Big Ten Talking Expansion; Who Are the Targets?

Donald FincherAnalyst IDecember 12, 2009

ANN ARBOR, MI - NOVEMBER 21:  Quarterback Tate Forcier #5 of the Michigan Wolverines is sacked by Brian Rolle #36 the Ohio State Buckeyes on November 21, 2009 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ohio State won the game 21-10. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

ESPN has reported that former Wisconsin coach and current Athletic Director Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that the Big Ten will actively search for a 12th team to have a conference championship game and stretch their seasons out to correspond with everyone else's.  

For the last two weeks of the regular season, the Big Ten is out of the conversation every year.  Joe Paterno has railed against this, and it appears others are now listening.

But I don't think this is a case of belated acquiescence to Joe Paterno.  I think this is shrewd timing on the part of the Big Ten to finally get Notre Dame.

It's no secret that geographically, this makes so much sense.  But it also makes sense from so many more levels.  Here are some of them...

Notre Dame is vulnerable right now.  Notre Dame has endured another disappointing season, just fired their third consecutive disappointing coach, hasn't won a bowl game in 15 years, hasn't been to a bowl game in two years, and just lost Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate to the NFL.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that several of the top name coaches recently rejected Notre Dame.  Brian Kelly was at least the third name on the list but possibly as far down as fifth.

It is widely understood that Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops were the top choices.  But beyond these two there were apparent overtures made to Kirk Ferentz and possibly Jim Harbaugh too.

Kirk Ferentz also said no, Harbaugh didn't have to because news of Kelly broke.

Finally, pouring salt in the wound, ESPN and other sports outlets have now questioned aloud 24/7 for the past week or more whether the Notre Dame job and program just don't have the luster that the Golden Dome once had.

There are real concerns as to whether anyone will win there with regularity again.

But Notre Dame also has to look down the road and read the tea leaves as well. Congress is saber rattling with more intensity than they ever have about the current BCS system.

Last year, for the first time, a President has taken an outspoken stance on the BCS.  And just this week, even though it's only a subcommittee vote, Congress took a historic first step into the pool.

The contracts as they are written give scraps to the non-AQ leagues while the BCS conferences get the spoils.  But ND gets treated like a conference of its own.  From a legal anti-trust standpoint, this is one of the strongest arguments for those that would take down the system.

At least the BCS conferences are sending representatives to the BCS bowls every year. ND gets the goodies anyway, even though they underperform with regularity recently and have only been represented twice at BCS bowls in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the non-AQ leagues, despite having two teams in this year, are having to split the BCS money among five leagues (over 50 schools).

But beyond the payouts, these other leagues have rules written into the BCS contracts that attempt to limit them and weaken their hands while Notre Dame has clauses that seem to make the system accommodate them.

More and more pressure will come to bear as we go through time and Notre Dame is too smart to not be ahead of this trend.

The only way to escape being called out for having special rules written for Notre Dame is to either not have them (which is not in Notre Dame's interest) or not need them (by joining a conference).

The Big Ten could write accommodating clauses to sweeten the deal for Notre Dame all they want and it doesn't affect the whole of college football...just the teams in that conference.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that Notre Dame is going to join the Big Ten.  All I'm saying is that with the alignment of the constellations (firing a coach, being rejected by big names, having their "specialness" and their desirability publicly doubted, and Congress passing this recent bill in subcommittee), there hasn't been a better time in recent memory to make a run at Notre Dame if you are the Big Ten.

But let's assume that the Big Ten is really serious about this and, while the timing is for a run at Notre Dame is primary in their minds, they intend to pursue a 12th school no matter what.  If not Notre Dame, then who?

Paterno wants some company out east.  And the league would love some exposure in the New York area.  For that reason Rutgers, and to a lesser extent, Syracuse has been mentioned.  

Rutgers gets more into the New York City media market while Syracuse still affords the 12th team allowing divisions and a conference title game while also bringing a basketball pedigree.  So those both make sense.

Staying in the Big East, there has also been some talk of Pitt or West Virginia.  This is primarily because of geography and that they've been pretty good in football.  

However, Pitt is seen as an "urban" school which doesn't fit the Big Ten's paradigm, and West Virginia is a little too "trailer park" in the eyes of the Big Ten.  I hasten to add that I don't think that personally but the Big Ten seems to have that view.

Also, just from a pure political standpoint, raiding the Big East after the ACC did it would be so unseemly that it might just be "radioactive."

Among other BCS conferences, the ACC is too far away and doesn't really offer any schools that would be great adds for the Big Ten.

The SEC is also too far away and no SEC school is going to leave the SEC.  And if the ACC and SEC are too far away, the Pac 10 is in another universe.

The Big Ten has stated publicly that if they add a team, they'll be looking for a team that will add as much to the Big Ten as the Big Ten would add to that school.  Given the belief the Big Ten seems to have of itself, that would preclude talking to any MAC schools or Conference USA schools.

This leaves the Big 12.  Like the SEC, I don't think any Big 12 teams would be interested in leaving the Big 12.  The perception is that the Big 12 is a better conference than the Big Ten.  

But the Big Ten does have more money so there might be a school that would listen. There are a couple that have been rumored to have been on the Big Ten's wish list when this has come up in the past.

Missouri is the top name here.  It adds another state to the Big Ten footprint and adds 2 large media markets (Saint Louis and Kansas City).  And there is already an annual rivalry game with Illinois.

Missouri has a bit of a glass ceiling in the Big 12 with players like Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska.  Missouri also adds a little bit of a basketball pedigree.

The other nearby option in the Big 12 would be Iowa State.  But this would be an add of last resort.  

The Big Ten already has the largest school in Iowa (the Hawkeyes) so adding Iowa State adds no TV markets, no new recruiting ground, no football or basketball pedigrees, and may not be academically what the Big Ten is looking for either. 

Therefore, this add would only be if they Big Ten is absolutely fixated on expanding and could not get it done any other way.

So now that Alvarez has opened this can of worms, it's sure to get a lot of play in the "dead" time between now and the start of the bowls.  What do you guys think?