In the second season after Nebraska turned the Big Ten into a 12-team league, it had appeared that the conference would be one of the few bastions of stability among the shifting winds of college sports realignment. Now, however, it appears the question of Big Ten expansion has been reopened.
ESPN reports that the Big Ten is in serious talks with both Maryland (a founding member of the ACC) and Rutgers (ditto for the Big East as far as football is concerned) about joining the league. The putative 14-team conference would then have its first foothold on the Atlantic coast to go with its traditional Midwestern power base.
Assessed purely as a financial decision (admittedly the primary driving force of the entire realignment maelstrom), the addition of both schools makes some sense. Maryland offers access to Washington, D.C. as a television market, while Rutgers does the same for New York City, and a bigger conference will inevitably have more bargaining power for TV contracts in any case.
From a fan’s perspective, however, there’s not much good to be said for the move, particularly where football is concerned. Tradition matters in the Big Ten (enough so to prompt the somewhat overwrought naming of the Legends division), and adding two inconsistent football programs that hail from so far outside the league’s geographic wheelhouse can only work against that tradition.
From the perspective of the league’s current dozen schools, adding Maryland and Rutgers (a combined total of one BCS bowl appearance all-time) does little other than dilute the talent base and make a strong conference record less meaningful. Some programs (especially Penn State) may benefit from a recruiting foothold on the East Coast, but there will be just as many whose bread-and-butter Midwestern recruits will be less than thrilled about a November road trip to New Brunswick, NJ.
The outlook is even bleaker where the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights are concerned. Neither program has recruiting ties to the Midwest, and neither is likely to compete with the Big Ten powers on anything resembling a regular basis.
Rutgers, of course, happens to be having one of the best seasons in its history, but its 9-1 record has to be taken with a grain of salt given the iffy competition it has faced. Conference games against Michigan or Ohio State would be a very different challenge from facing UConn or South Florida.
Of course, if the fiscal realities support expansion, none of the other considerations will carry much weight, but it’s still a regrettable scenario where football is concerned. In order to survive economically, the Big Ten may have no choice but to sell its gridiron soul.