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Big Ten Expansion: Why Stop At 16?

A bit off topic, sure. But with Big Ten expansion now reportedly being fast tracked, the topic of conference expansion and realignment is the blogger topic du jour.

I was thinking today about the notion of corporate takeovers and how this relates to college athletics. While you don't see takeovers in sports, you see them all the time in business. You know, where a bidder (a company with presumably more leverage) makes an offer for another company (the target). Sometimes takeovers can be friendly - where both sets of management willingly enter into takeover discussions - and other times they can end up hostile. 

When thinking about the topic of Big Ten expansion, this is clearly a takeover situation, and likely a hostile one at that. The bidder, in this case the Big Ten, is salivating at the thought of acquiring the remaining marquee football programs of the Big East. For their part, the Big East seems willing to simply roll over and die as a football conference. If the Big East was serious about the future viability of the conference as a BCS football conference, they would be taking proactive steps to solidify their position in football. As it turns out, now the Big Ten is talking expansion to 14 or 16 programs and targeting three of the linchpins of Big East football - Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. 

The implications for the remaining five football programs are dire. A 5-team Big East has no future as a football conference, and the remaining programs (Connecticut, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida) would be forced to scramble for shelter in one of the other BCS conferences, fall back into a non-BCS conference (e.g. back from whence they came, Conference USA) or chance football independence.

The consequences that could arise from the Big Ten's decision on expansion could be far-reaching, dramatic and extremely messy, as current BCS programs could be faced with less-than-desirable alternatives after the dust settles.

Which brings me back to my point about corporate takeovers. If the Big Ten poaches programs from the Big 12 or the Big East, this could create a domino chain reaction that could be felt across the country. My thought here is that if the Big Ten is indeed serious about expansion beyond the status quo and even beyond 12 teams, why should they stop at 14 or 16? There's a simpler solution to conference expansion that wouldn't dramatically alter the college athletics landscape ...

Why shouldn't the Big Ten just put a bid in to acquire Big East football?

At this point, if you've read this far, you are probably thinking I've lost my mind. A Big Ten-Big East football mega-conference could never work, you say. But allow me to respond. You see, a 14 or 16-team Big Ten mega-conference is hardly a conference at all. It's only a conference in the sense that the AFC or the NFC are considered conferences. It's a loose affiliation of programs, where programs have unbalanced regular season schedules, and the top teams from each division within a conference play in a set postseason playoff.

If the Big Ten were simply to acquire Big East football in a takeover, the newly formed football conference begins to alleviate some of the pain points that could arise from a 14- or 16-team conference. What about unbalanced schedules, including inequitable home/road splits? What about playing teams from the other side of the conference? TV revenue? Broadcast rights? Travel costs?

Currently, the Big Ten has 11 football programs while the Big East has 8. Add them up and you have 19, which of course is an odd number. To remedy this situation, under my Big Ten takeover proposal, you can go down one of two avenues.

The first avenue is that you get the new Big Ten to an even 20 teams. From my estimation, you can achieve this in one of two ways. One way is that you "invite" (read: force) one of the Big East's non-football schools to sack up and move their program from Division I-AA to Division I-A. Likely candidates here are either Villanova or Georgetown. The other way you achieve this is by forcing Notre Dame's hand. With a Big East football takeover, the Big Ten effectively guts the heart out of Big East basketball and other non-revenue sports. Without a home for their other sports, Jack Swarbrick's hand would be forced and the Irish would likely have to enter into the combined Big Ten-Big East.

The other way to even out the 19 team problem is to kick out the weakest link to get back down to 18. The most likely targets here are Louisville and/or South Florida, sending them back to Conference USA or telling them to start banging on the ACC or SEC's door.

Allow me for a moment to go with the 20 team solution, and we'll include Notre Dame for argument's sake as the 20th team. With this corporate takeover of Big East football, the Big Ten could reorganize into the following two divisions:

East: Connecticut, Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Penn State, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State
West: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, Indiana, Notre Dame, Louisville, South Florida

Teams would play a schedule similar to that played in the Pac-10 today. You play all 9 teams in your division and the winner plays in the Big Ten Championship game.

In setting the divisions, you have to make sure you are protecting long standing rivalries between programs. The two-division format gets you almost there, as you preserve rivalries such as Michigan-Michigan State, Michigan-Ohio State, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Minnesota-Wisconsin, Northwestern-Illinois, Purdue-Indiana and so on and so forth. It also helps to renew or create new rivalries such as Pittsburgh-Penn State, Cincinnati-Ohio State, Notre Dame-Indiana, etc.

Obviously, the one glaring shortfall of this divisional lineup is the treatment of Notre Dame. Here you have to protect the rivalry the Irish have with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, which this division format doesn't do a good job of protecting.

With 20 programs, the other way the divisions could be broken down is by 4 divisions of 5 teams. Here, teams would play each team in their division with 3-4 other games played against teams from other divisions. The issue then becomes a matter of home-road splits, where where you play the teams in your division has a greater impact on who wins each division. 

To determine the league champion, you can imagine a four team playoff of division winners, with the winners playing in the Big Ten Championship game.

Under this proposal, you might see divisions broken down as follows:

Northeast: Connecticut, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Ohio State, Notre Dame
East: Rutgers, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue
South: South Florida, Louisville, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Indiana
Midwest: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois

This set up probably does a worse job of ensuring that rivalries are kept in tact and an even worse job of ensuring competitive balance among the four divisions (Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State in the same division?!). 

The only other messiness in this proposal is what to do with the non-football Big East schools, specifically for basketball. Here I would suggest that a 7 team Big East basketball conference could live on with a few key additions. The programs left would be Villanova, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall. Luckily for the Big East, despite the name, the Atlantic 10 has not ten but fourteen programs. I could see the A-10 serving as an adequate backfiller conference to help the Big East get back to 10 or 11 programs and persist as a viable basketball conference. Programs like UMass, the three Philadelphia schools and/or one of the New York schools could easily be added to the Big East. Besides, many of the current A-10 members fit the profile of school that served as the foundation for the Big East in the first place - small, Northeast colleges focused primarily on basketball.

Is this plan without its flaws? Hardly. But the strength of a "Big Ten takeover of Big East football" plan is that it mitigates the potential drastic consequences that expansion could have on the landscape of college athletics. Instead of the side effects of Big Ten expansion being felt from the Pac-10 to the ACC, this proposal limits the damage to the Big East (and maybe the Atlantic 10 basketball conference).