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Big Ten teams are allowed to schedule FCS opponents again, sometimes. Should they?

The change could affect the Playoff race on the margins.

NCAA Football: North Dakota State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

CHICAGO – Two years ago, the Big Ten announced a series of new scheduling rules. It jumped from eight conference games to nine, mandated each team play one non-conference Power 5 opponent, and banned its teams from scheduling non-FBS opponents. Signed contracts would be honored, but there’d be no new FCS games joining the slate.

The restriction on FCS scheduling now has a caveat. In years when Big Ten teams have four conference home games out of the nine-game schedule, they can put FCS teams on their schedule, commissioner Jim Delany told SB Nation during a press conference at the league’s media days Monday.

“Now after watching things play out over the last three years, we noted that we were the only conference to go totally in that direction,” Delany said. “We have never really gotten there because we had long existing contracts. When we went to nine games, we did not anticipate the problems that some of our skills would have in years that they only had four conference games -- it was very difficult for them to get three FBS opponents on to their schedules if they were looking for seven home games.”

One FCS athletic director, at powerhouse football program North Dakota State, explains why this news is good news for his school:

“The best part for us is with the Big Ten, it's the most geographical favorable footprint and they are the teams we would most prefer to play,” NDSU’s Matt Larsen said. There are a lot of Land Grant institutions and it gives our fan base more ability to travel."

Larsen got ahead of Delany in a Forum article last week.

Any FBS teams that chooses to schedule NDSU is signing its own death warrant, because the Bison always win. But if a Big Ten team wants to play them, it now can.

FCS teams come in different shapes and sizes, but playing them carries little payoff.

Last year, some other Big Ten-vs.-FCS games included:

  • Michigan State 28, Furman 13
  • Maryland 52, Howard 13
  • Purdue 45, Eastern Kentucky 24
  • Illinois 52, Murray State 3
  • Minnesota 58, Indiana State 28

The Big Ten won all of those games, but none of them were impressive — not to fans, not to AP Poll voters, and certainly not to bowl selectors or the College Football Playoff committee.

Also, the Big Ten had:

  • Illinois State 9, Northwestern 7
  • North Dakota State 23, Iowa 21

The Bison entered that Iowa game as five-time defending FCS national champions, and Illinois State is a program that’s presumably full of nice people. But winning those games would’ve done little for either Northwestern or Iowa. Losing sure hurt, though.

Still, having the occasional FCS game on the schedule doesn’t hurt.

The best case study comes from last year’s Playoff race.

In Week 2, Penn State played a rivalry game at Pitt and lost, 42-39. The Nittany Lions would lose again two weeks later to Michigan. Then they rattled off nine wins in a row and won the Big Ten, putting themselves squarely in the Playoff picture.

That same week, Washington played Idaho (which is still an FBS team, but only for another year) and won, 59-14. A week later, the Huskies thrashed FCS Portland State, 41-3. They’d lose just once, to USC, en route to the No. 4 seed in the Playoff.

Penn State finished fifth. Had the Lions played an FCS team instead of Pitt, they’d have won. And if Washington had been playing a Power 5 road game, maybe the Huskies would’ve lost. PSU probably wonders about this. UW is probably glad it doesn’t have to.

These discussions aren’t different than others about strength of schedule.

Signing up to play an FCS team isn’t much different than scheduling someone in the basement of the Group of 5 conferences.

Winning one doesn’t do much, and it’s easy to see how losing one could be crippling. But if other teams lose and you don’t, it can make a big difference when bowl selections come around. Big Ten teams can choose their own paths.