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The next Big Ten program?::Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Even though it's still in the nascent stages, the idea of Big Ten expansion suddenly seems very real. Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein - one of the more plugged-in reporters in Big Ten land - wrote that the league may consider expanding to as many as 14 teams.

We can safely assume that Notre Dame is the ultimate prize here, and we also can safely assume Notre Dame remains too valuable a commodity on its own to join a conference. So let's leave the Irish as an independent and engage in the most fun a college football fan can have when the conference championship games are over and the bowls have yet to begin. Let's imagine realignment scenarios and their domino effects.

Big Eleven becomes Biggest Twelve

The Tribune report only suggested the possibility of 14 teams, but we do know the Big Ten does not want an odd number of teams. So if the league decides to expand by one, here are the possibilities.

Poaching West

Nebraska has been mentioned, and the Cornhuskers' fan base certainly would fit in the Big Ten, but Lincoln feels awfully far from the Big Ten footprint even if Nebraska shares a border with a Big Ten state (Iowa). The more obvious choice is Missouri, which would fit well geographically and culturally and bring the St. Louis and Kansas City television markets to the Big Ten. The Tigers also would have a natural rivalry with Illinois and probably could keep the rivalry with Kansas alive on an annual basis. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe told Sports Business Daily on Thursday that he doesn't expect to lose any members, but the Big East didn't expect to lose Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, either. Why would either school make the move? Money. The Big Ten has lots of it. Before the SEC signed its most recent TV deals, the Big Ten was the richest league in college sports. Chances are it will be again when it signs its next round of TV deals.

The Big Ten's divisions probably would have to be parceled out willy-nilly - like the ACC's - to ensure competitive balance. And by competitive balance, I mean we can't have Ohio State and Penn State in the same division, and we can't have Ohio State playing Michigan two weeks in a row. Let's assume the Biggest Twelve would adopt the SEC scheduling model with one fixed interdivision opponent. Here are the potential divisions, with each school's fixed opponent in parentheses.

The Bratwurst Division

Illinois (Missouri/Nebraska)

Michigan (Michigan State)

Northwestern (Indiana)

Ohio State (Purdue)

Minnesota (Iowa)

Wisconsin (Penn State)

 

The Kielbasa Division

Indiana (Northwestern)

Iowa (Minnesota)

Michigan State (Michigan)

Missouri/Nebraska (Illinois)

Penn State (Wisconsin)

Purdue (Ohio State)

If the Big 12 lost a school, it would need to find a replacement. The easy choice is TCU, which already has an elite program and become a powerhouse immediately given the recruiting boost BCS automatic qualifying conference membership brings. But according to TCU's Web site, the school has just 74,300 living alumni. That's barely enough to fill a stadium, much less guarantee television ratings. Plus, the Big 12 already has the Dallas-Fort Worth television market, so the Big 12 wouldn't gain any eyeballs to replace the ones it lost. Another option is Memphis, a school with an elite basketball program that could quickly build a competitive football program thanks to a wealth of talent in the area. If Memphis were in an AQ conference, many players from the city would stay home instead of playing for Arkansas, Ole Miss, Kentucky, Louisville, Mississippi State and Tennessee. BYU may seem a little far-fetched, but the Cougars could bring a broad fan base. Because BYU is the official school of the Mormon church, it draws otherwise unaffiliated Mormon football fans just as Notre Dame draws otherwise unaffiliated Catholic football fans.

Poaching East

The other possibility is that the Big Ten grabs a Big East team. Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse are the best fits. Rutgers would seem the most attractive because the Big Ten would grab the New York City TV market - the nation's biggest - and because Rutgers could stage "home games" against Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the new Giants/Jets stadium with higher ticket prices. If the Big Ten expands east, the above divisions wouldn't need to change. Just swap the current Big 12 team with a current Big East team.

Meanwhile, the Big East would need to replace the team it lost. Memphis is a good choice, as is Central Florida. The Memphis basketball program would fit better in the Big East, but the Liberty Bowl is a dump. UCF has a brand-new, on-campus football stadium, and the Knights would provide a natural rival for South Florida.

Big Eleven becomes Huge Fourteen

All bets are off if the league decides to become college football's first superconference. Let's assume the Big Ten poaches one Big 12 team (Missouri or Nebraska) and two Big East teams (probably Rutgers and Pitt).

Here is a possible alignment:

The Bratwurst Division

Illinois (Missouri/Nebraska)

Michigan (Michigan State)

Northwestern (Indiana)

Ohio State (Purdue)

Rutgers (Pitt)

Minnesota (Iowa)

Wisconsin (Penn State)

 

The Kielbasa Division

Indiana (Northwestern)

Iowa (Minnesota)

Michigan State (Michigan)

Missouri/Nebraska (Illinois)

Penn State (Wisconsin)

Pitt (Rutgers)

Purdue (Ohio State)

So what would happen to the other conferences? Memphis, as an attractive candidate for the Big East and Big 12, would have options. The Big East would almost certainly go after UCF, which, at 53,000 students, has huge growth potential simply because of the number of alumni it will pump out. The Big 12 might take TCU, or it might opt for a less traditional choice outside the conference footprint. Who knows? Maybe the Big 12 might try to swipe a team from the Pac-10.

Then all hell would break loose.

 

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