Conference realignment has always been a constant in the landscape of college football, but the last decade has really felt like something different. History, tradition, and geography are no longer driving the decisions, and instead it all comes down to money, which is another way of saying “brand.”
Michigan Wolverines and Big Ten fans can feel confident that the next wave of expansion will bring in more quality programs to the conference. Maybe USC and UCLA feel a little strange, but at least no one can question their objective value, unlike the geography-driven additions of Rutgers and Maryland the last go-around.
With the Big XII’s latest movement — and the inevitable collapse of the Pac-12 — the college football landscape continues to shift. It might not happen immediately, but it feels like a near certainty that at some point the Big Ten will end up with (at least) 20 members. It feels weird, and maybe even wrong, but this is simply where we are heading.
A 20-team conference is definitely wild, but it could work, especially as the Big Ten and SEC race toward a Power Two type of structure. A 10-game conference schedule in a 1-9-9 model makes a lot of sense, and even a 20-game basketball schedule could feature a home-and-home and 18 alternating games to fill out the slate.
So who could those remaining four teams be to get the conference up to 20? Here are three scenarios, from what I deem as least likely to most, even if it goes against what some fans might consider the most desirable outcomes or contrary to the principles that drove moves like those of Rutgers and Maryland.
No. 3: Westward bound
After the Big Ten announced the additions of USC and UCLA, the natural thought was that the conference could essentially finish off the rest of the Pac-12 by taking four more west coast schools. Washington and Oregon would be the obvious two, and maybe the conference would be ok just going to 18, but if it wanted to get up to 20, Stanford and Cal (or even Stanford and Notre Dame) could fit.
There are two reasons I do not see this scenario as very likely. First, if the Big Ten wanted Washington and Oregon, it could have just grabbed them when it added USC and UCLA. Once those two left the Pac-12, there was nothing keeping any of the other schools in the conference, so the Pacific Northwest pair would have left happily.
Relatedly, there must be a reason why the Big Ten chose to be content with just two from out west. The new tv contracts have massive payouts per school, and while both Washington and Oregon are solid brands, the incremental revenue they would add would not justify their addition. In short: Washington and Oregon are strong options, but not strong enough; meanwhile, Stanford and Cal really do nothing but get the conference up to 20.
No. 2: Academics and athletics
If not out west, where else could the Big Ten turn? Traditionally, the conference has valued academics heavily, but also has looked for more than football prestige. The Pac-12 seems ripe for picking, but basically any non-SEC school would see the Big Ten as a step up. There are a few names that feel like great fits into the typical profile of the conference.
At the top of the list have to be North Carolina and Virginia, strong state schools academically with good enough football programs and of course great basketball accolades. The next tier probably looks like Duke, Georgia Tech, and Kansas, though Notre Dame should again get preference over any of them.
I consider this scenario slightly more likely than the Washington/Oregon one, but it still would be a tough financial battle for any of these non-Notre Dame candidates. While all just seem like Big Ten schools and would add a bunch to the conference in multiple sports, are any actually enough to increase the tv payout sufficiently? Harsh to say, but the answer is no.
No. 1: Not your grandfather’s Big Ten
Like it or not, this is no longer a conference of Midwest schools. USC and UCLA completely killed off that idea, although Rutgers and Maryland arguably already broke that barrier. I mean, even Nebraska felt a little weird, as did Penn State at the time. Moral of the story being: do not get caught up in what “makes sense.”
So, keeping an open mind, what are the biggest non-SEC brands left for the taking? Notre Dame is obviously at the top of the list, but the next ones up would be Clemson, Florida State, and Miami. Even five years ago, the notion of adding any of these southeast schools would be laughable, but the landscape across the sport has changed many times since then.
A 20-team conference, one that includes Clemson, Florida State, and Miami, is a very strange concept. However, every single time the Big Ten has added a school in the modern era, it has done so to increase the per-school revenue payouts thanks to tv contracts. The addition of these four institutions would do just that, and at a greater magnitude than anyone else, including Washington and Oregon. Therefore, if (and when) the Big Ten finally goes to 20, this is the first place in the country I would look.