The Big Ten came through with a whopper of an announcement on Tuesday. Nineteen years after adding an 11th team, it will seek out a 12th. Obviously, this decision has huge ramifications for the conference. It foreshadows a huge break from tradition by separating the conference into two divisions with a conference championship game to decide the Big Ten Championship. I will be devoting my next four posts—including this one—to various issues related to the expansion. This post will attempt to identify the best candidate(s). The following three will be about the divisional breakdown, a Big Ten Championship Game, and Notre Dame, respectively.
The last time the conference expanded, it was with Penn State. Although Penn State probably hasn’t fared as well as it would have liked in both football and basketball, I don’t think anyone is unhappy with the addition. In fact, it has been a “perfect fit.” It’s doubtful that this search will yield such an outstanding result simply because the Big Ten didn’t put out a mandate in 1990 looking for an 11th team, or at least not to my knowledge. Penn State wasn’t just an attractive option among a pool of candidates; it was the option. It was added only because it was an obvious match. This attempt at expansion is fueled by a different motive. The Big Ten is actively looking for a 12th team which, like a recent well-known coaching search, could get pretty ugly with offers, denials, and turndowns. With money seemingly a driving motive (not sure expansion even makes sense financially without Notre Dame, however) it’s likely that the Big Ten would “lower its standards” just to get a 12th team in the conference. Still, there are a few attractive options among a number of possible candidates. I would hope that the goal would be to find a school that would make the conference stronger and not just make it eligible to have a conference championship game since that would be a misguided endeavor, in my opinion (more on this next week).
There are a number of teams that have had rumored interest in joining the Big Ten as well as a team or two that the Big Ten has been rumored to have interest in. Some of the names are “marquee” while others are “mediocre.” Here is a list of 13 schools (in alphabetical order) that—for one reason or another—have been discussed as possible options: (in alphabetical order) Cincinnati, Iowa St., Maryland, Missouri, Navy, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Texas, Vanderbilt, and Virginia. There have been other names brought up but I eliminated schools that have little to offer beyond being located in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s pretty easy to throw together a list of preferences based on attractiveness. However, in the interest of credibility, I’ve rated the 13 schools using a formula based on six weighted factors…
1). Strength of the Football Program (1/4)
Football is the reason we’re having this discussion in the first place so it would make sense to heavily factor the strength of the football program when discussing candidates. Additionally, football is the most visible sport in the Big Ten—as it is in virtually every I-A conference—so finding a team that will fit in with the conference’s rich football tradition is paramount. Four of the six metrics are based on rankings by outside sources (meaning: not me). The “Football” and “Basketball” metrics are based on my opinion albeit a well-informed one. Please forgive the inherit subjectivity in those metrics. Although, I’m not sure using other arbitrary metrics like “all-time wins”, “bowl wins”, “wins in 2008” or any other inflexible measure would be any less subjective.
2). Academics (1/4)
The Big Ten prides itself on academic achievement. Every school in the conference is rated among the top 75 academic institutions in the US News and World Report’s list of top-ranked schools. An addition to the conference would have to live up to that standard. This metric is based on the 2008 US News and World Report’s rankings.
Although football is #1 in the Big Ten, men’s basketball is well ahead of any other sport. It would be nice to add an institution that would strengthen the Big Ten’s basketball reputation but Penn St. proved that isn't a necessity. It would be nice to avoid two consecutive mediocre basketball additions but, competitively speaking, the conference is in good shape regardless.
4). Location (1/8)
Airplanes exist for a reason so “travel” shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. However, 10 of the 11 current Big Ten schools are located in the Midwest with Penn St. just a few hundred miles to the east. The conference is synonymous with the Great Lakes region. It’s unlikely that a school too far outside of the region would add much in the name of interest on either side. Candidates shouldn’t be entirely excluded based on location but it is a factor that should be considered. The schools in this metric are ranked based on their distance from Chicago. While it may seem like an arbitrary location, Chicago is in the middle of the Big Ten footprint and, not coincidentally, is the location of Big Ten Headquarters.
5). Athletics (1/8)
While football and basketball might be the most visible sports, the Big Ten is competitive in virtually every collegiate sport which is reflected in the Sears Cup Standings. Indiana—at a respectable 55th—is the lowest Big Ten school in the standings. The addition of Penn State was a boon in this respect as it has been one of the top athletic programs in the country. The schools in this metric are rated by their place in the 2008-09 Sears Cup Standings.
6). Marketability (1/8)
There is no universal definition for this but the Big Ten certainly needs a school that will bring interest to the conference. “Interest” affects the bottom line which affects everything. In this metric, teams are rated by combining three measures into one. I averaged the Collegiate Licensing Company’s Sales ranking, average home football attendance, and DMA rank (TV market size). This metric should at least roughly estimate the “interest” that the school would bring to the Big Ten.
Rating scale: Schools were rated 1-13 in each category. First place was worth 13 points, second place worth 12 points, and third place worth 11 points and so on. Values were doubled for “Football” and “Academics.”
Unsurprisingly, Notre Dame is, far and away, the most attractive option ranking at or near the top in every category. Texas—clearly an ideal fit in terms of athletics and academics—trails Notre Dame due solely to its poor “location” score. All things being equal, Texas is the more attractive option of the group. However, Notre Dame is smack dab in the middle of Big Ten country. All of Texas’s athletic might can’t make up for that. Unfortunately, neither Notre Dame nor Texas appear interested in joining the Big Ten. Once we get beyond Notre Dame and Texas, there is a huge drop-off in relative attractiveness. The difference between Texas and the #3 team—Pittsburgh—is greater than the difference between Pittsburgh and the #9 team (Missouri). Pittsburgh has a comfortable margin over the rest of the field making it the most attractive realistic option. After Pittsburgh, the list gets pretty cluttered with a bunch of “meh” options.
Contrary to what some media types think, Rutgers would be a very poor choice. In fact, non-traditional options like Navy and Vanderbilt appear to be better “fits.” Navy, of course, has a horrendous basketball program and that wouldn’t change with a move to the Big Ten. There is no way the Big Ten would accept a school—even one of Navy’s academic and athletic prowess—with such a moribund basketball program. Vanderbilt boasts a poor football program which would also seem to eliminate it as a viable choice. The take away here isn’t where Navy and Vanderbilt rank; rather it’s that Rutgers ranks below both. I would expect/hope that the Big Ten would avoid handing out an invitation to Rutgers at all costs. Missouri—somewhat surprisingly—also loses out to two schools that would never receive an invitation (Navy and Vanderbilt) because of the aforementioned disqualifying factors. According to various sources, Missouri has interest in joining the Big Ten. Mizzou also happens to be one of the schools often linked to Big Ten expansion. However, it would be a far worse choice than most realize. It would immediately become the Big Ten’s weakest academic school by a significant margin. Iowa is currently the lowest rated Big Ten school in US News and World Report’s rankings at #71. Missouri comes in at #102. Although Missouri doesn’t rank particularly low in any category with the exception of “academics”, its overall score is low because it doesn’t rank particularly high in any one category, either. It would do very little to strengthen the conference.
On a personal level, if it’s not Pittsburgh, then I would vote for Nebraska. If not Nebraska, I would vote to cancel the expansion idea. I realize Maryland and Virginia actually rate higher than Nebraska but all three come in with virtually the same score. Maryland and Virginia are too far east to “fit” with the rest of the Big Ten. Plus, neither have attractive football programs and that’s really the driving force behind all of this. The choices should be Notre Dame, Texas, Pittsburgh, and Nebraska in that order. Anything beyond that would be a major disappointment, in my opinion.
So, barring a significant development, it looks like the best realistic choice is Pittsburgh. The only drawback that Pittsburgh would bring besides “not being Notre Dame” is its subpar performance in athletics as a whole. It rated second worst of the 13 teams in the 2009 Sears Cup Final standings—well behind Iowa State, Vanderbilt, and Navy. Still, being uncompetitive in non-revenue sports when the other requisite criteria is met would hardly be a deal breaker. The addition of Pittsburgh would also give Penn State a natural rival which would only bolster the conference. First, though, is a token call to Notre Dame.