The conference expansion rumor mill keeps plugging along (and getting in the way of perfectly good football).
Texas A&M has made a move to the SEC leaving the door open for one more. The Big 12 filled the hole left by the Aggies with TCU in the most logical move ever—the complete opposite of "TCU to the Big East." The ACC saw the writing on the wall and nabbed Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East and taking with them a handful of rivalries and any stability the shaky conference had left.
The Pac-12 looked around, sent out feelers and made everyone think for a minute it would score a coup with the addition of Texas and the Oklahoma schools but decided to stand pat. The Mountain West just sat around licking its lips at the thought of a world without the Big East, while the MAC, Sun Belt, C-USA and WAC all waived their arms trying to remind everyone that, "hey guys, we're still here!"
Through it all, the Big Ten just sat quietly and watched.
Now, as things begin to settle down, we are left with the question: what is the best move for the Big Ten?
Should Jim Delany look to push the conference membership even farther past the bounds of logical nomenclature? Should the conference come crawling back to Missouri before she lands in the arms of another? Rutgers, seriously?
Far be it for me to tell Jim Delany how to do his job, but if I were in his secret lair far below the streets of Chicago, I would have a few pros and cons to throw in the ring when it comes to moving the Big Ten to 14 or 16.
The Big Ten already has a stranglehold on major college football in the Midwest. Major media markets such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, all boast a high number of Big Ten alumni and a sizable Big Ten following.
However, there could always be a little more. While the Big Ten now controls most everything between Nebraska and central Pennsylvania, there are a number of potential areas of growth that would help the conference expand geographically into more profitable areas. Expansion eastward would tap into the very populous (but not very football crazed) I-95 corridor of cities that run from Washington D.C. north to New York.
While one addition wouldn't be able to supply the entire region, teams such as Maryland and Rutgers offer access to portions of the market that are intriguing for the conference in its attempt to expand the Big Ten network.
Expansion to the south doesn't currently offer any realistic or profitable targets, but to the west, there are interesting possibilities. Missouri (about which, more later) offers access to the St. Louis and Kansas City media markets, and no talk of expansion is complete without the mention of Texas, a school that always seems to have its eyes fixed on what is best for Texas.
While Texas is a dream, it is a pretty awesome dream in terms of media markets (Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio) and some of the most fertile recruiting turf in the country.
Speaking of Missouri and the prime media markets that the school lies between, time may be growing short to extend the school the offer it so clearly covets. Recent rumblings put Missouri as a favorite to take the 14th spot in the SEC. While the SEC cannot currently agree on whether to offer the school an invite, and TCU's move to back to the southwest and its natural home in the Big XII provide a stable fallback option for Mizzou if things with the SEC don't work out, it is clear that the school has its eyes fixed on moving to a more tenable long term situation.
That situation could very well be the Big Ten or the SEC. Missouri --- and Texas and Oklahoma and.... --- sees the writing on the wall that the Big XII may not be long for this world. Texas could easily strike out on its own with the financial backing of ESPN and the Longhorn Network, and the Oklahoma schools would be a more natural fit in the SEC West than Mizzou.
The Tigers have already decided to start exploring options, and as it starts to become clear that Missouri has some, the school may well make a move before it is caught with its pants down during another massive and unexpected shift in yet another episode of "As the Conference World Turns."
If the Big Ten hasn't made its move for Missouri—a move that would almost certainly be accepted immediatelyit might be too late.
The most troubling aspect of the recent shift in conference alignment is just how passive a role the Big Ten has played. Last summer, it was the Big Ten that dictated the terms as it searched for, and found, that coveted 12th team to move the conference forward into two divisions and a highly-profitable championship game.
If last year Jim Delany was the puppeteer, this time around, he seems more like the poorly paper mache'd tree in the background of the show—just there for decoration.
With so much at stake in major college athletics, the Big Ten could get easily be at the head of the table as the course for the next 50 years of college football is decided upon. With issues such as paying players, likeness rights, cost of living scholarships, as well as a reform of NCAA violations from major programs (not to mention the BCS, but we will get to that), it is becoming clear that the current setup just might not be tenable in a world where college football is big money, and only half the FBS has that money.
As college football moves even closer to the reality that only about half of the FBS schools have the kind of financial support and infrastructure to compete for high-level bowl games and MNCs*, the odds of a massive shift in the way the sport is structured and run could very well be in the cards. As one of the premier college football conferences, the Big Ten has a responsibility to help craft this future.
*(Mythical National Championship)
If Wisconsin goes undefeated this year, there is a sizable chance that it isn't invited to the BCS championship game. While this seems ludicrous to consider, the fact of the matter is that the Big Ten is down and has been down for a few years.
Ohio State is mired in scandal and could be in dire straits for a few years if the NCAA hammer is dropped. Michigan is just starting to dig itself out from the failed tenure of Rich Rodriguez and the final few years of an increasingly ineffective Lloyd Carr. Wisconsin has elevated its game as of late, but that comes on the heels of nearly 10 years of hype and disappointment by the Badgers.
Teams like Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois and Northwestern have all shown the ability to put together very good seasons but an inability to string together success. The conferences two newest members, Penn State and Nebraska, are both tradition-rich but haven't been able to break back through to national power stature since the 90s.
The Big Ten is the butt of many jokes around the college football world, and with the one sure thing, Ohio State, seemingly worse off than ever, the conference's credibility on the national stage is dangerously close to evaporating completely.
Expansion would provide an opportunity to inject new blood into the conference, open up inroads to new recruiting areas and solidify the Big Ten as a premiere conference not only academically but competitively.
With recent moves by the ACC and SEC, as well as explorations by the Pac-12 into adding new members, it is becoming clear that major college football is hurtling toward an era of 16-team super-conferences.
While this is the kind of thing that basically craps all over the tradition that so many of us hold so dear, one perk is that college football will be one step closer to a playoff.
Step inside my not so far-fetched scenario: Four conferences—Big Ten, Pac-16, SEC and ACC—emerge from the smouldering ashes of the Big 12 and Big East. Each super-conference has 16 teams, two divisions and a championship game. This setup means that each team plays a round robin in its division for the right to go to the championship game. Eight teams make the four championship games and four winners emerge.
From these winners, the next logical step is a semifinal that pits the winners of each conference championship game against another—the Big Ten and Pac-16 champs play in the Rose Bowl while the ACC and SEC champs play in the Orange Bowl. Winner goes to the NCAA championship game, and we have our de facto eight team playoff.
Is this scenario fair to the Boise State's of the world? No, but mid-major teams without a super-conference affiliation will either be a) too weak to win or b) too competitive to get scheduled in the non-conference schedules of the major conferences, thereby zapping any strength of schedule argument.
How many mid-major teams really miss out on anything here anyways? Boise State wouldn't make a major conference, but TCU, BYU and Notre Dame would all be prime targets to fill space in expanding super-conferences.
Would the Big Ten want to spearhead the quick and celebrated death of the BCS? That is a discussion for later. However, I don't know too many college football fans that would mourn the corruption and greed of the current bowl system.
As we have seen over the past two years, the push for conference realignment happens in spurts. A couple teams move, the entire landscape and power structure changes and everyone speculates on what the next cosmic shakeup will be.
Two years ago, it was Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah making the jump over to the Pac-10. This year, it has been the "will they won't they" saga that eventually ended with Texas A&M and the SEC getting together, and the ACC plunging a knife deep in the back of the Big East as it stole Pitt and Syracuse.
Now? The Big 12 momentarily avoided disaster by picking up TCU—and in the process all but ensuring the death of the Big East in two years—and with the pledges by Texas and Oklahoma as well as a new revenue-sharing agreement, the conference should be able to weather a potential departure by Missouri by standing pat at nine or bolstering its ranks with BYU or Big East left-behinds Louisville and West Virginia.
The SEC seems to be in no hurry to jump to 14, preferring a better fit than a hasty move, and the Pac-12 looked but ultimately passed on the possibility of adding Texas and its albatross of a network along with the academically-questionable Oklahoma schools.
So where is the fire? The Big Ten has time to calculate its next move while not losing the opportunity to be the next one to strike. As the other conferences deal with setting up a new reality and the moving teams acclimate to the new surroundings, the Big Ten has time to plan its next move.
As things stand right now, there aren't a whole lot of home-run options for conference expansion. Let me rephrase that: there aren't a whole lot of realistic home-run options for expansion. The last time the Big Ten expanded, it was after a long search that eventually found a great cultural fit in Nebraska—an old school football power with a large alumni base and a "Big Ten" outlook on all things football.
But even a great cultural fit such as Nebraska has drawbacks. Academically, Nebraska is the least strong member institution in the Big Ten, and shortly after joining the conference, the school was stripped of its AAU certification—a very important factor in the fact that the school received the invite in the first place.
Fans see the Big Ten as an athletic conference, but the academic and research partnerships are very important to the member schools as well, and when it comes to a board of regents and school president signing off on a new school, getting votes for a mediocre college with a great football team is not easy (the reason that a school like West Virginia may not find a home outside of the Big East.)
With only 108 other FBS schools to choose from—half of which are not big enough financially or athletically, and most of the rest are happy in their current arrangement—finding the right fit is very hard.
A school like Missouri offers solid academics, a new media market in which the conference could expand and a good athletic program. However, Missouri football isn't nearly as strong as Nebraska, and having already passed on Missouri once doesn't exactly make going back an attractive option for the forward thinking Big Ten.
The Big Ten needs to find a team that fits culturally, athletically, financially and academically. Any football school or media market just won't doI'm looking at you Rutgers.
Michigan vs. Wisconsin, Michigan State vs. Penn State, Iowa vs. Ohio State, Iowa vs. Wisconsin, Michigan vs. Penn State, Northwestern vs. Ohio State and Illinois vs. Michigan State.
These are all games that aren't happening this year or next because of the 12-team Big Ten. With only an eight-game conference schedule, the more teams that get added to the Big Ten, the more games some teams are going to have to miss against other Big Ten teams. The above games are all marquee matchups between teams that either have a long history or a chance at the Big Ten title.
If the Big Ten continues to expand without moving to a nine-game conference schedule, it will miss out on more and more of the matchups that Big Ten member schools really want to see—and in adding more teams, you dilute these marquee games even further. Imagine going to a Big Ten school for four years and only getting two games against Ohio State or Michigan. Imagine going to Iowa and only getting to see Wisconsin play in Iowa City once.
Protected rivalries help, but the long history of the Big Ten is too much to preserve with just one guaranteed cross division rival. If the conference expands any further, more and more games that really matter to Big Ten fans will be pushed aside in favor of games against new teams that don't have a shared history with Big Ten programs.
Nebraska fit well because the school already had some history with a few Big Ten programs and had been a strong enough program for so long that Big Ten fans all feel strongly about a game against the Cornhuskers. That won't be the same with Rutgers or Missouri.
What team makes all these concerns moot? What team offers a national following, a long tradition of football excellence, a huge financial support base and a number of solid existing rivalries with Big Ten schools?
Notre Dame has been the ultimate prize for the Big Ten for many years. The school fits in just about every way imaginable (minus being part of the AAU, which isn't as big a concern given Notre Dame's academic reputation) and feels more like a Big Ten program than any other possible addition.
Problem is, Notre Dame isn't interested. As an independent Notre Dame can carry on rivalries with schools all over the country, build up an advantageous schedule full of service academies and have an easier path to a BCS bowl than any other team in the country. Oh yeah, and NBC pays for exclusive rights to air Notre Dame's home games so the Big Ten Network isn't as strong a selling point.
However, with the way things are changing all around the college football landscape, things could be moving in the direction where Notre Dame would eventually need to find a home to stay competitive. If a few super-conferences develop, they might not look so kindly on giving Notre Dame a free pass to big-money postseason games.
What's more, with the impending collapse of the Big East, Notre Dame might be in jeopardy of losing its home for non-revenue sports. If this happens, it is one more reason that Notre Dame will need to find somewhere to hang its hat. After years of saying no to the Big Ten, that might be enough to make the Irish see the light.
At least that's what Jim Delany must hope.
While many fans aren't enamored with the continued existence of the BCS and the utter stupidity of outsourcing a highly-profitable postseason to a bunch of guys with slicked back hair and a taste for expensive parties at the expense of the universities they are supposed to serve, the fact remains that the Big Ten is in no hurry to change the status quo.
The bowl system has been a sticking point for Jim Delany for many years, and that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon.
Over the summer, it was rumored that Delany and the Big Ten university presidents had spoken favorably about a plus-one gamea precursor to a full playoff. Delany quickly came out and flatly denied this:
"To describe the ADs as supportive [of a plus one], I would call that erroneous....I'm not going to go into the guts of the meeting and where our ADs are or are not. I can just tell you they are happy with the Rose Bowl and happy with the status quo."
If Jim Delany and the rest of the Big Ten presidents can see the writing on the wall for the BCS, they could well want to slow play their hand in an effort to get another BCS contract signed before making any moves that would upset the current system.
While that outcome does suck, at least it means we might get to see a lot more classic Big Ten matchups. And for the love of God, no Rutgers.