Speculation has been borderline entertaining as pundits and fans alike try to guess which schools will join the Big Ten as the venerable conference reluctantly lurches its way toward expansion.
Will Notre Dame finally decide to surrender its football independence? Why hasn’t the Big 12 administration put up a bigger fight to keep its conference alive? Should the Big Ten simply swallow up the entire Big East and make one huge superconference that stretches from the Midwest to New England to the Florida Gulf Coast?
To be brutally honest, I don’t much care what happens. I realize that the Big Ten I have known for practically my entire life is disappearing and I’m not very happy about it.
Say all you want about how Big Ten football has been irrelevant for years because it is a dinosaur of a conference. I can’t argue that conference teams have won exactly one of the 12 national championship games played under the present Bowl Championship Series format. Likewise, there is no denying the SEC’s four consecutive national titles and six overall represent a dynasty of sorts that is the envy of every other conference.
But how has the SEC achieved its current level of success? Apparently by good old-fashioned hard work. Their recruiters recruit better, their coaches coach better and their players play better than anyone else in the nation. They didn’t achieve success by raiding other conferences of their best schools, a methodology most recently employed in 2004 by the Atlantic Coast Conference. So far, the reconstituted ACC is still looking for its first BCS championship – in fact no ACC team has even made the title game since Florida State lost to Oklahoma following the 2000 regular season.
I concede an expanded Big Ten will generate more publicity for the conference, but how much more publicity does it really need?
Last season, the conference established a new record for overall football attendance with more than 5.5 million fans showing up for 77 home games throughout the league. Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State ranked first, second and third, respectively, in the nation in average attendance and six Big Ten teams ranked among the nation’s top 21 schools in average home crowds.
On television, the conference also produced impressive numbers. Four of the seven highest-rated bowls featured Big Ten teams, including Ohio State’s trip to the Rose Bowl which earned a rating second only to the national championship game between Alabama and Texas.
Moreover, ratings for Big Ten Network’s national football telecasts increased dramatically as the network reached its way into more and more homes. The average for the BTN’s Saturday afternoon telecasts improved by 28 percent from 2008, while the average ratings for the network’s eight primetime games increased by a whopping 183 percent.
Additionally, despite what the national pundits might have the rest of the country believe, the Big Ten proved to be extremely successful on the field. It led all conferences with three teams among the top 10 and four teams ranked in the top 16 and in both the final Associated Press writers’ and USA Today coaches’ polls. Also, two Big Ten schools were selected for BCS games for the ninth time in the 12-year history of the system and the seventh time in the last eight seasons. Since the inception of the BCS in 1998, the Big Ten has qualified 21 teams for BCS bowls, more than any other conference. The SEC ranks second with 19 followed by the Big 12 with 17.
With attendance records, lofty television ratings and more BCS appearances than any other conference, how much better would any other single school or combination of schools make the Big Ten?
The simple answer: Not much.
In the end, it’s going to come down to money of course. These days, it always comes down to money. The problem is that additional revenue won’t make the product significantly better. In fact, Big Ten expansion may just trample on the very thing that makes the conference so great.
Expansion means splitting the member schools into divisions eventually leading to a conference championship game. It also means that one day very soon the Ohio State-Michigan game will cease to be The Game. It will be reduced to just another game on the way to the Big Ten championship game with the ultimate prize being a trip to the national championship contest.
Rendering The Game to just another game is a concept I’m not sure I will ever be able to get my head around. Tradition is what makes college football so great and what makes the OSU-Michigan rivalry the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
Take that away – for whatever reason – and what do you have? I’d rather not even think about it.