Musical Chairs

In December, the Big Ten issued a statement that it was looking to expand to twelve teams, with an announced timetable of 12-to-18 months.  The release sparked a flurry of speculation: Would Notre Dame finally give in and join? Was Missouri the next best choice?

Then it really got interesting. What about Pittsburgh? Syracuse? Rutgers? Iowa State? Nebraska? Texas? Texas?

Then, this past week, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott added lighter fluid to the smoldering embers of expansion debate, stating that the Pac-10, unchanged for 33 years, was “seriously considering” expansion. “It’s really over the next six-to-12 months that we’ll start having serious analysis and serious evaluations,” said Scott. “To me, the logic if the Pac-10 is going to think about expanding, now is our window. While there have been “no serious discussions” with any schools, that did not stop the internet from churning out numerous stories.

Who will join the Big Ten?

While expansion of the Pac-10 is not necessarily tied to the expansion of the Big Ten, the team which the Big Ten adopts may have an impact on the candidates for the new Pac-12.

Notre Dame has always been the favorite to become the 12th member of the “Big Ten”, but the Irish are making too much money as an independent. Not gonna happen.

With Notre Dame out of the picture, Missouri has been the team most often mentioned as a candidate for joining the Big Ten. The Tigers bring certain advantages to the table. First, there is the No. 21 television market, as Kansas City and St. Louis become Big Ten markets. Second, Missouri is a natural geographic fit, bordering Illinois and Iowa, and the Tigers already enjoy a rivalry with the Illini. If not Notre Dame, most Big Ten fans would understand the logic of bringing in the Tigers.

Still, a number of other teams have been mentioned. Pittsburgh would be able to renew its rivalry with Penn State if they joined, but the Panthers would not bring much new to the conference in the way of televisioin viewers. Syracuse or Rutgers would bring in the much coveted New York market, but neither bring the style points to make the splash the Big Ten is looking for in the annoucement of a new member.

Then, there is Texas.

Yes, Texas.

The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World quotes a “source with ties to the Big Ten” that the Big Ten has engaged in “preliminary exchanges” between the Big Ten and Texas. There are obvious geographic and travel concerns, but they would be more than offset by the boatloads of money such a megadeal would create. Still, existing rivalries might win out in this battle. It is almost inconceivable that Texas and its fans would want to give up rivalry games with either Oklahoma or Texas A&M. That being the case, Texas, which likes to play set up games against North Texas, UTEP and Rice in its non-conference schedule, would now have two very tough non-conference games each season. [I have also seen it reported that the Big Ten has a bylaw that members must be in contiguous states, eliminating Texas from consideration. I haven’t been able to verify this, however. If anyone can find a link for me on this, let me know].

What about Nebraska?

 The Cornhuskers would be, in some sense, a more logical fit than Texas. Nebraska has better geographic ties, and the mid-western ethic of Lincoln would fit well with most of the schools in the Big Ten. Still, there are some realities which even Nebraska fans would have to face. I’ll leave it to Steven M. Sipple from HuskerExtra.com to state it, so it won’t sound like Buff bias. “Nebraska all the while needs to understand its place in the world,” writes Sipple. “Yes, dear old NU is loaded with tradition and prestige in athletics. But it fails to bring a huge TV market. And, let’s face it, both the Big Ten and Pac-10 tend to look down their noses at NU in terms of academics”.

So, if Missouri is a good choice for the Big Ten …

What teams are in the running to join the new Pac-12?

Colorado is often mentioned as one of the primary candidates to join an expanded Pac-12, and is discussed at some length elsewhere on the website, so we’ll concentrate on the other schools being mentioned …

Utah is the other school most often tied to Colorado as a potential new member of the Pac-12. The Utes would bring the No. 31 television market to the conference, and Utah has certainly been competitive on the gridiron in recent years. The downsides? First, if Utah is invited to join, and rival BYU is not, there is no telling how the politics of such a move would play in the Beehive state. In 1994, then Texas governor Ann Richards, a Baylor Bear alumna, forced the new Big 12 to take Baylor along with Texas, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M. Could similar politics keep Utah out of the Pac-12?

What about BYU and Utah? There would be a certain amount of continuity in bringing in both of the in-state rivals, as the pairing would fit well with the existing Pac-10 structure. However, the Cougars bring with them their own set of challenges. BYU has a similar of history of success in football as Utah, but BYU’s refusal to play games on Sundays is a definite hindrance. The Pac-10 plays a network television basketball game every Sunday, and that is likely to continue. The other major issue with a BYU/Utah pairing … money. If the Pac-10 is going to expand, there is nothing to gain from taking two schools from the same television market.

Boise State. The Broncos are an internet favorite, but are an unlikely choice. Boise State certainly is competitive in football, but the Pac-10 presidents will be looking for a school with a strong academic research background, and Boise State is not likely to make that cut. (If Utah and/or BYU are invited to join the Pac-10, though, look for Boise State to quickly take action to bolt the WAC and join the Mountain West Conference).

San Diego State. The Aztecs have tried for decades to join the Pac-10, and there is some logic to the argument. Want a television market? San Diego checks in at No. 28. There would be also be continuity with the traditions of the conference, and little added in the way of travel expense. The problems with the Aztecs are on the field (other than a run with Marshall Faulk in the mid-90’s, San Diego State has little in the way of football history), and off the field (not exactly noted as a strong academic institution).

Fresno State/San Jose State. See San Diego State – minus the television market benefit.

UNLV. Want to make a splash, Pac-10? Invite the Rebels. UNLV does not have much of a football history, but the Runnin’ Rebels do have a history of basketball success. Still, the television market would not bring much in the way of new viewers, as southern Nevada is largely Pac-10 country already. Plus, there is the issue of Pac-10 schools sending their students to a gambling mecca. If academic excellence is to be a major selling point for Pac-10 presidents, it would be hard to spin adding UNLV as a being a positive move.

Nevada. Better in football than UNLV, but does not bring the panache of the Rebels. There would also be the issue of Nevada not bringing little to the party in the way of new television viewers.

New Mexico. Not as far a stretch as you might think. The Lobos are not great – but improving – on the football field, and the athletic department overall is on solid footing (28th in the Learfield Sport Cup – formerly Sears Cup – standings). The additional viewers in the Southwest would be a plus, but New Mexico’s lack of history of success in football will probably end the Lobos’ chances.

Out Bets … Wyoming, Colorado State, Gonzaga, Air Force. The Mountain West candidates just don’t bring the history of football success, or national followings. Plus, other than Air Force, there would be the issue of academic standards. As to Gonzaga – great in basketball; nothing to offer in football.

One last thought …

What about the Pac-10 taking both Colorado … and Nebraska? If Missouri leaves the Big 12 for the Big Ten, and Colorado leaves the Big 12 for the Pac-10, Nebraska may be the biggest loser. The Big 12 North would be gutted, with the Big 12 perhaps looking to TCU, SMU, Houston or other southwest schools to join the Big 12. This might give Oklahoma back to the Cornhuskers as a Thanksgiving day rival (with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State perhaps being forced into the Big 12 North), but the balance of power would certainly be shifted south in the conference. Texas would be the clear leader of the conference, something Nebraska fans would hate.

At the same time, if Texas were to be the team leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten, then all bets would be off. If this scenario played out, Nebraska would definitely benefit from new conference partners.

The benefits to Colorado and Nebraska walking hand-in-hand down the Pac 12 aisle? Colorado and Nebraska would bring a “natural rivalry” pairing to the Pac-12. Colorado and Nebraska would also benefit from the recruiting of California which membership in the Pac-12 would bring. Nebraska also travels well, which would be popular with merchants in Seattle and Los Angeles.

True, it’s a long way from Lincoln to San Francisco, but geography matters much less  in collegiate athletics than it used to: St. Louis University is a member of the Atlantic 10; Boston College and Miami play in the ACC; while South Florida and Marquette (Wisc.) travel to play each other in the Big East.

It’s all about the money. Love of dollars fuels college football. Conference musical chairs is the current name of the game.

Hopefully, Colorado will find a chair at the Pac-12 table when the music stops.

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