The Big Ten Expansion Candidates: Notre Dame or the California Schools

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On Tuesday, I laid out the contractual provision in the SEC’s deal with ESPN that paved the way for Texas and Oklahoma to be added to the conference. Today, I’m going to examine the situation the Big Ten finds itself in as conference realignment begins anew.

Later this afternoon, I will discuss the looming legal battle between ESPN and the Big 12, a potential battle I also wrote about last week when news broke about Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC. You can read that piece as well. But for now, here’s a Big Ten analysis.

A decade ago, the Big Ten expanded and added Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland. Looking back at these choices now, the additions of Rutgers and Maryland were driven by the Big Ten TV network and the increased revenue a conference could derive from new TV markets. Given that cord cutting has accelerated, TV markets will likely matter less than brand quality in this round of expansion. The SEC, for instance, already has the Texas TV market with Texas A&M, so adding Texas and Oklahoma makes tremendous sense when it comes to overall brand value of the SEC, less when it comes to new TV markets.

That’s why the key takeaway for the Big Ten — which OutKick has been told had a meeting yesterday featuring four presidents and three athletic directors and that focused on expansion — is this: can the Big Ten expand and add elite academic and elite institutions?

Because unlike other conferences, the Big Ten can’t just take the top programs available.

That likely takes schools like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and the remaining Texas schools in the Big 12 off the expansion board. (This is also reflected in allegations the American Conference was trying to add all eight remaining Big 12 schools. If there was Big Ten interest, it’s unlikely the American would be making this attempt.) Given the length of their existing contractual commitments, adding more ACC schools like the Big Ten did with Maryland, to the extent there was expansion interest, are also a major challenge. (There’s a segment of the Big Ten that would love to add Clemson to the conference because of the perceived massive television interest that could create, but that seems to be a challenge.)

Plus, it’s also important to note that every conference’s internal leadership dynamics are different. In a large part, that’s because every conference commissioner doesn’t have the same power. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, for instance, has the complete trust of his members after piloting schools through the most difficult year of college athletics in any of our lives. Not only did the SEC complete a full season of games even amidst COVID, but they did it with no serious health issues and with fans attending their games.

Given the COVID challenges, it was almost impossible for the SEC to have played a season more successfully than they did. This year the SEC will be back to near normalcy when it comes to crowds, tailgating and the general atmosphere surrounding their games. That kind of leadership success makes Sankey’s relationship with his presidents and athletic directors iron clad. It’s why the SEC schools will be voting 14-0 to extend membership offers to Texas and Oklahoma.

But Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren doesn’t find himself in the same situation. After a fitful start to the season that saw the Big Ten cancel the year and then come back from the cancellation to play a partial year, Warren’s relationships aren’t on as sound of footing as Sankey’s.

As if that weren’t enough, the Big Ten presidents are insistent that any schools added to the conference be elite academic institutions that increase the overall stature of the conference as a whole, not just in athletics. While most of you reading this column right now are big sports fans, sports are often seen as a distraction to the academic side of the equation. With that in mind, in order to expand membership, the Big Ten must find not only solid athletic additions, but also solid academic additions.

This means the Big Ten expansion situation isn’t overly complicated. There are only six schools that make sense for the Big Ten to expand and add to its conference:

1. Notre Dame
2. The four California schools in the Pac-12: USC, Stanford, California, and UCLA
3. Colorado, maybe

That’s it, this is the Big Ten’s potential expansion list.

So the big question is this: does the Big Ten have the ability to add any of these schools to go to 16 members or bigger? Could Notre Dame finally end its flirtations with the major conferences and sign on for a full relationship? And if Notre Dame did so, would they pick the Big Ten or the ACC? If the Big Ten could get Notre Dame to join, that’s a no brainer. Then the Big Ten could pair the Irish with one of the California schools or Colorado and feel like a 16-team conference had been strengthened both academically and athletically.

The most ideal situation for the Big Ten?

Adding Notre Dame and USC to get to 16.

The second most ideal scenario — adding Notre Dame and Stanford. (Notre Dame and Colorado would also work if the California schools said no to the Big Ten’s interests.)

Either of these moves would broaden the Big Ten’s horizons and create two additional elite conference members. But the most aggressive play of all would be for Kevin Warren to attempt to add all four California schools to the Big Ten, potentially with Notre Dame and Colorado, to get his conference to 22 teams.

It might sound crazy, but there’s some logic behind it.

Let me explain why.

First, the Pac-12 California schools are all elite academically. And they are joined, at least right now, by many schools that are not as elite academically. Could the four California schools argue the money and prestige of the Big Ten is far more significant than the money and prestige of the Pac-12? Without a doubt.

This would also provide a new window of games for the Big Ten, which would find itself able to stage games for 12 hours straight on Saturday, from noon eastern all the way to midnight eastern and beyond. That new viewing window — and, yes, new markets — would also be a major revenue boon for the Big Ten Network and would set the Big Ten up for a king’s ransom in television rights, which are coming to market in the near future.

What’s more, the Pac-12 TV contracts are up soon, the Pac-12 Network has been a disaster, and there have long been clear signs that USC — the biggest national draw in the conference — isn’t happy with the Pac-12. Could the Trojans break off and lead their own trek to the Big Ten? Or the SEC, for that matter? Or go independent? I’ll write on this later, but in the meantime, the point is, USC has a wandering eye. It’s not far fetched to believe that USC could help lead a migration out of the Pac-12. The more intriguing question than USC being interested in leaving is this: would USC rather be the only California school in the Big Ten or could they lead a mass exodus?

This would be a gut punch to the Pac-12 if it happened, leaving the conference reeling.

With eight schools remaining: Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State, Utah and Colorado, it’s likely the Pac-12 schools would either need to merge with the remaining Big 12 schools or add schools like Fresno State, San Diego State, Boise State and BYU to remain a viable Power Five conference. (Phil Knight at Nike, by the way, is a wild card here. Could his love for Oregon help the Ducks preserve the Pac-12 or put Oregon in a situation where they have the cachet to join a bigger conference? Keep an eye on that as well.)

Regardless, the primary question is this: can the Big Ten go west or not? If they can, things could get very fascinating in a hurry with the fall out in the Pac-12 and in all of college football.

If the Big Ten can’t go west, it seems unlikely the Big Ten would be able to make any expansion moves that would truly change the college football calculus in a major way.

So buckle up. With Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, expansion attention shifts to the Big Ten now.

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.


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  1. Wouldn’t be surprised if the PAC12 is the next casualty of the realignment process. I think the Big XII is officially done and the PAC12 is one or two major programs leaving before the dominoes fall for them. Probably going to be left with SEC, B1G, ACC, and a new power 4 conference that combines the leftovers from the Big XII/PAC12.

  2. I think you are overestimating the leadership of the B1G. Remember the Covid debacle last season? Their arrogance and their “academic standards” will cost them. If I’m Notre Dame, why am I going to the B1G? What am I gaining? At least playing in the ACC we’ve seen they can beat Clemson, get to the Conference Championship game AND get in the CFP. Are they beating OSU anytime soon? Doubtful. And that’s not even taking recruiting into account. Imagine asking a kid if they want to go play games on the road in Minneapolis or East Lansing in November or to Tallahassee or Miami? Duh.

    Another thing I’d consider: what is the appeal of the PAC 12 schools now? We all know the West Coast has seemingly “moved on” from sports, especially football. Again, I look to 2020 and their reactions then and now to Covid. If I’m a TV Network do I want to broadcast a game from an empty LA Coliseum or Rose Bowl when I can show stadiums in other parts of the country that actually has fans in the stands? As a visiting fan base, you gonna go to Seattle or Eugene for games where they’ve pretty much lost their minds or resemble 3rd world countries?

    I know the B1G has power, I’m not denying that. But, I do think they are their own worst enemies when it comes to expansion (see adding Rutgers and Maryland).

  3. I can’t believe I’m actually taking time to comment on this crap …

    Notre Dame to The Big10 – DUH! … Maryland back to The ACC … The leftover Big12 combines with SMU, Houston, CFU, USF, Arizona and ArizState. … West Virg to ACC. The PacWhatever takes BYU, Boise, and Fresno/San DiegoSt …

    Now… can we PLEASE get back to defining what “talents” a sideline reporterette needs to be worth a $1,000,000 ??? I vote for Sophie Bevarly or Taylor Shelton as my sideline reporterettes and the rest of you can have whats left.

  4. Its Notre Dame. And I say that as an Arizona alum. It makes sense geographically and financially.

    I keep telling myself that the PAC12 isn’t as bad off as they appear to be. Their former commissioner is the cause of the decline in football. I would like to think if his replacement focuses more on getting PAC12 teams to play nationally televised games instead of on the stupid PAC12 Network it will cause a resurgence to relevance. One can hope…

    • The PAC12 isn’t as bad off as they seem?? REALLY?

      I give you ONE NAME: Najee Harris. Hometown: Martinez, CA

      When, in the history of NCAA Football, have kids LEFT California to go to “The South?” Not until the last 5 years or so… The PAC12 has ALOT of ground to make up…

  5. Since expansion is on everybody’s mind, I would take Washington over Colorado any day of the week. But as much as I would like to see USC in the B1G, it just looks and sounds awkward. Do you think the Cali schools are looking forward to a trip to Minnesota or Wisconsin or Northwestern in November?

  6. Here’s a crazy idea I don’t hear being discussed anywhere. What if all d-1 teams became independent and we got rid of all these conferences muddying the waters and controlling everything? Then each program is responsible for itself and there’s true parity. I know the small programs might find themselves all alone on an island, but then if you win you also get to enjoy ALL the profits from your gate, TV games, ESPN, bowl games, etc. I also know most TV contracts are made with conferences as a whole, except for a couple exceptions, so that would need to be reimagined. That seems to be the only thing holding this conference structure together with duct tape. I don’t know, probably a bad idea, but it just seems we’re assuming we’ve got to be married to this idea of behemoth conferences creating bureaucratic nightmares and favoritism. Would the world come to an end if schools stopped that?

      • Oh I stated that knowing it’s a pipe dream, but we need more thinking outside the box rather than confining ourselves by these imaginary boundaries mega conferences are trying to force everyone inside. They’re operating no different than big tech imo so better watch out. It seems like Americans need to be reminded again that it’s okay to push back on big business overreach. They can make their money…but they also need to be reminded to stay in their lane. This is coming from a UT fan that’s part of the SEC behemoth too.

        We are not even in the universe of competing with Bama yet brother. I’ll take consistently beating UK, Missouri, Vandy and South Carolina to start. If we just beat the teams we should I’d take it right now.

    • I’d prefer that football completely separate from the rest of athletics. These mega conferences make a lot less sense for the non-revenue sports, since it means even more time on the road (which is $$$)

  7. The Big Ten has always defined an ‘elite academic institution’ as one which is a member of the AAU. The University of Kansas is an AAU member. It would also rank in the middle of the current Big Ten membership in Athletic Department budget, add the KC market [bigger than Columbus, OH or Milwaukee] and cement the Big Ten as the elite basketball conference. I don’t see how Colorado is an option and Kansas isn’t.

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