Targets for Big Ten Expansion

With the reports indicating that Texas and Oklahoma’s addition to the SEC is imminent, it is time for the Big Ten to get going on its own expansion efforts. Currently the highest grossing conference in terms of revenue (about $770 million in 2020), the Big Ten would likely need need to expand to sixteen teams as well, building their own superconference.

So, who could the Big Ten add? First off, the Big Ten is a bit stricter on who would be eligible for admittance, as they have a higher academic threshold that they require. The baseline for this is whether or not a school is currently in the Association of American Universities (AAU). Every Big Ten school except Nebraska is currently an AAU member, and even the Cornhuskers were prior to their entrance into the Big Ten (they merely lost their membership the year after they entered). Unfortunately, this takes some promising teams, such as the highly-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats, off the table in a realistic look.

Here’s the top ten programs that the Big Ten should consider adding:

10.) Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa)

Iowa State Football: Why Cyclones aren't a national title contender
Iowa State has seen a resurgence of their football program, led by head coach Matt Campbell (left) and quarterback Brock Purdy (right).

The Cyclones, located in Ames, Iowa, would be a very smooth fit for the Big Ten. Geographically, they are situated in established Big Ten territory and share a historical rivalry with Big Ten member Iowa. As an AAU member themselves, the Cyclones also meet the Big Ten’s academic threshold.

The issues for the Cyclones, however, are they they hardly move the needle for the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes are the premier program in the state, and adding Ames into the fold does not really expand the Big Ten’s market footprint, meaning there’d be little financial benefit to this move. Additionally, the Cyclones are not a historically great program by any means. In football, they are a historic bottom-feeder, with their last conference title coming in 1912. Matt Campbell has certainly restored excitement to the Cyclones program, but it seems unlikely that success will turn the program around long-term, as Campbell seems like a good bet to get hired away by a bigger school down the road.

Short to say, Iowa State is a natural addition, and a very easy one if the Big 12 does ultimately collapse. But the issue remains that the school offers almost nothing the Big Ten does not already possess, leaving it in a very tough position.

9.) Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee)

Vandy beats Michigan to win College World Series

Vanderbilt is definitely a bottom-feeder in regards to SEC football, and not exactly a power in basketball either. If they feel uncomfortable being pushed even further down the totem pole with the additions of Texas and Oklahoma, they could consider a move out of the conference. The biggest reason for the Big Ten to come hunting for Vanderbilt, however, is baseball, where the Commodores are one of the premier baseball schools in the country.

The issue with Vanderbilt joining, however, is also its biggest strength, baseball. For a baseball powerhouse, joining a Northern conference like the Big Ten would be quite the odd move, as the favorable weather down South allows Vanderbilt to take advantage of almost year-round outdoor practice ability. The Big Ten members, do not get such an advantage, and due to this, have consistently been second-tier programs relative to Southern schools. Vanderbilt may find itself in a bit better situation in football and basketball, but would certainly harm its baseball prospects by changing conferences. It would be a fun expansion move for the Big Ten to get into the South, but seems quite impractical from Vanderbilt’s end.

8.) Virginia Tech University (Blacksburg, Virginia)

Virginia Tech's ACC Network Takeover set for Friday - Virginia Tech  Athletics

The Hokies represent a pretty well-rounded option, but with a couple of caveats that could make it a less-than-ideal fit in some regards.

Starting with the good, VaTech has a decent amount of historic success in football, including a strong run of conference championships under legendary head coach Frank Beamer in the 2000s. And on the basketball court, the Hokies have seen an uptick in performance recently, making the NCAA tournament in four of the last five seasons.

The issues here are a relative lack of expanded market access for the Big Ten. Blacksburg is located in the beautiful Appalachian Mountains, but that area does not offer much financial draw for the Big Ten. The other issue, however, is that Virginia Tech is not actually a member of the AAU, despite being a well-regarded academic institution. The Big Ten currently contains a non-AAU member in Nebraska, but the Huskers were even members prior to their admission to the conference, and only since lost their membership. The Big Ten would have to make an exemption to its rule to welcome Virginia Tech.

7.) University of Missouri (Columbia, Missouri)

Missouri Tigers: CFN College Football Preview 2021
The Missouri Tigers had previous interest in joining the Big Ten, so perhaps a call to see if that interest still remains should be in play?

The news of Texas and Oklahoma potentially moving into the SEC was not well-received by all. Notably, some of the SEC’s recent additions from the Big 12 are reportedly not enthusiastic about the news. Both Texas A&M and Missouri left the conference largely to escape Texas and Oklahoma, and now find themselves in the awkward position of being on their welcome committee should the move be finalized. If the Tigers are not thrilled about it, the Big Ten should certainly engage them about moving into the Midwest’s top conference, something Missouri originally desired prior to joining the SEC.

Back in the early 2010s, Missouri originally wanted to be in the Big Ten, but was unable to land an invitation there after the Big Ten added their rivals, Nebraska, to its ranks. Wanting to stay at an even number of schools (12), the Big Ten choose not to extend an invite, leading Missouri to go with their fall-back option, the SEC.

Should Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, however, Missouri could be tempted to reignite their interest in the Big Ten, as its AAU membership and attractive television market in St. Louis would certainly be a desirable addition to the Big Ten ranks. While it’s not elite in any major facet, Missouri serves an all-around decent option for the Big Ten to look at.

6.) University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas)

Kansas Basketball: 2020-2021 season in jeopardy due to COVID-19 pandemic

Rock Chalk! Kansas has already begun the early stages of reaching out to the Big Ten, not wanting to be left behind in the wake of the Big 12’s impending collapse. The primary attractive of Kansas is certainly its basketball program, which is a traditional blue blood powerhouse. Their football program is historically very mediocre, and unlikely to be any major addition of sorts.

Located in Lawrence, Kansas is just on the other side of Kansas City, the nation’s 32nd ranked media market by size, making it a relatively attractive option. Like some of the other names coming up, the Jayhawks could further the Big Ten’s case as the top college basketball conference around, as their historic success there would certainly add some intrigue to that sport.

5.) University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

Opponent Breakdown: Pitt Panthers Offense - Card Chronicle
The Panthers would restore a historic rivalry with Penn State to the Big Ten’s schedule if added.

There were rumors recently that Big Ten powerhouse Penn State could be eyeing an exit themselves, with some rumors that the Nittany Lions would be very intrigued by the ACC should Notre Dame go ahead and formally join the conference. If the Big Ten feels that Penn State needs some further incentive to stay, they could look at adding their in-state rivals, Pitt, in order to solidify Penn State’s membership in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions were once a college football powerhouse, claiming a run of national titles in the 1930s. They’ve since faded off, but still remain a solid program, with an average season of about 8-5 under head coach Pat Narduzzi.

And while the Big Ten does hold Pennsylvania’s top revenue grossing program in Penn State, they certainly could be enticed to shore up the state’s second largest revenue generator, especially if they are worried about Penn State getting cold feet themselves.

4.) Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)

Duke Lands Another Top College Basketball Transfer
The Blue Devils are a true blue blood of college basketball, and would certainly bring some excitement to the court.

The Blue Devils raise similar advantages as the Kansas Jayhawks would, the difference here is a more Southern expansion of the media footprint, and a more competent football program. Head coach David Cutcliffe, known for his work with Peyton Manning at Tennessee, has at least maintained the Blue Devils as a slightly below .500 program, quite the contrast from their mediocre history. The real reason to get excited about the potential of Duke, however, is due to their basketball program, arguably the most notable in the college basketball ranks.

The Blue Devils basketball program proudly five national championships under current head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and would certainly solidify the Big Ten as the nation’s premier basketball conference, boasting a strong collection of then-Duke, Indiana, Michigan and Michigan State, and Ohio State as well. Duke would certainly be worth consideration for the Big Ten in the next wake of expansion, even if the football team isn’t going to move the needle.

3.) University of Virginia (Charlottesville, Virginia)

This NCAA tournament best bets will help to decide which games to wager
The Cavaliers boast the most recent championship, winning the NCAA tournament in 2019.

Virginia represents a very strong possibility for the Big Ten to target, a very well balanced program with good football and basketball programs. Basketball, specifically, won it all just a few seasons ago, and the football program has been improving steadily under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.

Academically qualifying, Virginia also brings a very strong financial background, generating the fourth-highest level of revenues in the ACC in 2020. Add in some new markets in Virginia, specifically Richmond, and the Cavaliers certainly make plenty of sense, especially with the Big Ten’s recent push to expand its East Coast presence.

2.) University of Colorado (Boulder, Colorado)

Sefo Liufau - Football - University of Colorado Athletics

There may be a degree of personal bias to this one, as I currently am out in Denver, Colorado, just an hour away from the Buffs’ home stadium, but Colorado would be a dream addition for the Big Ten to target. The Buffs themselves are a relatively solid athletic program, winning a national championship back in 1990, and being a fairly competitive program within both the Big 12 and Pac-12 over the years. Even more, their basketball program is also a competent group, with a .620 winning percentage recently under head coach Tad Boyle and a handful of NCAA tournament appearances recently. And as another strong academic institution and AAU member, the University of Colorado certainly fits that criteria.

The biggest draw, however, would be the financial implications the Big Ten could make happen through this move. Denver, Colorado is currently the 15th largest media market in the United States, and a fast-growing city itself. With plenty of Midwestern transplants, such as myself, there would be plenty of demand to go to see schools like Ohio State and Michigan playing out here in Boulder. Westward expansion would put the Big Ten in three time zones, which could be a hiccup to it happening, but from a financial perspective, almost no school on this list would improve the Big Ten’s standings as much as Colorado’s addition would.

1.) University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, North Carolina)

NCAA Tournament final: Gonzaga vs. North Carolina
The Tar Heels most recently won the national championship in basketball in 2017 and are tied third all-time for championships in the sport.

The top choice, realistically, for the Big Ten would quite the coup, swiping the North Carolina Tar Heels away from the ACC conference. Much like Duke and Kansas, the Tar Heels are a historic blue blood power in the college basketball landscape, but unlike the other two, they also boast a consistent, talented football program as well. Currently led by head coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels are currently a team on the rise in the ACC, with an electrifying offense led by QB Sam Howell, and more importantly for its long-term outlooks, one of the nation’s top recruiting classes (14th in the 2021 class, and currently 22nd in the 2022 class).

Another AAU member, the Tar Heels also profile as the type of excellent academic institution the Big Ten would demand, and give it a very unique footprint down South in North Carolina. In terms of geographic expansion, talent on the basketball court and on the football field, the Tar Heels are about as close to a perfect package as the Big Ten could hope to find in this upcoming wave of expansion rumors.

The two other schools to mention, that arguably are more attractive options would be Notre Dame and Texas A&M, though both schools seem highly improbable. Notre Dame has long been a rumored target of the Big Ten’s, but the school itself has instead sought out a strong connection with the ACC, indicating its desire to play elsewhere when it eventually does join a conference. Texas A&M may not want to share a conference with Texas (one reason they originally left the Big 12), but it simply seems unlikely that a true Southern school like A&M would now leave the SEC for a Northern conference.

Should the Big Ten be on the hunt to expand and add to their ranks, my advice is to start by hunting around some more profitable additions such as North Carolina or Colorado before turning their attention to the Big 12’s leftovers.

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