If you haven’t heard the news this week you may want to take a seat and read up on the latest realignment chatter. The possibility of Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC is growing while some might even say OU and UT to the SEC is inevitable. That kind of realignment would likely cause chain reactions all across the country in numerous conferences and potentially trickle down to the FCS or Division 2 levels.
Perhaps the ACC tries to add Notre Dame in football and bring in West Virginia from the Big 12. Maybe the Pac-12 will go after some of the remaining Big 12 schools like TCU, Texas Tech, and/or Oklahoma State but those are purely speculative hypotheticals. One Power 5 conference is in a slightly different position than other Power 5 conferences.
Yes, we are talking about the Big Ten. To understand why the Big Ten is in a different position and help provide context to some of our proposals, we need to go back to the last round of realignment.
The Additions of Maryland, Nebraska, and Rutgers
Nebraska formally joined the Big Ten starting with the 2011-12 school year to much fanfare. The rich football tradition of the school was only part of the reason they were invited. The Big Ten placed an emphasis on strong academics with all schools being members of the Association of American Universities (AAU). At the time Nebraska was invited to the Big Ten in 2010, they were a member of the AAU. However, this ended in the spring of 2011 just as the school was set to join the Big Ten. By this point, the wheels were already in motion and the change in AAU status wouldn’t stop Nebraska from becoming a Big Ten member.
In late 2012, the Big Ten also invited Maryland and Rutgers to become members, which both schools accepted beginning with the 2014-15 academic year. Like the other 11 institutions outside of Nebraska, both Maryland and Rutgers were members of the AAU and still hold accreditation.
What made the additions of Maryland and Rutgers different was the geographical areas and a focus on expanding the Big Ten brand. The Big Ten went after the Washington D.C. geographic footprint by bringing in the Terrapins. With Rutgers, the Big Ten targeted both the Philadelphia and New York City areas. Both footprints have hosted the Big Ten men’s basketball tournaments in 2017 (Washington, D.C.) and 2018 (New York).
It’s clear the Big Ten put a premium on two aspects: exceptional academics and huge population centers. Those aren’t the only reasons for bringing in the schools but they played a large role. It’s clear that the Big Ten has benefited financially from expansion with an average payout of roughly $54 million per school. The same cannot be said for laggards such as the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12.
So how might the criteria laid out impact the next Big Ten member? Let’s start with asking whether expansion is even necessary.
Does the Big Ten Actually Need to Respond if the SEC Expands?
Honestly… No, the Big Ten doesn’t have to respond to any SEC expansion. For the Big Ten – or any conference – to truly keep up with the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas they would have to add two teams like OU and UT. That means prestige, strong athletics, strong academics, rabid fanbases, and powerful alumni networks. How many teams are out there looking to swap conferences that are similar in stature and profile to Oklahoma and Texas?
One is Notre Dame and even they’re a shaky one at that because they’ve aligned with the ACC despite numerous Big Ten overtures in the past. Furthermore, there’s nothing to suggest Notre Dame is unhappy with the current situation and they seem incredibly hesitant to join a conference in football.
That doesn’t mean teams currently in Power 5 conference such as the ACC or Pac-12 can’t be poached. Nor does it mean that all the teams in the Big Ten are completely happy with recent events (e.g. Nebraska). There’s the issue of paying any exit fee associated with the current contracts in the respective conferences that can (and will) hamper any efforts to extract entrenched schools if they choose that path.
As noted above, the Big Ten and its member schools have done the best in college sports as measured by TV revenue per school. Let’s say we’re wrong and the Big Ten feels the need to keep up with the SEC and try to get even higher revenues. Who might they target?
When you look at a map of AAU members, there are not a lot of obvious schools that fit both the geographic and academic profile sought by the Big Ten. One school that does is Colorado. The location is in Boulder, which is just 25 miles away from Denver a growing urban center that has easy access to a major airport and gives the Big Ten a chance to expand its brand further west.
For Colorado, this makes a lot of sense. The TV revenues from the Big Ten would be substantially higher than the Pac-12 at $54.3 million compared to the latest payout in the Pac-12 at $33.6 million. They would also get to join archrival Nebraska under the Big Ten banner.
The obvious drawback is adding Colorado pales in comparison to what the SEC would add with Oklahoma and Texas. While the Big Ten wouldn’t be able to say “look, we added a powerhouse program rivaling OU or Texas” they would be able to sell that the Boulder + Denver market will draw a lot more eyeballs that advertisers crave. That means higher TV revenues as well.
This isn’t the most ridiculous suggestion but we have to wonder whether Colorado really wants to leave the Pac-12 outside of the financial windfall they would receive in the Big Ten, whether they want to re-join Nebraska, whether Nebraksa would want Colorado in the same division/conference, and how the other schools would feel about traveling all the way to the Denver area for conference games – especially those near the East coast.
Iowa State potentially moving to the Big Ten would be yet another AAU school for the Big Ten. They make sense from a geographic perspective as well given the proximity to Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin. Outside of that, Iowa State has a rather large negative and that is location. Would Iowa want Iowa State in the Big Ten? Does the Big Ten want two teams from Iowa? There’s not a lot to be gained from a media perspective with Iowa already in the fold.
Iowa State’s football program is in the ascendancy. Matt Campbell has the Cyclones close to a conference championship, something that Iowa State hasn’t accomplished in football since 1912. There’s no question that Campbell and ISU would relish the idea of making noise in the history and tradition-rich Big Ten. Basketball would need some rebuilding to be competitive in the Big Ten as they completed a 2-22 campaign for the 2020-21 season and let go of head coach Steve Prohm.
Count Iowa State as another possibility the Big Ten might consider if the conference feels compelled to expand to 16 (or more).
Kansas is a possible option and one that reportedly has some legs. They’re an AAU member and the men’s basketball program has historically been fantastic. From this standpoint, Kansas would be a welcome addition. They would be a geographical fit for Nebraska and the West division as well.
For obvious reasons, we are not looking solely at basketball. Kansas has been horrendous at football for over a decade and hasn’t posted more than 3 wins in a season since the 2009 season. Simply put: Kansas football adds nothing for the Big Ten and it would be like adding a worse version of Rutgers to the West division. At least Rutgers has a bowl game appearance to show for its time in the Big Ten. Kansas also doesn’t provide much in the way of expanding the TV footprint the Big Ten has craved in previous realignment choices though it does bring in the Kansas City market.
Overall, adding Kansas is a mixed bag. What does Kansas provide to the Big Ten that would make it so much more valuable and a stronger brand? Another AAU school, basketball, and a close geographic opponent for Nebraska? That doesn’t really stand up to the OU and Texas comparison. However, it’s tough to tell which way the Big Ten would choose for this hypothetical because Kevin Warren might not be as focused on TV markets as his predecessor. The KU basketball program alone might be enough to persuade the Big Ten leadership despite some of the other institutional drawbacks (i.e. football and its recent string of bad news featuring Les Miles and Jeff Long).
Missouri definitely fits the academic profile that Big Ten wants as they too are an AAU school. As for the geographical footprint? It’s comparable to the Denver area in terms of the population if consider them bringing in St. Louis and Kansas City markets, which makes the Tigers’ overall profile strong. Missouri (and Colorado or Kansas) would bring in another close opponent for Nebraska and the West Division. This would put the Big Ten at 16 schools, which would allow Purdue to move from the West Division to the East Division and join fellow in-state rival Indiana.
Missouri leaving the SEC for the Big Ten would also solve a problem for Oklahoma because it would allow Oklahoma State to tag along into the SEC. That would solve some political backlash in Oklahoma and maintain the 16-team mega-conference. That’s not to say Missouri would be looking to give Oklahoma a helping hand while Mizzou is on the way out but it’s some food for thought.
Why would Missouri leave the SEC especially if the TV deal is expected to increase in revenue over the next 10 or 15 years? That’s a really good question and we don’t have a good answer, which makes this unlikely. Does the leadership at Mizzou hate the idea of playing Oklahoma and Texas so much that they’ll leave some money on the table to get away from them? That’s one of the few conceivable reasons why Missouri would voluntarily leave the SEC for Big Ten.
Missouri to the Big Ten along with Colorado or Kansas actually does make a lot of sense from a geographical perspective. Yet, at the same time, it makes no sense because it seems unlikely that Mizzou would leave the future increases in SEC money and brand behind but this is realignment so anything can happen.
You knew Notre Dame was showing up on this list despite the previous mention of them. The Fighting Irish certainly bring a ton of prestige and would increase the value of the next TV deal. On the flip side, Notre Dame isn’t part of the AAU but the Big Ten would undoubtedly make an exception if it means finally capturing that elusive Fighting Irish brand.
Notre Dame doesn’t provide an additional “big market” in the traditional sense like NYC or DC but the Notre Dame brand is so big and stretches across the entire country well enough that adding them would bring in fans from all over. Again, the Big Ten could live with this “drawback” as well.
Why won’t this happen? It’s Notre Dame. They value being independent in football as noted by their unwillingness to join a conference. Even the 2020 season in the ACC was borne out of necessity rather than the school showing its desire to become a member. That said, it feels like if Notre Dame were pushed into a corner, they would probably choose the ACC at this moment given the conference already is home to most of the school’s other sports. The lone exception being Men’s Hockey, which is a member of the Big Ten.
Of course, realignment is always full of surprises. If something happened to the ACC over the 10 to 15 years that caused Notre Dame to reconsider its allegiance, they could always go back to flirting with the Big Ten. Of all the scenarios presented to this point, Notre Dame to the Big Ten feels the most unlikely.
Unless the Big Ten opts for sheer quantity over quality there aren’t a lot of remaining options. They could raid the ACC for some of its AAU members such as Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, or Virginia but it’s unlikely given the ACC has a TV deal in place through the 2035-36 academic year. Would any of those members try to break free from the ACC this early in the latest TV deal?
The Big Ten could also try a regular-season version of the Rose Bowl by combining forces with the Pac-12. Perhaps taking Arizona, California, Oregon, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and Washington while trying to convince Notre Dame to join is one idea. All seven of those Pac-12 schools are AAU members and provide some strong TV markets. The downside to this though is that the Rose Bowl would become rather meaningless – a fate both conferences would likely want to avoid.
Both of those ideas are incredibly far-fetched and highly unlikely at this time but that shows some of the issues the Big Ten has to contend with if they will not or cannot find schools willing to leave their current conference.
If Oklahoma and Texas joined the SEC, then the Big Ten would be at a crossroads. Their history of adding new schools centers around high academic standards as an AAU member and a large enough TV footprint to grow the Big Ten brand. That doesn’t leave many choices for them to find new members unless they start prying teams out of other conferences or decide to use different criteria in this round of realignment.
While the whole point of realignment is just that – to acquire new teams from other conferences – there aren’t a lot of logical candidates who meet the Big Ten’s criteria even among the other Power 5 conferences. The Big Ten will want to ensure any school will be value-added and not simply matching the SEC in expanding numbers. However, the criteria we are basing this article on may not be as stringently followed by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren with the exception of the AAU membership in nearly every case.
On one hand, the Big Ten doesn’t have to respond to any SEC expansion. They’ve done very well from a TV revenue standpoint with the 14 teams currently in the conference even if it hasn’t always been the smoothest sailing. They still have the highest TV revenue per school of any conference and they would likely slide to second best if the SEC brought in OU and UT. On the other hand, this could be the opportunity to further expand the Big Ten brand and footprint to markets once thought unlikely, if not impossible. If the goal is to remain the best, the Big Ten may feel they have no other alternative.
Photo Courtesy Kansas Athletics