The Big Ten will be at 14 teams in 2014. That doesn't even pass the smell test, does it?
The "superconference" rumors have been around for years, as at no point did they say anything about conferences with 14 members. So something's got to give at some point.
Or so one would think.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told CBSSports.com that the Big Ten is basically fine where it is right now, and shame on the rest of the world for thinking otherwise:
Georgia Tech, Virginia and North Carolina have been speculated as potential Big Ten targets ever since Maryland and Rutgers decided to join the league in November.
“I think you're going to have all types of rumors about us and the Big 12,” Smith said. “We're not doing anything right now. We'll sit and evaluate Rutgers' and Maryland's transition. We don't want to screw that up. Right now we're not aggressively pursuing anyone.”
In Rutgers and Maryland, the Big Ten has East Coast partners for Penn State. The persistence of conference realignment since 2010, coupled with the Big Ten Network's national cable reach, has many wondering if the league will eventually push for a full East Coast division that would mushroom the league to 18 or 20 teams.
Smith said talks among league officials don't look that far ahead.
“We don't sit and talk like that,” Smith said. “We look at individual opportunities. We don't say our end game is to have an entire East Coast. We look at each business situation as it presents itself.”
This is not incongruous with anything others in the Big Ten have mentioned in any other expansion-related situation, for whatever it's worth. The conference never tips its hand, and it's not about to now.
The Big Ten is prepared to go ahead at 14 teams. That is obvious, because it's at 14 teams right now.
The Big Ten would be criminally incompetent if it spent even one day at 14 teams—even with an eye on further expansion—without a full plan in place to exist as a 14-team league. That's an extremely low baseline of competent conference management. If the Big Ten were only planning to be at 12 or 16 teams, it would be at 12 or 16 right now.
Now, as for whether Smith is telling the truth about not looking ahead, well, that's awfully tough to say. Certainly he's under zero obligation to disclose whether the Big Ten has larger plans on expansion or how far any discussions with any non-member schools have progressed. These discussions depend on confidentiality and Smith needs to protect that.
Moreover, you might remember the term "tortitious interference" from 2011's round of conference realignment, when the thought was that the SEC could face some liability for inducing Texas A&M to break its contractual relationship with the Big 12 and its members. Here is a fantastically thorough breakdown of the particulars by The Business of College Sports.
The Big Ten doesn't "offer" schools, it accepts applications for membership from them then decides from there. Do these schools have assurances from the Big Ten that their applications will be accepted? Almost assuredly, yes. However, by sticking to protocol like that, the Big Ten—like the SEC with Texas A&M—shields itself from the potential liability of breaking up conferences and their contracts.
That's what to keep in mind when Smith says things like the Big Ten "doesn't sit and talk like that" when it comes to long games for expansion. If Smith copped to that—and again, he is under absolutely no obligation to do so if asked by a reporter—all of a sudden the Big Ten looks like an active agent in the future splintering of the ACC. That just might be frowned upon in the case of a lawsuit. Might.
So the Big Ten is at 14 teams. It will be so until further notice. The "14 in '14" thing is what's coming, and even if you don't believe that's the long-term goal of the conference, you have to assume it is until the Big Ten announces otherwise.
That could be tomorrow; it could be never. Who knows?