The multi-billion-dollar question engulfing college athletics pertains to potential Big Ten expansion. Should the league expand by five schools to give it 16, it’s likely other leagues will follow suit to keep up.
I’m convinced much of the Big Ten’s rhetoric — both public and behind the scenes through “sources” — is designed as a power play for Notre Dame. Because Notre Dame spurned Big Ten overtures publicly in 1999, it’s obvious Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany wants Irish brass to say “yes” before the league pops the question. It also seems obvious through comments by Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick the school is preparing its vocal alumni base that Notre Dame might need to say yes or face a future as a football outcast.
So what could happen in, say, 8 years if the Big Ten grabs five schools? The most realistic scenario is the league snagging Notre Dame, two schools from the west — Nebraska and Missouri — and two schools from the east — Pittsburgh and Rutgers. That would leave the Big Ten looking like this:
EAST DIVISION — Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, Rutgers, Pittsburgh
WEST DIVISION– Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri
If that’s the first step in a radical realignment among college athletics, the next step belongs with the Pac-10, which like the Big Ten, announced plans to consider expansion. The most likely scenario sends Utah and Colorado to that league. Of the Pac-10′s current membership, six are members of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious consortium of research institutions. Of the league’s other four members, two were ranked among the top 60 schools in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings for best public colleges. (USC, a private university, ranks 26th overall.) Colorado ranks 34th on that list and is an AAU member. Utah is not an AAU member but ranks 63rd on that list, ahead of Oregon State, which was not ranked among the top 100.
If those two expansion scenarios play out, the Big 12 becomes the Big Eight once more with the ball squarely in Texas’ court. Texas is the kingpin for any and all expansion discussions. In 2008, Texas brought in a national-high $87.5 million from its football program and its athletics department generated $138.4 million, also the country’s most. Texas could stand pat, persuade the league to add four more schools to once again become the Big 12 and rule it the way it did the old Southwest Conference. In that scenario, expansion likely would include TCU, Houston, SMU and New Mexico.
But what if Texas and the Southeastern Conference decide to wed? What about a marriage involving the SEC’s 12 current schools plus Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State? That’s when you get college Armageddon.
The Big 12′s five holdovers — Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Baylor — could form an alliance comprised of the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference. Or they could split on lines of south and north. Either way, it’s a dreary scenario for Iowa State.
If the Big Ten snags Pittsburgh and Rutgers, that could send the Big East into scramble mode to keep its automatic Bowl Championship Series spot. It also could make Big East football programs vulnerable to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which raided the league for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College in 2003. It’s possible, maybe likely, that the ACC could swallow at least four Big East programs — UConn, Syracuse, West Virginia, South Florida — and possibly add Louisville and Cincinnati as well. The ACC would undoubtedly solidify its status as the nation’s best basketball league and compete regularly with the supersized Big Ten, PAC-10 and Southeastern conferences in football.
Everything lies with the Big Ten at this moment. It could decide not to expand (unlikely), snag only Notre Dame (possible) or grab up to five new schools (possible). Everything else has a trickle-down effect.