As the dog days of summer roll around, we're firmly lodged in the part of the year filled with nothing but rampant speculation and "What If?" scenarios. One of the things that comes up from time to time is the subject of Big Ten expansion. It's a more prominent topic than usual this year after the way last season's SEC championship game was such a
blatant Gary Danielson tongue-bath showcase for Florida, likely putting them in the title game after USC stumbled and Michigan was left idle. Expanding the Big Ten to twelve teams would give the league a final opportunity to put eyeballs on their teams. Of course, there's always the little matter of who and how to clear up, which is where we come in. We'll take a look at some scenarios for Big Ten expansion.
Staring at a white sheet of paper, with no idea who the twelfth team would be, I'd divide the conference up like this:
|Vaguely West||Sorta East|
I'd allow each team to protect one cross-divisional game so that it would always appear on the schedule. That would allow Michigan/OSU to remain fixed on the schedule while making the divisions less lopsided (And nobody would be able to duck both Michigan and OSU anymore). Michigan State would lose their yearly showdown with the Buckeyes, but they could preserve their "rivalry" with Penn State (as represented by the Land Grant Trophy). All the other rivalries are taken care of, with the Wisconsin-Iowa-Minnesota cluster all in the West, Michigan and MSU in the same division, and the Purdue-Indiana-Illinois-Northwestern chain in the East.
The divisions aren't perfectly even in terms of difficulty, but the constraints of rivalry and distance don't appear (to me, at least) to offer any easier alternatives. It also has the benefit of being at least reasonable for both football and basketball, which is something to consider. Now let's start fiddling with candidates to fill that slot. Something further to note is that any school joining the Big Ten must also join the Committee on Insitutional Cooperation, the Big Ten's academic analog, and the standards to meet there aren't easy. The CIC is focused on research universities and member institutions hand out 15% of all PhD's awarded nationally.
Notre Dame is probably the best fit for the Big Ten, much as it pains me to admit it. They're strong in football and basketball, they're another hockey program, and they've got scads of money. It isn't easy to slot them into the divisional format, however, as they have ties on both sides of the divisional ledger, no matter how you choose to split things. If push came to shove, however, I'd imagine they'd choose to join the West, keeping the rivalries with Michigan and MSU intact, while protecting the cross-divisional game against Purdue.
Notre Dame in the Big Ten makes us, hands down, the most powerful conference in the nation. The downside here is that suddenly the West is a hideously difficult division to come through unscathed. The SEC East looks over the wall and thinks, "Dude, that's rough." Ohio State would love this arrangement.
In the end, this is never going to happen. Notre Dame keeps raking in money from their NBC contract and their BCS losses, so they have no incentive to join the conference for a considerable time to come, and joining the Big Ten would likely hamper their attempts to recruit on a national basis.
The Big East
As established by the ACC, the Big East is a willing source if you're looking to raid a major conference. It's allegedly on the rise, based on the performances last season by Louisville, Rutgers, and West F'in' Virginia, but they still lag far behind the other BCS conferences. It's still primarily a basketball conference, with football decidedly being the weak sister there, so schools that are serious about contending would likely be willing to consider a move. If any Big East team joined the Big Ten, I'd move Northwestern back into the West division and just let them protect the Illinois game.
Syracuse – It fits the academic profile of the Big Ten and it's had a decent football program in the past. Facilities have gotten run-down and they've lost recruits because of it, but they've begun re-investing. They're a basketball powerhouse, and would likely make the already very competitive Big Ten East even better.
Why It Won't Happen – Jim Boeheim was one of the architects of the Big East. They'll leave over his dead body. For another matter, Syracuse is in the middle of nowhere. Travel time and costs for non-revenue sports would be significant.
West F'in' Virginia – An established team both in football and basketball, the 'Eers have a dedicated fanbase. Morgantown isn't that far away from most of the teams in the theoretical Big Ten East, and the football team would certainly shore up their division.
Why It Won't Happen – WFVU doesn't really fit with the academic outlook much of the Big Ten shares. Even Ohio State has been investing heavily in raising its academic profile, and it's borne fruit. Not to mention the reputation WFVU's fans have as couch-burning firebugs. Again, we already have OSU and Michigan State. DO NOT WANT. Then there's the matter of Bob Huggins coming home to coach the basketball team, which is its own disaster waiting to happen.
Pitt – The Pitt Panthers haven't done much to speak of on the football field recently, as the Wannstache has yet to work any magicks at Heinz Field, but they did make the Fiesta Bowl a few years ago with Larry Fitzgerald. On the basketball court, however, they've been among the elite teams in the Big East and of the nation. They're worthy academically and located well within the Big Ten's current geographic footprint.
Why It Won't Happen – There's a lot of bad blood between Pitt and Penn State, specifically with Joe Paterno. Pitt and PSU are/used to be rivals in football, but the series hasn't been played since 2000, each side citing a different reason for its cessation. The bottom line is that Penn State wants two home games for every one away at Pitt, and the Panthers aren't going to take that deal. Pitt also has trouble filling Heinz Field, drawing only an average crowd of 40,000 (The only worse Big Ten figures belong to Indiana and Northwestern). I'd imagine it would improve with Michigan, MSU, PSU, and OSU within easy driving distance, but it could be another impediment.
Louisville – A program on a steep rise in football and a basketball power, Louisville has shown a willingness to make the conference leap before, as they've only been a Big East team for one year. If not for a painful loss at Rutgers, they would've been in the conversation for the BCS national championship game. Louisville is south of the current Big Ten, but it's not that far from most of the teams.
Why It Won't Happen – Louisville's football prominence is way too new for the Big Ten's taste. It's quite unlikely that administrators would be that distracted by the new shiny thing.
Iowa State – The other Iowa D-1A school, they'd fit in at the bottom of my theoretical West and they're already a major-conference school.
Why It Won't Happen – ISU's athletic department has an operating budget HALF the size of Iowa's and they're a perpetual Big XII bottom-feeder. We already have an Indiana, Ames is not easy to get to, and they aren't academically compatible.
Miami University – It gives the Big Ten an Ohio-based rival for Ohio State, it's another hockey school, and it fits very well with the academic profile of the Big Ten.
Why It Won't Happen – They have an itsy-bitsy li'l football stadium that only seats 30,000. Maybe they'd grow into a 50,000-seater, but that's a bit of a stretch to make, and Oxford is in the middle of nowhere. The academics are nice, but we already have a Northwestern.