Thursday, December 17, 2009

Big Ten Could Expand to 14 or 16

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Big Ten officials are discussing expanding to 14 or even 16 teams - and that the one-team deal we've all been assuming may be too small for a conference with these grand ambitions.

That would be a huge deal - no major football conference plays with more than 12 teams (SEC, Big 12 are at that number). The Big East plays with 16 teams in basketball, and they have trouble with that system.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say I like 14. It's not unwieldy, but it would allow the Big Ten to add three high-quality schools that would improve the conference's standing nationwide. The general assumption, by the way, is that Notre Dame is still not interested.

So who's a good fit? TOSSS has long advocated adding Pittsburgh, and we stick by that. Others in the mix seem to be Missouri, Iowa State, Rutgers and Syracuse - adding all five gets the Big Ten to 16 teams.

The question then turns to conference alignment - and at bigger numbers it gets easier. Consider these Big Ten East and West alignments:
  • East: MSU, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Indiana, Purdue
  • West: Ohio State, Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern
I'm putting Ohio State in the West because otherwise the B-10E is too stacked, especially in the minor sports where Michigan, Penn State and OSU are often three of the strongest. They've got a huge athletics budget, and frankly could handle the increased commuting costs.

If we go to 14 schools, just drop Syracuse and Iowa State, and the alignments still work great. And if it's 12, then just keep Pitt as the only newbie and the numbers still work fine. But looking at these potential alignments, one can see how 14 or 16 might be a better number than 12.


  1. 14 and 16 have issues. I'm not sure they work well.

    1. Scheduling. The NCAA says you have to play a round-robin in your division. This means that, in a 14-team league, you're playing 6 games against Division opponents. That means 2 games against the opposite Division. If you give everybody a protected inter-division rivalry, that means 7 of your 8 Big Ten games are the same team, with the rotation only being 1 team from the opposite division. A 16-team Big Ten amplifies that: you'd play 7 Division games, with only 1 inter-divisional matchup, and if that was a protected rivalry, there would be league schools you would never play except in the title game. Of course, you can ameliorate this by playing a 9th league game. So far, the Pac-10 is the only league that does this. Does that mean the Big Ten shouldn't? No, but the 8-game league schedule is clearly the preferred practice.

    2. "Bulk," for lack of a better word. To my knowledge, there have only been two leagues that tried this. From 2002-2004, the Mid-American Conference had 14 members. It only lasted 3 seasons before Marshall and UCF departed for Conference USA. Perhaps more instructive is the Western Athletic Conference, which expanded to 16 members in 1996. That also lasted only 3 years, but the departing schools were not poached by a "better" league: they were simply dissatisfied with the arrangement being "too big," watering down the level of competition, and the requirement that fees be so broadly shared. In 1999, 4 charter members of the league, and 2 others who had been around for more than 30 years (along with 2 others; 8 in all) broke off to form the Mountain West Conference.

    3. Sixteen schools also presents issues for your basketball conference tournament. The Big East now has 16 basketball schools. For the first few years of that (2006-08) they invited the top 12 in the standings to the tournament. However, apparently someone squawked, because last year all 16 were invited, and they had an elaborate series of byes which it was not my feeling were equitable (the top 4 teams got 2 byes, into the Quarterfinals; the next 4 teams got 1 bye, into the Second Round; and the last 8 had to play in the First Round). Personally, I liked inviting the top 12 (out of 16) to the tournament; if you're finishing 13-16 in the league, nobody gets anything out of playing you. You had your chance all season long in league play to scrape together a 12th place finish (and I would make the same argument about teams 9-11 in the current Big Ten).

  2. I'm with Adam - I'm not sold on going larger than 12.

    With that, I'd prefer potential additions in this order:

    1. Notre Dame; 2. Missouri; 3. Nebraska; 4. Pitt.

    ND is a no-brainer.

    Missouri makes geographic sense, expands the BTN into STL and KC without any trouble, brings in good football and good basketball programs, and a school that's pretty good academically. Good rivalry with Illinois, good potential rivalry with Iowa.

    Nebraska - who can deny that football tradition? Other than ND, it would do the most toward taking the BTN national, which means tons of cash.

    Pitt - good fit in the revenue sports, good academic fit, natural rival for PSU. But, it doesn't expand the conference's footprint. Is locking down the PA market really that important? I think not.

    Notice I left off Rutgers and Syracuse. Although he hasn't said it, I know Adam agrees with me here that the conference doesn't need to go more eastern (despite JoPa's protestations to the contrary). The Big Ten is a midwestern conference and should remain that way. Further, I remain completely unconvinced that either Rutgers or Syracuse buys the NYC market. How many kids in NYC grow up salivating at the chance to play for the Scarlet Knights? And Syracuse is so geographically out of whack that there are several other, non-Big East schools that make more sense (Maryland? Navy? Iowa State? Kentucky?)

    If ND won't come to the Big Ten, I'd be content shutting it down and staying at 11. But, if we're going to expand and it's not ND, give me Missouri.

  3. I agree with much of what Greg says. The only real difference would be that I'd probably prefer Pitt to the Big 12 schools. I am not concerned with locking up markets and whatnot; those are business decisions. I am interested in what moves me as a fan. And as a fan, I'd prefer Pitt to Missouri. Moreover, I am not absolutely certain that the focus on markets and other business concerns will be what drives this. When the Big Ten added 2 games to the league schedule for basketball, that was NOT a business move: the only business ramifications were to decrease revenues (the extra league games almost certainly are coming out of somebody's home non-conference schedule, when all 11 teams have the chance to fill up their arena instead of only half of them) and making it harder to make the NCAA Tournament (league games are necessarily a zero-sum system; someone has to lose for someone else to win, while every league team can win every non-conference game). They did it for other reasons, e.g., tradition (a meet-me-halfway compromise with a purist's "true" round robin).

    I wholly agree with Greg's points regarding Rutgers and Syracuse, and I would add this: I am unconvinced that there is as much value as people think in "possessing" the New York market. People out east just don't particularly care about football. The entire northeastern part of the country has 6 FBS programs: Boston College, Syracuse, SUNY-Buffalo, Army, UConn, Rutgers. NONE of those are top-flight programs, either competitively, traditionally, or with notable fan bases (Syracuse is the best of the lot and I think they are over-rated). It is not a hotbed of high school football talent.

    I also agree that if ND won't come on-board, I'd be content with shutting it down and staying with 11. If we're going to expand and it's not ND, I'd prefer Pitt, but not strongly enough to complain if they went with Missouri instead.