Bring it on! That was my initial reaction to the news that the Big Ten Conference is seeking expansion. And it’s still my reaction as I learn that the Big 12 and Pac-10 conferences are also seeking to collaborate in perhaps an alliance or merger.
Talk about expansion to 14 or 16 teams is welcome news. It gives the Big Ten an opportunity to have two divisions, and likely a Big Ten championship game, that would close the gap with the SEC and the Big 12 on rankings and competitiveness in bowl games. As the landscape of college football changes and conferences get bigger, there may also be opportunities to play more competitive non-conference teams, although I think it’s too soon to know that for sure. It depends on how the landscape gets reshaped. So which teams do I think are realistic invitations for the conference? Here’s my list, and some research and thoughts about each:
Missouri – seems a good match. A large public research university recognized as one of the 62 leading research institutions by the AAU (Association of American Universities) with an enrollment of 28,477, so it fits academically, philosophically, and student body-wise with the large Big Ten schools. The football team is often quite competitive, although it has had its ups and downs. It ranked 4th in the AP Poll in 2007, 19th in 2008. It has been bowl-bound over the last 5 years. Plus, it would be fun. My husband Terry actually lived in St. Louis for a while (before I met him) and was a Missouri fan while there. The first Penn State game he saw was Missouri vs. Penn State in the Orange Bowl on January 1, 1970. He was very upset when Penn State beat Missouri 10-3. From a travel point of view, St. Louis is a great city, and close enough to Columbia, Missouri that we could enjoy a weekend there.
Nebraska – also seems a good match with the Big Ten, also an AAU public research university. It’s smaller than most other Big Ten schools– an enrollment of 18,000 undergraduates. Their athletics programs are solid. With winning seasons and bowl eligibility in 8 of the last 10 seasons, they are very competitive as a consistent Top 25 team and would be an excellent addition to the Big Ten. Penn State has enough of a history with Nebraska that it would always be a good rivalry. We have played them 13 times, winning 7 and losing 6, about as competitive as football can be. Omaha is a fun city to visit, close enough to Lincoln you can enjoy it. From a personal perspective, our good friends Deb and Greg Schraeder live in Omaha. Deb is a devout Iowa fan. Greg is a passionate Penn State fan. They are surrounded every day by Husker fans. So adding this rivalry will make it even more fun. When we did a series in 2002-2003 we hosted Nebraska fans at our tailgate here. They returned the favor when we visited Lincoln the following year. Nebraska fans pride themselves on being the friendliest fans on the planet (although Greg and Deb might beg to differ). We did find them to be a delightful bunch – and it’s an awesome football atmosphere in Lincoln. I just wish that they would renovate their stadium – some of the seats that were sold to Penn State fans weren’t even really seats!
Notre Dame – Notre Dame, with 8,363 undergraduates enrolled (similar to the size of Northwestern), and its standing as a nationally-renowned private Catholic university, has already had its Board of Trustees vote that it does not wish to join the Big Ten, due to its desire to remain independent. It was not so much a football decision, but rather an “identity” decision that considered its unique history and prestige as a national university brand. Whether or not Notre Dame will change its mind for the sake of athletics, given talks of mega-conferences that could threaten their ability to be successful revenue-wise as a major football program, remains to be seen. Since the Big Ten has been rebuffed in the past, will it even extend an invitation? Yes, I think so…Notre Dame’s football tradition is just too attractive to pass up, and Notre Dame also has a long history of playing a number of Big Ten teams, including Penn State. From a fan perspective of traveling to South Bend to a game, as exciting as the Notre Dame atmosphere is, it’s the toughest ticket we’ve encountered in all of college football. When we played Notre Dame in South Bend in 2006, 850 Nittany Lion Club points were required to order away game seats through Penn State. That’s 200 points HIGHER than this year’s Alabama game. We have played Notre Dame 19 times, and the series is tied at 9-9-1. What could be more competitive and attractive than that?
Pittsburgh – started as a private university, but in 1966 affiliated with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a state-related institution. Has an undergraduate enrollment of 16,000. It is also an AAU-recognized research institution. So all those suggest a decent fit with Big Ten schools, although perhaps not as strong a fit as with Rutgers (see next entry) from a size point of view. In the last ten years Pitt has fielded winning football teams 7 times, achieving an AP rank of #17 in 2009. So it is also competitive in football. Not that it matters to Penn State fans. There is a large group of Penn State fans who are vehement about bringing back the long-standing Penn State-Pitt rivalry to achieve bragging rights in Pennsylvania. And when Penn State plays Pitt, you can throw out the record books. The series dates back to 1893 with Penn State winning 50 times, Pitt winning 42 times, and four ties that left no fans satisfied. We haven’t played Pitt since the year 2000, but the loss of that rivalry cuts deep into the emotions of Penn State fans. It is brought up time and time again that Pitt has been irreplaceable on our schedule, including today in a Centre Daily Times sports column by Walt Moody. I have gone on record (and so has Terry) as saying that I could care less if we ever play Pitt again. Going to Pitt games was always a bad experience for me. Treated very poorly by the fans, some bad behavior in the stands. It’s an element of intense rivalry that disgusts me: the hatred for someone who wears blue and white or blue and gold because of their team spirit. And I don’t miss it. But with Big Ten expansion, I’ve become a convert to adding Pitt to the mix. First, it would be good to have another Big Ten team within driving distance. Second, Heinz Field might be an entirely different atmosphere than Pitt Stadium was. Third, I am sympathetic to the desire for Pennsylvania bragging rights as well as the longstanding tradition of this rivalry. Fourth, Pittsburgh is a fine city, and it would be an excuse to visit more often. And finally, adding Pittsburgh to the Big Ten for basketball would be awesome! Although we do play them now in our non-conference schedule, it would be even better if they were part of the conference.
Rutgers – as the State University of New Jersey, Rutgers is a large public AAU-recognized research university with an undergraduate enrollment of 40,500. Adding Rutgers might be a great boost for the New York – New Jersey market for Big Ten recruiting and TV coverage. It has an alumni base of 380,000. Rutgers Stadium has a capacity of 52,454, and has undergone two major renovations between 1994 and 2010. We’ve never been there, although I doubt we will in the future. Every time we played Rutgers in New Jersey (since Terry and I have been attending games) we played at Giants Stadium to accommodate the large demand for tickets. In fact, the last time Penn State played at Rutgers Stadium was in 1955. In terms of Penn State’s series with Rutgers, we played them 24 times between 1918-1995, with most games occurring in a H-H-A (Giants Stadium) schedule between 1977 and 1995. Of those 24 contests, Penn State won 22 of them. Rutgers won twice – in 1918 and 1988. Rutgers has not been the most competitive team, but under the leadership of Coach Greg Schiano, Rutgers is beginning to see better years. In 2006, Rutgers achieved a #12 AP ranking with an 11-2 record. Coach Schiano was named National Coach of the Year. From a personal perspective, adding Rutgers to the Big Ten schedule would be a great excuse to visit New York or New Jersey for a weekend, and we wouldn’t have to get on a plane, which would be welcome. Bragging rights over our eastern border state New Jersey would be fun as well. Will they be competitive in the Big Ten? That’s hard to tell, but I think it would be a boost to Rutgers in the lucrative New Jersey football market if they joined the Big Ten. From a women’s basketball perspective, adding Rutgers to our schedule would be outstanding. We have a great deal of respect for Coach Vivian Stringer.
Syracuse –A private university with strong academics, Syracuse, with 13,040 undergraduates and an alumni base of 235,512, might also be attractive to the Big Ten due to its draw in the New York market. Plus Syracuse is also AAU-recognized as a prestigious research institution. However, Syracuse has lost a lot of ground as a competitive football team. It hasn’t had a winning season since 2001. In 2009 its record was 5 wins, 7 losses. The Carrier Dome is not the most awesome football facility. Hot and steamy without air-conditioning, ironic given the company it was named after. But Syracuse might be an attractive addition to Big Ten basketball. Syracuse is also another traditional rival from Penn State’s independent days. The first PSU-Syracuse game was played in 1922. Syracuse was a consistent home-and-home rival until 1990. Of the 68 games we played, Penn State won 40, Syracuse won 22, and there were 5 ties. After a long hiatus, we recently played a two-game series with Syracuse in 2008 and 2009, winning both games resoundingly. Will Syracuse be competitive enough to join the Big Ten? That’s a big question mark when it comes to football. If they do join, Syracuse has more to gain than to lose. It should help them recruit a more competitive team. But I’m not at all sure what it does for the Big Ten.
So here’s my vote: Missouri, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh if we expand to 14 teams. If we expand to 16 teams, then I would add Nebraska and either Syracuse or Rutgers, with Rutgers being a slight favorite in my mind due to its status as a large public university and some recent success as a competitive team. I haven’t even discussed Texas or Connecticut. But I don’t think Texas is realistic, and from a football point of view, Connecticut isn’t there yet, although adding them in basketball would be more than awesome!
What are your thoughts? Did I miss a contender that you think would be a good match? What are your votes for Top 3 or Top 5?