December 15, 2009
As not so subtly suggested last week by Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, the Big Ten officially announced its interest in expanding to 12 teams this afternoon, facilitating the two-division split and championship game that's paid such big dividends for the SEC, Big 12 and (to a slightly lesser extent) ACC. The timetable to "explore" expansion options is expected to fall in the neighborhood of 12 to 18 months, at which point "a recommendation may or may not be made," according to ESPN's Big Ten hand, Adam Rittenberg. They're really going out on a limb here.
By "explore," of course, we can assume the conference means "bombard Notre Dame from every possible angle." The Irish make perfect sense in the Big Ten to everyone except the Irish, whose very special contracts with the BCS for postseason spoils and NBC for television spoils render conference affiliation redundant, just as they did when the Big Ten came calling in South Bend a decade ago. Notre Dame identifies with and enjoys its outsider status too much to sully itself in some "league," at least until market forces leave it with no choice, which is certainly not the case right now.
If the target isn't Notre Dame, it's surely one of six other ubiquitous options, all of them coming with obvious, fatal flaws. Missouri has no good reason to leave the Big 12. Rutgers is well outside of the league's geographic footprint and offers no consistent track record of success in football or basketball. Syracuse is awkward geographically and may be hard to lure from the Big East for non-football reasons. Louisville and Cincinnati are new money on the gridiron, basketball schools with no track record of consistent success in football or much in the way of academic reputation. West Virginia doesn't quite fit geographically, traditionally, academically or as a potential market.
The one non-Notre Dame option that seems to meet every criteria -- old football tradition, solid basketball program, geographic fit, academic fit, viable market, potential incentive to leave its current situation -- is Pittsburgh, which would finally get its longstanding wish to renew the natural in-state rivalry with Penn State, to boot. Pitt is the one candidate that could seemingly slide into the Big Ten tomorrow, as-is, and basically fit in right away. In my unsolicited, un-researched opinion, the Panthers are the obvious target. The conference may or may not consider exploring that recommendation at some undefined point in the not-very-near future.