Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who's Number 12?

The talk is on again.

Big Ten athletic directors (athletics director?) are calling for the conference to add a 12th team so that it might split into two divisions which would then lead to a conference championship game in football. It's not a new idea in the slightest, but according to Adam Rittenberg's report, the push this time might have a bit more muscle behind it. Or in Barry Alvarez's case, a bit more cheese.

I've been an advocate for a 12th team for the exact same reasons as Paterno and Alvarez. The Big Ten stopped playing football this season some time around Halloween it seems. While these conference championships and service academy showdowns fill the airwaves, the Big Ten and their two BCS teams are back in the Midwest twiddling their thumbs and shoveling snow. But the conference championship game will only be one effect of expansion.

The obvious first question is "Who?" Let's get this out of the way: it will not be Notre Dame. Notre Dame values autonomy almost as much as they value that NBC contract. The Irish aren't a large research institution like the majority of the Big Ten, and since they can't play defense they naturally belong in the Big East for basketball. Boo frickin' hoo, they already play most of the Big Ten in football anyway.

The usual suspects are thus: Syracuse, Louisville, Missouri, Iowa St. I'd say that Syracuse is out based on its private status. (Northwestern is a charter member of the Big Ten, but sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the publicly funded behemoths.) Iowa St. is a land-grant school (much like Purdue, Michigan St., Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio St., Penn St., and Wisconsin) but are they willing to back out of the Big 12? Missouri is in the exact same position.

That's why my money is on Louisville, and here's why. They've only been in the Big East since 2005. It would be an easy exit. What do they gain? Doesn't seem to be too much but they do get what every upwardly mobile entity wants: their own TV network. Additionally, they would be more geographically centered to their conference on an east/west axis, and I can see that making a much bigger deal for the travel budgets of smaller sports like volleyball and cross country.

If Louisville's the new belle at the ball, how will the divisions shake out? No doubt the deciding factor will be geography, but whose geography? Each school already has two permanent "rivals" as fixtures in the football season. I'd think this provision would stand in the new lineup, but then we must decide are we going East and West or North and South? If the breakdown were left and right we'd have
  • East: Michigan St, Michigan, Purdue, Indiana, Ohio St. Penn St.
  • West: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, Louisville.
Were it up and down we'd get a mess
  • North: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan St., Michigan, Northwestern, Purdue/Penn St.
  • South: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio St., Louisville, Purdue/Penn St.
That scenario just won't fly. One can't expect Purdue and Indiana or Michigan and Ohio St. to vote on that separation.

The 12th team would add a tremendous amount of publicity for a short smattering of time and the Big Ten would no doubt shove it down your throat with more "Big Life. Big Stage. Big Ten." commercials. What would really go up in smoke though, no matter who is added, is a round-robin basketball schedule. Unless the Big Ten has plans to scrap the post-season tournament, there's little chance you'll see them expand to a 22 game home and away season.

Should all of this come to pass and I wake up one day shocked to find East Carolina or Ball St. in the the conference, I do know that one thing will not go away.

They'll always call it the Big Ten.

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