Sure, I'd love to play a game of Hypothetical Big Ten Expansion Scenario*

*A long-time favorite parlour game of Big Ten fans, soon to be re-released as "Actual Big Ten Expansion Scenario." (Mid-drafting update: maybe not quite so soon.)

(Note: See LVS's post for a compilation of must-read blog posts and to discuss the topic of conference expansion generally.)

So don't hate me, but I think I'm actually starting to like the idea of a 16-team Big Ten.  (They'd definitely need to abandon the false pretense of the current conference name, by the way.  A 60% differential between the nominal number of teams in the league and actual number is a bridge too far.  Just go with "Big Sixteen" and be done with it.  Anything else is likely to end up sounding like "Mid-American Conference.")

From a strictly Spartancentric standpoint:

  • MSU basketball now has national-level aspirations on a near-annual basis.  Facing teams with a wider range of stylistic characteristics in conference play would be a positive in terms of getting ready for NCAA Tournament play.  And it's not like we've got great conference rivalries going right now that would be jeopardized.  Our current two rivalries consist of (1) Michigan scratching out a win against us every few seasons and (2) the agony of having Wisconsin crush our souls at least once a year only to see them inevitably flame out in NCAA Tournament play.
  • It's not like the MSU football team has flourished in the current 10-/11-team format over the last couple decades.  What is there to lose from an expanded league?

A well-constructed 16-team league would result in some entertaining match-ups in both major sports.  And, if there's not going to be a national football playoff system, why not create something comparable with roughly a quarter of the teams that would be likely to make a national playoff (more on that below)?

The money grab aspect of the push for a 14- or 16-team conference is, of course, off-putting.  But we crossed the point of no return on "following college sports because of their wholesome, amateur aspects" quite a while ago.

Regardless, it sure looks like this thing is happening.  In the words of Mr. Brian Cook:

If this is happening, it's important that whatever form the Big Cthulhu takes makes as much sense as possible. Since the usual divisional stuff makes no sense and would see Michigan play opponents in the opposite division slightly more than once a decade, this requires thinking outside the chicken patties. So here's another crazy idea. The new bats idea: it's the World Cup, yo.

[Brian's proposal here. Blah, blah blah.]

I want more ideas. If a Big Cthulhu conference happens there should be so many different possibilities for the leadership to consider that they get very confused and actually pick one of them instead of defaulting to a divisional format that leaves everyone zo unsatisfied at the conclusion of a season (or the decade) when they drew the top two teams in the Bo division and the team that won your division drew Indiana and Northwestern and you haven't played Penn State since JoePa's age could be practically expressed without scientific notation.

My superfantastic expansion proposal (complete with "divisional stuff") is after the jump.

Teams!

The scenario in which Jim Delaney applies enough pressure to Notre Dame to get them to become the 12th team in a 12-team Big Ten is almost everyone's preferred scenario.  Barring that outcome, it sure seems like you have to add more than one team to create enough new economic value to make the whole exercise worth going through--and adding 3+ teams may very well be what forces Notre Dame's hand.  In that case, I prefer 16 teams to 14 teams, if only because 16 is equal to 2^4, whereas 14 is equal to 2^3.741657.  I [heart] mathematical elegance.

My favored five teams are the same as LVS's: Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitt, Nebraska, Missouri.  Those five teams would keep the conference as tightly aligned geographically as you could under a 16-team scenario.  All five are good academic fits (Notre Dame + four AAU members).  Two of the five are historic football powers; two have perennial top-25 basketball teams; the fifth (Missouri) has the potential to be an exciting opponent in both sports for stylistics reasons.  You add two states (Missouri/New York) with TV markets worth adding (although I don't pretend to understand the TV implications here).  Finally, you'd only be taking two football teams each from the Big East and the Big 12, so you wouldn't be completely blowing up the current conference constellations (although there'd be major fallout, to be sure).

Anyway, you can make the rest of what I've got here work with any five teams, I think.  (Most obvious swap: Rutgers for Syracuse or Pitt, if you really think New York City-area TV viewers are going to go BTN-crazy.  Iowa State is your back-up plan on the western frontier if you're one short.  If Jim Delaney's master plan to get Notre Dame to cave in doesn't work, it gets a little trickier from a division-creating standpoint.)  It sure seems like the Big Ten is operating from a position of substantial financial leverage, so we might as well shoot the moon here.

Divisions!

WEST NORTH SOUTH EAST
Iowa Michigan Illinois Ohio St
Minnesota Michigan St Indiana Penn St
Missouri Northwestern Notre Dame Pitt
Nebraska Wisconsin Purdue Syracuse

 

Please hold all grumbling until you've at least read the next section of the post.

Football!

The plan Brian arrived at, briefly, is:

  • Two rotating divisions of 8 teams established based on prior-year standings.
  • Play your 7 division games.
  • Top 4 teams in each division split into 2 groups of 4.
  • Play 2 games you haven't already played within the 2 groups.  (Bottom 4 teams in each division also play 2 additional games.)
  • Two group winners play each other in conference championship game.

With 16 teams, I think you have to go with something like this--basically playing a multi-round playoff, but hiding the first couple rounds in the regular season.  But I also hate to lose the familiarity of playing major rivals every year and being guaranteed to play everyone in the conference at least once every few years.

So here's my plan:

  • Based on the divisions I've presented above, you play every team in your division every year (3 games).
  • On a rotating 3-year basis, you play the 4 teams in one of the other 3 divisions (up to 7 games now).
  • You've effectively now to got two 8-team mini-conferences established each year.
  • Top team in mini-conference A plays #2 team in mini-conference B and vice versa in last week of regular season.  Two surviving teams play in conference championship game.
  • Bottom six teams in each mini-conference each play one more regular season game on some basis TBD.

You could also do Brian's two-week group-play thing after the 7 scheduled games, but I think the conceptual leap you have to take in creating group standings partially based on games that were played before the groups were formed may be too much for the average fan.  And my plan means you're still playing an 8-game regular season schedule, which may be important for cupcake-based financial reasons.

Other benefits:

  • Every team would face every other team in the league at least once every 3 years.  With no permanent divisions, it's inevitable there'd be some match-up between two teams that didn't happen for 4 or 5 years.  And with permanent 8-team divisions, those kinds of long gaps would happen as a matter of simple math.  The maximum layoff between two particular teams playing each other under this plan (two seasons) would be no longer than it is now.
  • The division alignments I have above would maintain all annual intrastate rivalries except one (more on that below) and allow teams to maintain/build annual rivalries with at least a trio of conferencemates.
  • Scheduling for all but the final week of the regular season could be established multiple years in advance.

The hitch, of course, is the annual rivalries you lose with just 4 teams per division (although my plan is still much preferable to Brian's on this criterion).  From the current list of protected football rivalries, you'd be losing the following (in approximate ascending order of perceived importance):

  • Northwestern-Purdue
  • Michigan State-Penn State
  • Illinois-Northwestern
  • Iowa-Wisconsin
  • Minnesota-Wisconsin
  • Michigan-Ohio State

Unless I'm dramatically underestimating the intensity of the Illini-Wildcat rivalry, I don't think anyone's going to get too bent out of shape over not getting to play Northwestern every year--and getting an annual rivalry against Notre Dame should make up for it.  Northwestern would just have to live with it; in exchange, they get a 747's worth of cash they wouldn't be getting in any other conference as a small, private school.

The fact that the Spartans and Nittany Lions would only face off every 3 years would just mean we could make the Land Grant Trophy that much huger to reflect the even larger stakes for each game.  Wisconsin is probably the big loser here; that one would need to be massaged.

As for Michigan-Ohio State, if the big appeal of that rivalry is how often the game has been the deciding factor for the Big Ten title, then both teams just need to get to the (effective) 4-team playoff most years to ensure they play each other frequently, right?

Also, you could use the extra game for non-playoff-advancing teams to backfill these lost rivalries in some years.

In term of divisional strength, the divisions I have listed above are pretty balanced, outside of the South.  Each of the other 3 divisions has 2 perennial upper-division finishers based on the last 10-15 years (Iowa/Nebraska, Michigan/Wisconsin, Ohio State/Penn State; yes, I'm being generous to our friends in Ann Arbor).  You hate to put Notre Dame in with arguably the three weakest existing Big Ten football programs at the moment, but that could be one more enticement to throw at the Irish.  And with the scheduling format I've described above, you wouldn't be handing them an automatic spot in the 4-team playoff, since two teams from the other division in their mini-conference could advance to the playoff.

Basketball!

With 4 divisions of 4 teams, you play the teams in your division twice (6 games) and everybody else once (12 games) each season.  Voila, 18 games!

Yes, the value of the regular season championship is going to be devalued somewhat.  But this scenario is only 3 games off from a perfectly-balanced schedule.  We're already 2 games off right now (in the other direction).  And we were 4 games off from perfection for the 6 years during which the conference utilized a 16-game regular season schedule.

For the conference tournament, you go with the current Big East bracketing arrangement, in which the top 4 teams get byes through the first two rounds and the next 4 teams get a bye for just the first round.  That creates enough of an advantage for the teams that played well during the regular season so as not to render it a meaningless exercise, even if the conference tournament ends up being perceived as the bigger deal.

The West division is your ugly stepsister from a basketball standpoint.  (I'm thinking Tubby Smith would be a yes vote on the plan.)  One weak division in each sport ain't bad when you're using the same divisions for both major sports.

As it turns out, our two current basketball rivalries would be maintained on a twice-per-year basis under this plan.

Happy?!

Probably not.  But I think this approach gives you a workable, and relatively simple, arrangement to arrive at a legitimate champions in both major revenue-producing sports under a 16-team reality, without completely losing the intimacy of a standard-sized conference.

Conclusion!

Resistance is futile.  The plan laid out above is an efficient scheme for organizing the biological and technological distinctiveness that will be assimilated.

(I can't believe I haven't seen a Borg reference yet in a blog post on Big Ten expansion.  I fear I am nerdy even by nerd standards.)

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