COLUMBUS — Are Friday night lights coming to the Big Ten?
Probably not, but another uncharted foray — prime-time football games in November — could happen as soon as this fall.
While Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith called reports that the Big Ten is exploring a move toward more Friday night games "blown out of proportion," he said the league appears open to flipping on the lights in early November.
That means the Buckeyes’ trip to Michigan State could be headed for primetime. The Nov. 8 rematch of last year’s Big Ten championship game — a 34-24 Spartans win that kept OSU from playing for a national title — is already being billed as the league’s game of the season.
ESPN/ABC executives would likely push for an 8 p.m. start if the Big Ten breaks from its longtime stand against night games in November. The league’s contract with its TV partners states that a post-October game can kick off late only if the conference and both teams reach an agreement.
"That would be Michigan State's call. They would call us and ask if we would be willing to do it, and I'd probably say yes," Smith told The Blade after returning from the Big Ten administrators meetings in Chicago last week. "[Michigan State] would get the first call. If they feel like they can handle that up there, then we'd be supportive of it.
"A lot of times you have to defer to the operations locally. If we were playing them here, we would do it. I think we could handle that magnitude of a game. That's technically the second Saturday in November, but you're only talking by a couple of days."
A Michigan State spokesman did not respond to a message for comment on the school’s plans. The league’s primetime schedule is expected to be announced in the spring.
The Big Ten has long been opposed to playing at night in November, reasoning the potential for bitter weather outweighs the higher-profile primetime slot. In Columbus, for instance, temperatures have historically dropped from an average low of 43 degrees in October to 34 degrees in November. Smith recently asked his staff to further break down the weather trends, concluding that he would endorse playing late on the first Saturday in November but not yet the second.
"That's a little bit more risky, so I didn't commit to that," he said. "I want to look at it to see if that's something we'd want to do. You can't predict the weather, but we need to look at the history."
Big Ten administrators know times are changing. Ohio Stadium will have permanent lights for the first time next season, the Super Bowl was played in New Jersey last month, and TV is increasingly becoming king. The Big Ten’s 10-year, $1 billion deal with ABC and ESPN for regular-season broadcast rights expires in 2017, and the league is searching for ways to ensure a much larger windfall in its next contract (The Big Ten Network also pays out tens of millions of dollars annually.)
That includes more primetime games and tapping East Coast TV markets with the addition this fall of Maryland and Rutgers, though Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has said there are limits to how far the league will go. For instance, don’t expect a weekly game on Fridays — a night in Ohio seen as sacred for high school football. Smith said the only potential Thursday or Friday night games would be Labor Day or Thanksgiving weekends.
And that doesn’t go for everyone. Ohio State and Michigan may begin their regular seasons on a weeknight — the way OSU opened on a Thursday against Marshall in 2010 — but they will not end it on one. The schools’ year-end rivalry game will remain a Saturday fixture.
"We're not going to ever change that," Smith said.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last week, Delany cited three hurdles to Friday night contests: conflict with prep games, possible missed class time for athletes, and the logistics of handling a weekday crowd.
"We're trying to enhance the [TV] package, but the notion that we're playing Friday nights, I don't think it will happen while I'm here," Delany told the newspaper. "There are much higher priorities."
He added: "You never say never. We might be playing on Netflix or YouTube [someday]. You can't know what is going to happen down the road."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.