The Big Ten is not done expanding. No way, no how. Not when you listen to what people around the Big Ten are saying. They can't flat-out say "we're adding two more teams"—more on that in a second—but they can sure leave no traces of doubt where the conference will end up.
First, there's this from the Associated Press, via Ralph D. Russo of Yahoo! Sports:
''I would describe our position as being inactive, but alert,'' Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Thursday after he appeared on a panel with Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive and Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco. The discussion at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum was sponsored by SportsBusiness Journal.
''Monitoring the landscape is overused so we're trying to figure out what's the most apt way to describe where we are,'' Delany said. ''One hundred percent moving toward integration of the 14 (members). With schedules, branding and divisional alignment.
''We assessed staying where we were, and thought there was some risk to that long term,'' he added. ''We also understand that there's risk when you expand because you could get brand dilution.''
How many teams will the Big Ten have when the dust settles?
Now, when Delany says the conference is inactive, that gives him and the Big Ten the cover to say that any and all further expansion will have been through the other schools seeking out the Big Ten rather than vice versa.
That's important due to a term called "tortious interference." It basically means "interfering with contracts or other business relations," and if Delany's up there saying his conference is seeking out new members, the conferences where those new members come from have a much stronger case to make once the inevitable lawsuit comes.
That all said, nobody has ever reneged on a conference switch because of litigation. If someone decides to come to the Big Ten, they're coming. This is just a tactic to help everyone negotiate exit fees and dates. So let's be clear on that.
But exit fees are not insignificant, and they can act as a deterrent to the Big Ten encouraging a formal application (which is little more than a, well, formality). To that end, here's this from Brett McMurphy of ESPN.com:
One factor that could impact whether the Big Ten expands in the future, specifically if it targets ACC teams, is whether Maryland will be required to pay the ACC's $52 million exit fee.
The ACC has filed a lawsuit to guarantee the Terps pay the entire amount. Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said Wednesday he doesn't think the exit fee is enforceable.
The "alert" part of Delany's statement might as well be a giant neon sign that says "now accepting applications" on a storefront, however, and that's probably all an interested school needs to hear to set about negotiations, informal or otherwise. "Alert" is all the Big Ten needs to be at this point.
Now, Delany is a zen master of careful phrasing. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis is up there too, but he did intimate a little more than Delany did about the future plans of the conference. Per McMurphy of ESPN.com, he's not saying 16 teams is going to happen, buuuut okay he's basically saying that:
"There are some advantages to 16 (teams) compared to 14," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN on Wednesday. "Fourteen is clumsy. We're not out looking for two teams, but basically we will continue to survey the landscape."
Hollis would not name candidates, but said if the league expands "what we'll look for is does it fit? What impact does it have on the current membership? If after (an) evaluation, you see any upside, then there is a reason to grow."
"It won't be tomorrow," Hollis added jokingly.
Don't be surprised to see the Maryland exit fee fight run its course before the Big Ten tabs any more teams. There are plenty of good fits for the Big Ten in the ACC right now—Boston College, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech are all plausible targets in terms of athletics, academics and footprint expansion—but if there's enough muscle to enforce the $52 million buyout, the Big Ten may not want to go to that well twice more.
Do expect more from the Big Ten, though. Delany can half-deny it all he wants. Expansion is still coming until the Big Ten says it's officially done—and nobody's saying that right now.