Former Wisconsin football coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez commented this week that he expects the Big Ten to more thoroughly explore its options when it comes to adding another team to the conference.
The Big Ten has been stuck at 11 members since it decided to add Penn State to the conference in 1993. The move brought a traditional football powerhouse into the fray, but it also left the conference with 11 teams, causing scheduling headaches and confusion amongst casual observers who had trouble figuring out how a conference with 11 teams could be called "The Big Ten."
Barry Alvarez and Penn State football coach Joe Paterno have been outspoken proponents of the Big Ten adding a twelfth team for several years. It makes scheduling so much easier and it will also allow the conference to hold a conference championship game for football, which would boost the conference's recognition around the country.
When the topic of expansion has come up in the past, there are usually a handful of schools that jump to the front of the conversation. The first school out of most people's mouths is Notre Dame. It makes the most sense, as the Irish are an independent school for football, located in the heart of Big Ten country, and have several established rivalries within the conference.
Notre Dame would be my first choice, but they have their own television deal and likely aren't willing to share their spotlight. They fit in with the Big Ten's academic standards, have high-profile programs in men's and women's basketball, football, and hockey. Plus, they'd be natural rivals to their in-state neighbors, Purdue and Indiana.
The main problem with Notre Dame that I see is it would shift the balance of power in the conference even further east. Football is dominated by OSU and PSU. Assuming Brian Kelly gets the Irish back on top, they'd be another Big Ten school east of Chicago that would take Rose Bowl trips to Pasadena at a fairly regular clip.
All signs are that Notre Dame will probably remain independent, but if they'd join the Big Ten, I'd break down the conferences north and south rather than east and west. Either way, one of the schools in Indiana or Illinois is going to be in a different conference than its in-state rival.
The Big Ten North would be made up of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan, and Michigan State.
Notre Dame, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, and Penn State would play in the Big Ten South.
Notre Dame would lose its annual games with the Michigan schools, but they'd still see them often enough in conference play to keep the rivalry alive. The winner of each division would play in the conference championship every year, probably in Indianapolis.
Although it would be quite interesting to rotate the championship game throughout the region, including stops in Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, and possibly at Lambeau in Green Bay. That probably won't happen, but I'd love to see a team like Iowa take on Notre Dame on a neutral field in the snow for the right to go to the Rose Bowl.
Another option that comes up when the Big Ten talks about expansion is one of the schools from the Big 12 North, usually Iowa State or Missouri. Both would be excellent choices, as they fit geographically and academically. Iowa State has a natural rival in Iowa, as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin, Missouri shares borders with Iowa and Illinois.
Adding Mizzou or Iowa State would make splitting the schools into two divisions quite simple, keeping all in-state rivals together. Iowa State or Missouri would join Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern in the "West" division, while Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, MSU, PSU, and OSU would be in the "East."
Although taking one of the current Big 12 schools would create a hole in the current Big 12, they could easily fill that slot with TCU, who has proven that they can play at a high enough level. They could include Colorado with the five Texas schools in one division, while the other side would have Oklahoma, OSU, Kansas and KSU.
Add in Nebraska and either ISU or Mizzou, and you'd have a conference that's much more balanced than it is now.
Most of the other schools that are mentioned when the Big Ten expansion is discussed are eastern schools, specifically Rutgers and Pitt. Both are excellent schools academically and athletically. Rutgers would get the Big Ten into the New York television market, something they've wanted to do for some time. Pitt would be an excellent in-state rival for Penn State.
Both schools would be excellent additions, but they spread a midwestern conference even further east, something some purists are opposed to. Both schools have legitimate chances to win the Big East every year, one has to wonder if they'd be willing to move to a much tougher conference.
Other names that show up are Louisville, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Boise State. I don't think any of these are viable options, as they don't quite live up to the Big Ten's academic standards.
Eventually, I think the Big Ten will move to add a 12th school. I have no idea who that school will be, but I do think it will be a great move for the conference. I just ask that they keep the Big Ten name. They could give it some generic geographical name like "Great Lakes Conference" or something similar, but this has always been Big Ten country...and I hope it stays that way.