With conference expansion talk percolating again in recent days, I've been revisiting my previous analyses (here and here) of logical Big Ten expansion strategy and potential targets. Let's remember the givens:
- On-field product isn't everything (but it is nonetheless a piece of the puzzle);
- Demographics is everything: people watch TV, and TV means money;
- University presidents truly rule the Big Ten, and will not accept academic mediocrity;
- More than one school in a state does not add value, it splits the same pie into smaller pieces; and,
- Notre Dame is no longer the white whale.
With that in mind, there are three basic guiding principles I followed in choosing the most logical targets: They will be in states contiguous to the current, or expanded Big Ten footprint; they will be large, public flagship institutions; and, they will be members of the Association of American Universities.
While there are exceptions to these rules, the exceptions are quite few. Yes, Northwestern is a smaller, private university, but it was a founding member of the conference, predating Ohio State by 16 years. Yes, Nebraska is no longer a member of the AAU, but it was at the time of its admittance, and was excluded from the AAU because UNL failed to score highly enough on a set of four criteria including research expenditures, National Academy members, faculty awards and citations. Nebraska's prowess as a research institution is no less than it was before, but the members of the AAU voted to kick them out nonetheless.
The strategy at this point, based on the criteria above and my previous analysis of television marketing areas, seems pretty clear. After picking up Rutgers and Maryland, Jim Delaney should raid the Atlantic Coast Conference to add the following schools:
- The University of Virginia
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- The Georgia Institute of Technology
Plucking three high-profile members of the conference will not only put the ACC into a flummox, it will also fire up the engines of conference realignment across the country. The PAC-12 could again choose to strip some members from the Big 12, which, along with my recommendation that Delaney pick up Kansas, could put that conference once again in a state of distress, uncertainty, and ultimately instability.
Instability in this case, is a great thing for the B1G, because it could ultimately open the doors for uber-powerful Texas to bolt from the conference. It is my estimation that Texas has replaced (or should replace, since I don't actually have a window into Jim Delaney's thought process) Notre Dame as the Big Ten's White Whale.
Now, if you're counting at this point, the conference would clock in at 18 members (not counting Texas, because I still hold that pulling the Longhorns into the family is a big challenge, and not the most likely outcome in the expansion games). B1G expansion could stop there, as Ohio State's own Gordon Gee recently acknowledged a target of somewhere between 16 and 20 teams.
An 18-team conference doesn't get as much attention in most folks' prognostications, interestingly enough, though it strikes me that with a move to a 9-game conference schedule, an 18-team conference creates two 9-team divisions.
Ultimately, though, I think the big picture strategy is a push for a 20-team "super conference" with four five-team "pods" (though certainly a 16-team conference would lend itself to four NFL-style "divisions," though obviously the collegiate post-season would have to change dramatically to see any type of runoff ahead of a conference championship). So given the 18-teams listed above - the current 14 plus Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Kansas, how do we get to 20?
Florida State may actually be the next most-logical target.
The demographic attraction is blatantly obvious: Florida is a state of huge importance, and while the Gators may be the premiere program in the state du jour, it hasn't always been thus. For those who think "The U" is a candidate, perish the thought. There are absolutely zero compelling reasons to admit Miami to the Big Ten (Florida is a much better fit, but obviously isn't going to bolt from the SEC, well, ever).
FSU was not on my radar previously simply because they are not currently members of the AAU. However, I admit my original snubbing may have been short-sighted. A large, public, flagship state university, FSU has very similar characteristics to many of the current members of the conference. From what I've gathered in an initial online search, the middle 50% of the Fall 2012 incoming freshmen class had a GPA range from 3.7 – 4.2 with an SAT range from 1160 to 1290 and an ACT range from 26 – 29. Those stats aren't bad at all.
The university's freshman retention rate is 91%, one of the highest retention rates in the United States. Furthermore, the school has a 72% six-year graduation rate compared to the national average six-year graduation rate of 53%; in other words, it passes the academic "smell test."
AAU membership is as much about research as it is about anything, and on this front it appears there is work to be done. In fact, the University's strategic plan places significant emphasis on improving the school's research commitment, and mentions improving its graduate programming to the standards incident to attaining membership in the prestigious consortium. As early as 2006, Florida State was considering what might need to be done to achieve membership, going so far as to commission a review from former AAU president Nils Hasselmo (also the former president of the University of Minnesota).
Given President Gee's comments that “there are opportunities to move further south in the East and possibly a couple of Midwest universities," it is safe to assume that FSU's current academic stature and attempts to attain AAU status could be enough to persuade the B1G honchos that the Seminoles are - at the very least - no poorer a fit academically than the Cornhuskers. While Gee did not specify any potential expansion targets, he told the OSU athletic council in December that Big Ten leaders (the people, not the division) will make sure any new school has “like-minded academic integrity.”
Relative to television revenues, FSU certainly has a lot to offer: while Tallahassee is only the #105 television market in the country, neighboring Jacksonville is #49 with 678,000 households, nearby Orlando/Daytona Beach is #19 with 1.45 million homes, and Tampa/St. Pete clocks in all the way up to market #14 with 1.8 million potential viewing households.
Yeah, Florida's a big deal in TV land.
So perhaps Delaney's air raid of the ACC needs to include all four teams: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and Florida State. The resulting chaos would allow the SEC to pick up NC State and Virginia Tech, as well as Miami and Clemson if it were so inclined (though I'm not suggesting this makes sense, just a wild-ass possibility). Delaney likely learned his lesson the last time and won't tiptoe around taking multiple scalps at once - as has been reported since, had he realized how quickly the chips would fall the last time, he would have picked up Mizzou and perhaps even Kansas while the Big 12 was in self-destruct mode.
Speaking of which, if the play for the big fish of the ACC works, the PAC-12 and SEC will have to pick up additional teams, remembering that we're all pushing to the magical 20-team "screw you NCAA, we're in charge now" superconference end-game. That means the Big 12 is likely the most vulnerable conference left. While the PAC-12 can pluck some up-and-comers from the WAC or the Mountain West (Hawaii and Boise State, anyone?), the Big 12 doesn't have as many likely candidates. In fact, given half a chance, it seems plausible that Kansas would want to come to the Big Ten, and should enough teams see a better fiscal opportunity with the PAC or the B1G, the infamous grant of rights could become a thing of the past.
Given Gee's mention of other midwest schools as candidates, it seems logical to conclude Kansas is among them, though I'm not ruling out Mizzou as a potential pick-up, as I think they are a much better "cultural" fit in the Big Ten than in the Southeastern Conference.
Which is just what the Big Ten might need if Delaney wants to reel in that White Whale of Austin.