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Monday, September 19, 2011

Notre Dame and the Big Ten: Closer Than Ever Before

So, expansion has managed to muddy the college athletics landscape for a second consecutive year, and us midwesterners are left wondering what is to happen, if anything, to our beloved Big Ten?

For starters, the B1G need not worry about losing any member institutions. While other conferences such as the Big 12 and Big East appear to be losing not only members, but founding schools, the Big Ten added one, Nebraska, just last year. As the SEC appears to be going to 13 (most likely at least 14) soon, the new Pac-12 could become the newer Pac-16, and the ACC has already jumped to 14 with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse, it's time to discuss potential Big Ten targets once again.

Jim Delany's #1 target since the beginning of time has been, and will always be, Notre Dame. Laugh all you want, but the Big East falling to pieces may just be the catalyst Delany's been looking for to force ND AD Jack Swarbrick back to the conference bargaining table. The Irish were more than content to stay independent in football, while their other sports remained affiliated with the Big East, an arrangement that's been taking place since 1995. You really couldn't blame them, particularly since the Big East emerged just a few seasons ago as many analysts pick as the best men's basketball conference around, giving Notre Dame's second highest grossing sports team an outstanding platform from which to play.

Now, however, the grass doesn't seem so green. The exit of Pitt and Syracuse, two of the Big East's heavy hitters, could very well cause the conference to lose its BCS affiliation. The BCS isn't directly related to basketball, but, as everyone knows, football is king. The Big East would certainly take a substantial national reputation hit if it lost the tie-in, and that would trickle down to basketball. Additionally, Pitt and 'Cuse are pretty high-profile programs, and their defection, along with that of UConn if it happens, takes the Big East talent pool down a peg, one that Baylor and Iowa State can't patch.

If Notre Dame accepts an invite to join, I would have to believe Missouri is the go-to as a 14th. The speculation early in the summer of last year was that Mizzou would get the invite that wound up going to Nebraska as the B1G 12th member. Jim Delany's made it no secret that the conference enjoys having AAU members (although Nebraska just recently lost their status as a member), and Missouri's academic profile seems to align nicely. Add to that their geographic location, two new TV markets (KC and St. Louis), and a natural rivalry with Illinois (who is already an out-of-conference rival) and you've got a recipe for an invite. The SEC is supposedly also interested in the Tigers, and I believe their conference affiliation will go to whomever offers them first.

Texas has been batted around in the media, but geography and the Longhorn Network, even though they may be obstacles that could be overcome, present issues that I think the Big Ten would rather not deal with. Rutgers would also be considered, strictly for their ties to the New York/New Jersey market. I know there's a lot of eyes in that part of the country that the B1G would love to capture, but, really, they don't give a crap about college football. Rutgers is supposedly the "birthplace," and averages over 46,000 per home game, but those numbers are hardly to the level of an institution the Big Ten would be looking to add.

We'd all love to believe that Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and the rest are entirely loyal, and would never leave simply because of the tradition and excellence that's been established during the over one-hundred year existence of the conference. However, if the B1G does wind up having money issues years down the line, something that seems entirely possible given the current population shifts, it shouldn't be a shock to anyone to see eyes wander.

It's the eyes of others that are wandering now though, and Irish eyes may soon be smiling on the Big Ten.