Divide and conquer: How will a 16-team Big Ten be structured?
That’s the question facing Big Ten football with the addition of UCLA and USC bringing the league to 16 teams.
A 16-team superconference has been attempted just once before, though the SEC will join the B1G in doing it no later than 2025. The WAC existed as a 16-team entity for all of 3 years before 8 teams split off and wisely formed the Mountain West. The reconstituted Big … um, whatever we’re calling it now might get 10-15 years of mileage before reaching the same inevitable outcome. But hey, we’ll worry about that at the appropriate time.
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For now, the focus is on the B1G’s immediate future. And that means figuring out a scheduling model that works for a conference that stretches from New Jersey to California.
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The Big Ten already uses an East/West split for football, though in this case it seems prudent to expand that to all sports. It would also require a modest shuffle, moving Purdue to the East in order to make room for the newcomers.
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State
From a football perspective, that means 7 divisional games and 2 crossover games each year. And in that structure, Illinois would visit Los Angeles (2,002 miles) more often than West Lafayette (91 miles).
So what we’re saying here is this model stinks. But that clearly isn’t going to inhibit Kevin Warren and the rest of the Big Ten’s brain trust from considering it.
The nice thing about 16 teams is the ability to create scheduling flexibility via a quartet of 4-team pods. The 3 other teams in each pod would serve as permanent opponents. Playing 2 teams from each other pod gets you to 9 conference games.
This would seem to be the no-brainer model. But there is still the matter of how you would divvy up each quadrant.
Given that UCLA and USC are causing this chaos, we’ll start out West.
Do I love it? No. But I hate everything about this expansion, so this isn’t about my opinion. It’s about practicality. Airports are all that matter in creating this subdivision. And that’s what puts Minnesota in ahead of Iowa. Or behind Iowa, depending on your perspective.
Minneapolis-St. Paul and Omaha have major airports that are easily accessible to commercial and charter flights from Los Angeles. Getting to L.A. from Iowa City is decidedly more tricky.
The will no doubt be some hilarity when the Bruins and Trojans show up for a mid-November game at Minnesota. But hey, that’s what they signed up for. Time to earn that paycheck.
Cheese and Corn
A natural grouping for all involved parties. Northwestern’s most memorable games seem to come against Iowa and Wisconsin, and obviously Illinois is an in-state rivalry. For as forced as the previous pod is, this one fits like a glove.
The Basketball Pod
Anything that separates Indiana and Purdue is problematic. Meanwhile, Maryland and Rutgers get lumped together in perpetuity because there’s nowhere else to lump them.
- Michigan State
- Ohio State
- Penn State
Since this whole expansion sham is for the sake of TV ratings, why not guarantee the best programs play each other every year? The likely carnage makes it inequitable for all involved. But people would watch. And that’s what it’s going to take to live up to the media rights contract that pays for this whole thing.
You could, say, create division that consists of Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue while having an “East Coast” division of Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland. But anything separating the Buckeyes and Wolverines is madness. And peeling off Michigan State from Michigan is also a non-starter.
The trio of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State have to be placed together in some form. And Penn State is the only program capable of punching at that level that’s geographically sensible.
Or maybe none of these ideas will matter
From the looks of it, the B1G’s stint as a 16-team league is likely to be a short one. Because even more expansion seems likely with the league engaged in a clear arms race with the SEC. It may not stop until both sides get to 20 schools. Or 24.
At which point, what’s the point of any of this anyhow?
But I digress.
In some shape or form, the Big Ten is about to be structured very differently. The coming months will reveal just how dramatic those changes are going to be come 2024 and beyond.