February 10, 2010
The Big Ten is considering adding a team in the next year to year-and-a-half. As of Wednesday, the Pac-10 is officially considering the addition of two teams in the next six-to-twelve months. By 2012, the entire conference landscape could be dramatically altered by any combination of several plausible scenarios:
• Notre Dame to the Big Ten. Wishful thinking. The Irish remain too marketable as a football independent and seem comfortable enough in the Big East to keep their noses out of some unseemly "league." ND won't seriously consider passing on its unique, outsider status among major programs until its cushy TV and BCS arrangements are seriously threatened, which may not be a too-distant reality if new coach Brian Kelly doesn't get it turned around on the field.
• Boise State to the Pac-10/Big 12/Big Ten. Dream on. The Broncos are certainly lovable as a BCS-busting upstart and darkhorse national title candidate, but there's not enough there in terms of the stadium, media market, tradition, recruiting potential, academics, geographic fit or success in other sports to lift the football team onto a larger stage. Sorry.
• Pittsburgh to the Big Ten. Now that we're in the realm of reality, let's start slow and work our way up. Pitt is a natural fit for the Big Ten -- the Panthers have an old football tradition, solid basketball program, geographic fit, academic fit, viable market and a potential incentive to leave their current situation in the Big East -- so much so that a chunk of the mainstream media fell hook, line and sinker for the obviously bogus "Pitt-to-Big Ten-is-a-done-deal" rumors bubbling up from the message board rabble last week. Eventually, that headline could be true, with a minimum of disruption, domino-wise.
Deal-breaking Caveat: Aside from opposition by snobbish Penn State fans, the Big East would be left scrambling for another replacement to keep its already lagging numbers up in football. (Central Florida, East Carolina or basketball power Memphis, which has already hired former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese as a consultant in anticipation of such a move, would be in line to make the leap from Conference USA.) But the main hurdle to Pitt's entrance to the Big Ten is the conference's apparent interest in expanding westward ...
• Missouri to the Big Ten. Mizzou brings everything to the table that Pitt does, sans the natural in-state rivalry with a current Big Ten member, with the added bonus expanding the conference's footprint into a new market. From Missouri's perspective, trading the Big 12's top-heavy revenue-sharing model for the more equitable system in the Big Ten could be worth an extra $10 million a year in total revenue.
Deal-breaking Caveat(s): For that windfall, the Tigers would be betraying a century of competition with their current Big 12 North foes, including the underrated "Border War" rivalry with Kansas. Recruiting would almost certainly suffer with a vastly decreased presence in Texas, where Mizzou already pulls most of its talent. And the Tigers' exit would leave a gaping hole in the Big 12 North, especially if we see ...
• Utah and BYU to the Pac-10. Speculation following the Pac-10's official tip of the expansion cap Tuesday immediately focused on the Beehive State, the fastest-growing in the Union in terms of population, where the Cougars and Utes clearly established their West Coast bona fides by beating the pants off a pair of Pac-10 favorites in bowl games last December. In all, the Utah schools are 11-9 against the Pac-10 since 2004 with six top-25 finishes and two BCS wins between them, and both routinely fill Pac-10-sized stadiums. This is certainly the neatest way to make the Pac-12 a reality, though it would permanently cripple the rise of the Mountain West. (Hey, there's always Boise State to fill one of those slots, guys. Guys?)
Deal-breaking Caveat(s): Besides the geographic hurdle of shoehorning a second pair of schools from a completely landlocked state into a coastal conference (Utah makes even less sense geographically than Arizona), neither the Utes nor Cougars brings much less oomph in basketball or the obscure nonrevenue/Olympic sports (i.e. almost any competition played on or in water or as part of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) that the Pac-10 thrives on to maintain its status as the "Conference of Champions." BYU's religious affiliation -- especially the longstanding ban on competing on Sundays -- could be a hang-up, as well, one of the reasons the more popular scenario seems to be ...
• Utah and Colorado to the Pac-10, BYU to the Big 12. Speculation by anonymous sources indicates this scenario could happen if certain other purely speculative moves happen first, but -- speaking in purely stereotypical terms -- the Colorado/BYU swap does make more sense culturally, if not geographically. Colorado has been omnipresent in Pac-10 expansion rumors for years, and I have no doubt the Washington and Oregon schools (and maybe Cal and Stanford, too) would jump at the chance to offer some Winter X-Games-style programs to compete in the Rockies.
Deal-breaking Caveat: Like Missouri, what's the big hurry for Colorado to leave the Big 12? And if BYU's Sunday ban is an issue for the Pac-10, it will be one for the Big 12, too. If anything, the Cougars seem like something of a desperation addition for the Big 12 -- though hardly the worst-case scenario ...
• Utah and Colorado to the Pac-10, BYU to the Big 12, Missouri to the Big Ten. If the Big 12 were to lose Missouri and Colorado to other power conferences, its wounded pride would pale in comparison to practical problem of finding teams to replace them: Even if BYU filled one of the empty slots, who would round out the twelfth slot required by the NCAA for the two-division split and championship game? One of the quarter of ex-SWC members/original Big 12 snubs -- TCU, Houston, Rice and SMU, all small, private schools except Houston -- languishing in the less prestigious leagues? Colorado State? Wyoming? Obviously, if there's any chance for Boise State to break into the big time in this scramble, this is it.
Deal-breaking Caveat: See above. But those conference commissioners and university presidents, they can be a puckish lot, you know.