I've spent a good portion of the past few days mulling over the best candidate for Big Ten expansion.
As university presidents and athletic directors have become increasingly outspoken about their desire for a 12th team, I've studied the options and read the debates.
While the pecking order seems to be (A) Notre Dame, and then (B) everybody else, there are actually several intriguing possibilities out there.
When I polled my Twitter followers about the best fit for the Big Eleven, their responses came fast and furious.
Some of the suggestions were logical, some were thought-provoking, and some were a bit...well..."out there."
When the dust had settled, it was increasingly hard to pick just one school for my favorite conference to add.
So why stop at 12 members?
After all, the NCAA basketball tournament appears to be getting ready to add 31 schools in one fell swoop—why should the Big Ten limit itself to one measly addition?
With that ridiculous question in mind, here's how I (one average Purdue fan) envision America's newest super-conference, the Top 25 (is that name taken yet?), shaping up (in a perfect, non-realistic world, of course).
The "Do We Need Football AND Basketball Both?" Division
Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern
Much of the discussion around expansion has involved finding an athletics program that could compete in both basketball and football.
While this seems difficult, why not set up a whole division's worth of schools who only seem to be competitive in one major sport or the other?
Michigan State goes to the Final Four in basketball every other year or so, but struggles on the football end of things with relatively simple tasks like...oh, I don't know...winning games in the last half of the season and keeping enough players on the roster to make a bowl trip.
Illinois stockpiles football talent and still manages to lose games at a remarkable (some would say Zookian) clip.
Northwestern has improved on the gridiron over the last 15 years but hasn't made an NCAA tournament in hoops since, well...ever.
Nebraska has some national titles on the football field, but have you watched one meaningful basketball game from Lincoln?
I thought not.
As for the Wolverines, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they'll have a competitive football OR basketball program by the time the Big Ten expands...
...but there are no guarantees.
The "Gold and Black Camouflage" Division
Iowa, Missouri, Purdue, Vanderbilt
Let's take all the schools with the same color scheme and put them in another division by themselves.
It makes good economic sense, after all—the teams can share and rotate one set of white and black jerseys, since they basically look alike anyway.
(Translation, there are a lot of negative things I could say about Purdue in some of the other divisions, but I don't have the heart to rip on my favorite team, especially during the holidays, so I created a cop-out division instead. Now you know.)
The "I Wish We Had a College Football Playoff" Division
Cincinnati, Ohio State, Penn State, TCU, Texas, Wisconsin
Since the BCS shows no sign of changing to give millions of college football fans the playoff they have clamored for, our hypothetical re-invention of the Big Ten will pit some of 2009's top football programs in a superstar division to see what a playoff would have looked like.
You wanted Texas-TCU for the national title?
Your wish is granted.
Ohio State-Cincinnati to see who the best team in the Buckeye State really is?
Let's find out.
The "Big East" Division
Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse
It seems like these four schools (especially Pitt and Rutgers) are mentioned quite often in the expansion discussion, begging the obvious question, "Are all the Big East members really that anxious to get out of their conference?"
This question has the obvious answer, "Well, duh, of course"...but I digress.
The perfect solution for these long-time rivals is welcoming all four to the Big Ten together, while letting them maintain a "Big East" division inside the new super-conference.
The "Notre Dame Cupcake Schedule" Division
Butler, Central Michigan, Iowa State, Minnesota, North Dakota State, Notre Dame
Since Notre Dame has turned down the Big Ten in the past due to its desire to continue to play approximately 14 home games a year against second-rate opponents in South Bend, San Antonio, Orlando, the Vatican, and who knows where else, our new super-conference allows the Irish to have their cake and eat it, too.
Notre Dame gets a division full of some teams it can actually compete with (since the late-season stretch of Navy, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and Stanford obviously outclassed the Golden Domers' talent level) and the intra-division games will all be featured on NBC (a network that no one watches, ensuring the world won't know how horrible Notre Dame's football program has become).
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
As you examine this outside-the-box proposal, a few questions may come to mind. Allow me to answer these concerns one at a time.
1. Why aren't there exactly five teams in each division?
While I share your obvious concern for symmetry, dividing the 25 teams equally into five divisions of five schools each would require a strong math background.
For a conference that has been known as the Big Ten despite having 11 members since 1993, this was deemed utterly impossible.
2. I thought the point was to have a conference title game in football? How are the two finalists chosen when there are five deserving division winners?
This is an excellent question with no obvious or satisfactory answer. Go ask the BCS.
3. Where is Indiana University?
I'm sorry to inform you that the Hoosiers are no longer in the Big Ten.
(I told you this was a Purdue fan's perfect, non-realistic world, right?)
It's really no big loss though: Replacing Indiana's football program with North Dakota State made the league more competitive instantly.
Want to get in on the sports conversation? Follow Tim on Twitter at @TimCary