio State and Illinois in ‘24 and ‘25 — as well as a combination of the best games. It may not have been fair to make USC or UCLA come into the conference and play Ohio State or Michigan in back-to-back years, but you can be sure they will be two-play opponents eventually, maybe as soon as the next schedule release.

We will get Ohio State-Penn State, Michigan-Minnesota, and other games of importance, but by only committing to two years the conference can closely monitor teams and create the best matchups. Think of it like the NFL. The reason the NFL schedules one year at a time is so that the league can create the best matchups from Super Bowl rematches to rematches of amazing in-season games. They also routinely make the best teams play the hardest schedules, which allows for competitive balance.

The Big Ten should model its scheduling off of that; while not a replica, it would be beneficial. I expect to see the Big Ten announce its schedule around this time every two years, building excitement for future matchups and allowing for teams to plan travel to and from the West Coast.