Big Ten Starts Looking at 12th School
If the Big Ten is going to add a 12th team, then who will it be? How will the conference decide who's worthy of inclusion? What will happen if their first few choices turn them down? Make the jump as we explore all the possibilities.
Before we begin, though, let's start off with three important "don'ts" to keep in mind when considering Big Ten expansion.
1. Don't ignore academics. Every Big Ten university is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of the nation's top research institutions. Only two other conferences can make the same claim: the Division III University Athletic Association (sometimes referred to as the "Nerdy Nine") and the Ivy League. That's pretty good company. If the Big Ten's goal is just to have a football championship game, any random team will do. It's very unlikely that the conference would even consider diluting its academic brand, so any potential twelfth member would either have to be an AAU member or a very strong candidate to become one.
2. Don't assume this is just about football. The conference will certainly look at a university's entire athletic program in making a decision about whom to pursue.
3. Don't buy into the idea that the Big Ten is looking to move into new media markets. The conference has early games on ESPN and ESPN2 every week. The Big Ten Network is available on satellite coast to coast, and on cable in every major media market save Los Angeles. Big Ten football is a national brand, whether the fans of other conferences like it or not. The conference would be glad to add a school within its current media footprint, especially if that school also had a significant alumni base in larger media markets where the conference wouldn't mind getting more viewers (and hence more ad money) for the BTN.
With those in mind, let's take a closer look at possible 12th teams, starting with the usual suspects.
Notre Dame is the school which immediately comes to mind when Big Ten expansion talk starts. It's a match which seems to make perfect sense, particularly given that ND already plays three-eighths of a conference schedule anyway. It's well known that the conference has made overtures to Notre Dame in the past, which the Domers unceremoniously rebuffed. However, ND's television deal isn't the cash cow it once was, so the university might be a little more receptive these days. Adding Notre Dame, one of the few schools with a national constituency, would raise the conference's profile across the board and would help the Irish regain some football credibility. It would be a win-win for both parties, which is why this will never, ever happen. Also, Notre Dame is not now nor likely to ever be an AAU member, though nobody could seriously claim that ND's academics are anything less than excellent.
Syracuse is an AAU member, however, and has been talked about as one of the next most likely schools to be considered. The Orange played three nonconference games against Big Ten foes this past season, even going so far as to beat eventual bowl team Northwestern. Many from the outside see Syracuse and the Big Ten as a good fit, but only in the cynical sense of both having their best football years behind them. The 'Cuse would bring its strong men's basketball program with them, but that program and its strong ties to the Big East might well be the reason that Syracuse would turn down the Big Ten.
Pitt usually gets mentioned in these talks as well, with many assuming there's no chance the Panthers would be invited since Penn State already "owns" Pittsburgh media, at least according to conventional wisdom. I know some folk in the Iron City who would disagree. Pitt is an AAU member and would likely welcome the chance to move to the Big Ten, if only to make it a little easier to keep the top Pittsburgh-area recruits at home. However, the wide-open nature of Big East football might be a powerful inertial force. Pitt has a better chance of getting to a BCS game if it just stays put, especially now that Brian Kelly's out of the picture.
The Big East isn't the only conference the Big Ten could raid, of course. Missouri has been mentioned by many as a possible target. Adding AAU member Mizzou would make St. Louis a Big Ten town while improving the league's standing in Kansas City. Those are two places the Big Ten's western schools recruit heavily. The Mizzou-Illinois football games of the past few seasons have been epic. A rivalry with Iowa would develop right away, as well. Mizzou finds its football team staring at a glass ceiling shaped exactly like Texas and Oklahoma; with Nebraska appearing to be on the rise, now is as good a time as any for the Tigers to step away. Strong rivalries would be a great incentive for the Tigers to stay in the Big 12, however.
You can see that the top candidates have as many reasons to avoid the Big Ten as to join it. What about some of the less frequently mentioned schools? Could there be a surprise or two lurking out there?
Rutgers has seen its football come on strong as of late, and its proximity to New York makes it an attractive candidate. Rutgers meets most of the other criteria the conference would have as well, It's a comprehensive state school with AAU membership and a massive alumni base. The general squishiness of Rutgers' overall athletic program would work against it, however, as would the 1,200 mile one-way trip from New Brunswick to Minneapolis. Sure, they have these things called "airplanes," but that's still 20 percent further than State College to Minneapolis, currently the longest roadie in the conference.
Cincinnati is another possibility out of the Big East, but has to be considered a long shot due to its non-membership in the AAU and the fact that its candidacy would make Ohio State apoplectic. Of course, that might be reason enough for the other 10 schools to say "yes" to the Bearcats. UC's academics would work against it, however. Not only is it not an AAU member, it's all the way down in Tier 3 in the influential US News and World Report rankings. All other Big Ten schools are Tier 1 National Universities, meaning UC's about as likely to get invited to the Big Ten as you are to get a Friday night phone call from Elin Nordegren. However, the publication also calls UC an "up and coming" university, so maybe there's some slim sliver of hope.
Academics also doom Louisville, which is a shame since the Cardinals would actually expand the Big Ten into the South.
A couple other Big 12 North schools might be possibilities, Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa State are all AAU members. The Huskers would not ever leave the Big 12 and KU wouldn't want to move to a less prestigious basketball league. Iowa State might appear unattractive but it has thousands of alumni in important recruiting areas like Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Dallas. The 'Clones aren't as far-fetched a candidate as many would have you think.
Then, of course, there are the fringe candidates, the AAU schools already ensconced in other conferences, the ones that don't play football, and the ones that are just too darned far away from the rest of the conference. There's one school out there, though, that meets all the Big Ten's criteria. It's an AAU member, it's geographically contiguous to the conference, it can't be completely happy with the conference it's in, and there's no question it could benefit greatly from the exposure joining the Big Ten would bring.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... Buffalo.
Okay, they probably won't add Buffalo, mostly because you could write the Bulls' entire athletic history on the back of a postage stamp with enough room left over for a couple Tiger Woods jokes. If Buffalo isn't forming a committee to at least make an inquiry to the Big Ten, though, they're missing out.
I think the most likely thing to happen regarding Big Ten expansion is nothing. Most of the conference's potential partners have pretty good reasons to stay where they're at. Syracuse and Pitt are the clear front-runners to become the Big Ten's twelfth team, but I just don't see either one actually taking the plunge. So I say either nothing happens, or something happens which totally underwhelms everyone involved.
Then again, nobody thought the Big Ten Network would work, either.