My first reaction to Tony Barnhart's hypothetical question in Monday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "What happens if the Big Ten goes to 16 teams?" was my usual smart-aleck dismissal: What if the South had, like, won the war? Dude. Whoa. It would be so crazy if reality was completely different than it actually is.
But Barnhart's ear is to the ground outside key conference rooms like very few others, and his birdies are telling him a 16-headed goliath standing athwart the Rust Belt — one foot in the Mississippi, the other in the East River — is very much on the table:
"I've spoken to a number of athletics directors and commissioners who are convinced that the Big Ten is positioning itself to seriously consider becoming college football first super conference by expanding to as many as 16 teams.
"The Big Ten is looking at three plans: Stand pat with 11 teams, add one team [hopefully Notre Dame] or make a blockbuster move and go to 16.
"If they go to 16 and one of them is Notre Dame then we’ve got an entirely new ball game," a conference commissioner told me confidentially.
The master plan, as others have speculated, allegedly involves raiding the Big East for four football schools — Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Rutgers and either Connecticut or Cincinnati — along with Notre Dame. That would relegate the Big East to the fate of the defunct Southwest Conference in football (though, unlike the old SWC, the conference's heart would go on in the undying devotion of private basketball schools). Subsequently, the Big East's Southern wing — West Virginia, Louisville and South Florida — would be left to hope the ACC or SEC snaps them up in a bid to keep up with the Joneses on the other side of the Mason-Dixon, improbably fulfilling longstanding visions of a land ruled by imperialist super conferences and making both a thousand bored message board prophets and Bill Stewart look like visionaries in the process.
Of course, the Big Ten wouldn't be the first 16-team experiment: The WAC briefly expanded to 16 teams with refugees from the recently defunct SWC and Big West in the mid-'90s, forming four four-team quadrants and a conference championship game at the end of it all. That setup lasted all of three years before the core of the pre-expansion WAC — led by BYU, Utah, Air Force, Wyoming and Colorado State — tired of splitting the pie with suspect newcomers and split to form the Mountain West.
As Michigan-obsessed blogger Brian Cook has pointed out, any conference with more than 12 teams isn't really a conference at all, so much as it is two smaller conferences "with a scheduling agreement and a weird playoff at the end." Wealthy, traditional power brokers like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State already have to share the cut with historical "rivals" that haven't been consistently competitive on the field or in the stands for decades (see Northwestern and Indiana). Why would they want to completely overhaul a successful, longstanding structure to add four more middle-tier programs with whom they have no traditional (and only tenuous geographical) ties, some of which they'll see on the field maybe once per decade in interdivisional play, for the sake of being bigger? Adding one "good fit" in order to break into two six-team divisions makes sense in extending the regular season into December; adding cash cows in the championship game and a new television market for the Big Ten Network; and keeping pace with successful models already pioneered in other conferences. Anything beyond that, barring a complete restructuring of the larger national landscape by the NCAA and/or BCS, seems completely bats.
Also, it depends on Notre Dame dropping the whole "independent" thing to operate on hive terms for the first time in its history when there is still no obvious benefit to ND in the immediate future, despite the mildly interesting noises on the subject emanating from South Bend lately. As Barhart suggests, expanding to 16 teams means Notre Dame has to be one of the new additions, and luring the Irish into the tent may be worth it under almost any circumstances. But if Notre Dame is a serious possibility, why would you need anyone else.