Notre Dame, Nebraska Involved in Expensive Game of Big Ten Expansion Chicken

I miss the old days. If you wanted to play "chicken" you could. Without anyone really getting hurt. As a kid you'd hop on your Big Wheel/Skateboard/Bike and peddle at one another until someone else veered off. It was great fun, that is, until someone actually got hurt. On the big wheel or the skateboard, it didn't hurt too bad. You were small, flexible, capable of recovering from just about any scrape, cut, or broken bone in about an hour. But once you got a little bigger, and started moving a little faster, those stakes went up in a hurry. You realized, for the first time in some instances, that holy crap, this could really, really hurt.

The more that comes out on Big Ten and conference expansion in general, the more it becomes obvious that this particualr high stakes game of chicken that isn't going to end well for anyone without the sense to get out of the way of the bus.  It's also becoming more and more obvious that this game of chicken is being played in the dead of night, and every driver involved has his lights off.

For all the speculation regarding Nebraska joining the Big Ten, there seems to be something missing from the equation. What could it be.... oh yeah! An inviteJust little details.

A source told ESPN.com that Nebraska is "leaning toward" the Big Ten but is waiting for a formal invitation from the conference before acting.

I see how this works now. I'm also "leaning toward consummating" a relationship with Charlize Theron, but I'm waiting on a formal invitation. Maybe if I announce how willing I am, it'll happen. See what I mean about driving with your lights off?

Now Nebraska wouldn't be taking measures like this, or quietly holding ontobroadcasting their intentions to anyone with a microphone, if they didn't have something to go on. I think. But then again, it was widely assumed Colorado would announce it was bolting for the Pac 10 last night. Only they didn't. In fact all they announced was that there was nothing to announce, only that they'd talked to their lawyers about what to do in the event an offer was extended.

It's not fair to say that Nebraska has talked itself into a corner on this one, because they really haven't. Media speculation has driven this bus from day one, and I suspect a no nonsense kind of guy like Tom Osborne really does want to end this discussion as soon as possible so that it's no longer a distraction to the University, its athletes and alumni. But Nebraska has left enough dangling quotes and non-committal statements out in the breeze to let everyone even remotely tuned into the situation know that if a better deal is out there, they'll listen.

That better deal is, presumptively, the Big Ten. But the Big Ten hasn't officially offered anyone anything. There are only two surefire, confirmed targets of the Big Ten's affection: Texas and Notre Dame. Both schools would prefer to remain where they are, but of the two Texas is the one with options. Notre Dame currently sits on the outside looking in at any kind of college football realignment. While they would love to preserve their independence, the realities of a five super-conference future in college football make that independence a hindrance. At a certain point, conference realignment will rob many crucial rivalries of their conference season match up, forcing them to be played OOC. As those out of conference spaces start to fill, the likelihood that Notre Dame will find willing dance partners will start to diminish. There are only so many tough games teams are willing to schedule in a season.

Further, the super-conference model also points to gargantuan revenue sharing that even mighty Notre Dame can't turn down. As Corn Nation points out, the Big Ten's Committee on Institutional Cooperation receives 12% of federal research funds, a number that will only increase as the Conference adds additional research based schools. With Notre Dame's recent re-dedication to research and graduate education, this is a pool of money that the school would be foolish to turn down because its football team wants an independent schedule. At a certain point, athletics don't matter in this equation, it's the research money that does. A slice of that research money pie may very well dwarf whatever payout a cable or network television contract provides. And just so we're clear, the CIC received $3.5 Billion in federal funding in 2006-2007.

The Big Ten has never shied away from clearly demonstrating that Notre Dame is the object of its affections in this whole expansion push, but at a certain point even a jilted admirer moves on. With Nebraska set to announce its "intentions" on Friday, everyone's timeline on expansion has been moved forward. Even Notre Dame's. Something is going to happen in the near term, which will significantly affect not just college football, but institutional research across the midwest. And the three schools (Texas, Nebraska, and Notre Dame) with a say in how this change will be implemented seem to be waiting for the other to blink first.

Texas has made it clear to all parties involved, it doesn't have to blink or move. Regardless of how expansion proceeds, Texas will have a comfortable conference home of some kind and access to enough federal research grants to keep it happy. Sure they might get more football and research money in the Big Ten, but right now they control their current conference and their own destiny, and there is no rush to change today or in the next twenty years. Texas will always have that advantage.

Nebraska and Notre Dame do not. Nebraska has been fed up with the revenue sharing in its conference for years and does not have the institutional research support from their conference that Big Ten members possess. Worse, geographically they are somewhat isolated from the rest of the college football landscape other than the Big XII and Big Ten. As a result, they are presently on the outside looking in at two separate conference powerplays between the Pac 10 and Big Ten, which at present only just officially included them.

Notre Dame faces a different, but equally troubling challenge. As one of the last remaining football independents, the Irish have tied a significant amount of their alumni capital to the notion that being independent somehow makes the Irish more special than any other program. Whether this is a reality or not, it is a powerful factor in their ultimate decision. And an immensely complicating one. The monetary rationales for joining the Big Ten should far outweigh the school's attachment to it's own notion of football independence. What should be the most troubling factor for the Irish is that they, ultimately, control whether college football is turned upside down or not.

If they act, and join the Big Ten, the majority of the status quo of college football may well be left intact. If they don't college football completely changes and they are left scrambling to fill a football schedule and their research coffers.

The simple fact is that both schools are racing head long into the oncoming Big Ten/Conference Expansion bus. One of them can stop the whole process by turning away, but is too proud to do it. The other's steering is locked won't turn away unless it's tires blow out. The one who turns away, and joins the Big Ten, gets a seat on the bus.

The other gets run over by it.

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