On College Football

Planting seeds for expansion

Big Ten move might reshape landscape

By Mark Blaudschun
December 17, 2009

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The first tremor came this week. Maybe a moderate 4.2 on the Richter scale. The next one might not come for another year to 18 months, but it could shake up college football.

Once again, the Big Ten is considering expansion - seriously considering it. “Everybody says expansion is the direction to go,’’ said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez of the 11-team conference possibly adding a 12th.

The reason is obvious. The Big Ten wants to be part of the final weekend of the regular season, which is known as championship Saturday, with conferences including the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 deciding their Bowl Championship Series representatives with league championship games. Even conferences without 12 teams have joined the party. The Pac-10 schedule worked out perfectly this season, with a Thursday night game in December between Oregon and Oregon State deciding the Rose Bowl bid, while the Big East had Cincinnati-Pittsburgh on the final week, which decided its conference title.

The Big Ten? It finished business two weeks earlier when Ohio State clinched its Rose Bowl berth, which created an out of sight, out of mind feeling for the Buckeyes, and the conference in general.

So the idea is to get a better seat at the table, one reserved for winners of BCS conference championship games. When the Big Ten made its first run at expansion in 1990, it came up with Penn State. Nearly a decade later, it made a serious run at Notre Dame, but was told not now, maybe not ever, by the Fighting Irish.

The feeling is that the Big Ten will make another run at Notre Dame as its first choice. The word out of South Bend, Ind., as it adjusts to new coach Brian Kelly, remains, “We’re happy with the way the setup is now.’’ But that is before Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and his people put together a financial package that includes not only the fast-rising Big Ten television network, but a championship game and assorted other goodies.

Don’t assume a Notre Dame rejection. The Irish are well aware that if expansion occurs and Notre Dame is not part of it, the door will be shut and locked. This is their last chance.

If not Notre Dame, than which school? Texas and Missouri and even Nebraska have been mentioned. Of that trio, Missouri would seem the easiest to get. But there is also sentiment to look to the Big East, where Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers have been mentioned. If that happens, the Big East, which currently has an eight-team football league, will be forced to expand to survive.

Big East officials maintain they don’t need to expand to 12 teams to stay competitive. They have seen the financial bust the ACC title game has been in terms of attendance. And to go to 12 teams would mean dipping into a pool that isn’t very deep. “Nine is the ideal number for scheduling,’’ said one Big East official.

The feeling at the Big East is that if it schedules smartly, it can project the two best teams each year and schedule them for the final weekend of the regular season in a game that would have a championship feel.

Rutgers or Pittsburgh would seem to be better fits than Syracuse in terms of an additional market for the Big Ten. If the Big East loses one team, the replacement will almost certainly be Central Florida, which would give the Big East a solid Florida hold in Tampa (South Florida) and Orlando (Central Florida).

But any movement could also cut into basketball and force the 16-team Big East basketball conference to split into more of a football-basketball mix. The basketball conference would have a strong Catholic school configuration of eight teams: St. John’s, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, DePaul, Providence, and Notre Dame.

The football league would be eight or nine teams consisting of Connecticut, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, Central Florida, and (pick two of three) Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers.

If it wants a ninth football-playing school, don’t be surprised if the Big East - which is still irritated at the raid the ACC pulled a few years ago by taking Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College - made a run at Maryland, which has always felt the ACC was too skewed to the South, specifically North Carolina.

And if that happens, or if the Big Ten expands with any team other than Notre Dame, the domino effect will begin as college football, and college athletics in general, adjusts to a new landscape.

The question of expansion is not if, but when it will happen.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at