Big Ten Expansion? Dominoes Could Fall Once More

December 18th, 2009

It may not feel like it to the respective conferences, but it has been over six years since the ACC raided the Big East, taking with them Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to reach the mandatory 12 team minimum for a conference football championship game. The Big East, caught flat-footed by the move, promptly raided Conference USA, which in turn raided the Western Athletic Conference, which then invaded the Sun Belt Conference – leading to one of the most dramatic re-alignments in college sports since the expansion of the “major” conferences themselves in the early 90’s.

Those conferences better get ready: We could well see something similar in the near future.

On Tuesday the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents/Chancellors formerly requested that League Commissioner Jim Delaney begin the process of “evaluating options” for expanding the conference. According to their release, the Big Ten would examine the issue of expansion for 12 to 18 months before arriving at any decision.

At issue is the fact that the conference is one team short of the 12 needed to host a football championship. While this is hardly a new revelation, league officials and coaches (most notably Penn State’s Joe Paterno) have watched with consternation this season as the other major conferences all played meaningful, highly rated, money-raking games in December, while their schools sat and waited for the bowl committees to decide their fate. It also hasn’t helped that the Big Ten hasn’t won a BCS game in the last three seasons, leading some to speculate that the long layoff was a factor.

So, unlike ten years ago when the conference decided against expansion after unsuccessfully courting Notre Dame, this time the odds favor the addition of a 12th team – with far reaching consequences in college football and basketball alike.

From both a geographic, and of course, financial perspective, Notre Dame is still the obvious first choice. A Big Ten championship game featuring Fighting Irish would easily compete with the SEC Championship in terms of ratings and revenue, while Notre Dame’s basketball team has been no slouch either and would instantly add another NCAA Tournament caliber contender to an already strong league.

However, by just about all accounts, the school is lukewarm at best to the idea. The Irish fully intend on returning to the BCS bowls in short order, and wouldn’t be too excited about sharing the $12 million payout with anyone. Also, the school already is part of the Big East for other athletics, a conference widely seen as the toughest basketball conference in America.

Which means the Big Ten would conceivably turn their sights on the Big East or Big 12, leading to the domino effect we witnessed across the NCAA six years ago.

The most oft mentioned targets include Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers out the Big East, and Missouri and Iowa State of the Big 12. However, the Big East schools would seem to be the most likely to move, considering the football conference also does not have a championship game, unlike the Big 12. Syracuse and Pittsburgh both have rich traditions in football and basketball, and natural rivalries with Penn State (although the Syracuse football rivalry ended after the 1990 season over a contract dispute, they did play the Nittany Lions again this season). Rutgers, for their part, could give the conference an anchor in the crucial recruiting state of New Jersey.

Should the Big Ten pluck one of these schools out of the Big East, the consequences could be far reaching. With just eight football playing members (as opposed to 16 for basketball), the Big East is least equipped to handle a raid by another conference, much less two in less than a decade. It is possible that the departure of one school could lead to talks of others following suit as a pre-emptive move, out of fear the league could no longer be a viable football conference.

The Big East, fighting this scenario at all costs and vowing not to get caught off-guard again, would in all likelihood once again quickly target Conference USA (Memphis or UCF, or both), giving the conference as many as seven former C-USA programs, and well, you know how it could go from there.

In essence, we would be witnessing yet another college basketball perversion in the pursuit of the football dollar. The Boston College - UConn rivalry is no more thanks to the Eagles’ move to the ACC and UConn coach Jim Calhoun’s refusal to schedule them as a result. Conference USA doesn’t have any deep-rooted conference rivalries left (which has led that conference to possibly look into expansion). The great I-10 rivalry between New Mexico State and UTEP is still fairly strong, but you can’t help but wonder what it would be like today if they still played each other for conference supremacy.

Losing Syracuse to the Big Ten would severely tarnish their heated rivalry with Georgetown, undoubtedly one of the best in the country. Ditto the “backyard brawl” between Pitt and West Virginia should the Panthers leave. Missouri, which just recently left the door open to the idea of joining the Big Ten, would diminish its border war with Kansas, which is simply unthinkable.

But you can’t stand in the way of progress I suppose. Suffice it to say, every conference from the Big East to the Sun Belt will be nervously waiting on the Big Ten’s decision.