Ohio State is set to take on Notre Dame in each of the next two seasons as part of a home and home series. But if Gene Smith had his preference, those matchups would be a regular occurrence.
Following the bombshell news that USC and UCLA will leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten beginning in 2024, there’s been plenty of speculation that the conference may look to expand even further. One of the top candidates is Smith’s alma mater, which he hopes will consider joining the Big Ten in the near future.
"It's hard to speculate on that. I love my alma mater, except when we play them in any sport. But I've always felt like they should be in a conference,” the Ohio State athletic director said Friday at a press conference in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “And I hope that they are considering that. I don't know what a next step would be, but I've always shared that I hope they consider that opportunity and I hope it's the Big Ten. But who knows? They've been operating the way they've been operating for a long time.”
There’s little doubt that other Power 5 conferences will continue to realign in the aftermath of the high-profile move made by USC and UCLA, which comes a year after Texas and Oklahoma accepted an invitation to leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025. With many of college football’s blue blood programs continuing to consolidate in the Big Ten and SEC, Notre Dame may feel more pressure than ever before to give up its independent status.
Ohio State president Kristina Johnson said Friday that the forthcoming moves aren’t yet clear, but are inevitable nonetheless.
"It's a little early to speculate," Johnson said at the press conference with Smith. "I'd be surprised if this is the last move that's made nationally, but I think it's too early to tell right now."
With the addition of USC and UCLA, the Big Ten will count 16 teams among its member institutions. That number equals the SEC’s own, once Texas and Oklahoma are in the mix, although the Big Ten will add the Trojans and Bruins a year before the Longhorns and Sooners join their new conference.
Smith believes the Big Ten and SEC were already well-positioned at the top of the food chain among Power 5 conferences even before their latest expansion efforts. Now though, the divide has been made all the more evident.
“The Big Ten and SEC frankly separated themselves prior to this. Prior to Texas and Oklahoma, prior to USC and UCLA, our conferences had separated ourselves a long time ago,” Smith said. “So this contributes to that separation. So we've always been the two premier conferences in the country for a lot of different reasons. And so this solidifies that even more.
“Who knows what the other schools and conferences will do in reaction, we just have to wait to see but who knows? There could be another large conference that emerges as a result of these changes. So we just have to wait and see.”
Although the Big Ten’s expansion seemed like a direct response to the SEC’s move to acquire Texas and Oklahoma, Smith said that was not the case. Rather, the Buckeye athletic director said the financial benefits from the Big Ten’s new TV deal with USC and UCLA in the mix had more to do with the decision-making.
However, Smith said it will also aid in the conference’s relationship with the College Football Playoff, pending the potential changes to its format.
“We weren't doing it in response to the SEC, we were doing it for our needs,” Smith said. “And obviously, we're in a situation now where Kevin (Warren)'s done a marvelous job in facilitating discussions with our television partners. And so this helps move the needle in that regard. So it had nothing to do with Texas and Oklahoma or us setting up mega conferences for the future. It was about what does the Big Ten need? And our marketing and media rights opportunities, along with the great relationship that we have with two institutions that culturally fit us was just too good to pass up. So it was more about those things than it was about trying to compare it to the SEC.
“And moving forward, certainly it sets us up for the future with the CFP and whatever emerges in that landscape. Those outcomes are real. Certainly aligns us more with the SEC, that's an outcome. But that wasn't a driving force.”
Heading into the weekend, reports cited some interest from the Big Ten in trying to add Oregon and Washington into the league alongside USC and UCLA. But other reports said the conference may be waiting on word from Notre Dame before proceeding further down that road.
Hearing there's confidence in Big Ten circles about Notre Dame and Oregon eventually jumping on board.— Jeff Ermann (@Jeff_Ermann) July 1, 2022
Sources: Oregon and Washington have been told by @bigten that it is standing pat for now. Waiting on a decision by Notre Dame.— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) July 1, 2022
Given the addition of two west coast schools, Smith admitted that the logistics of travel for some teams in the Big Ten – and particularly Olympic sports programs – seem “really challenging.” The logistics of adding Notre Dame to the league, at least in terms of geography, would hardly be an issue given its midwestern location.
Nothing is set in stone yet, and there are plenty of developments to come in the near future. Smith doesn’t have the answers as of now but said he’s excited about the Big Ten’s latest expansion and what may come after.
“I think obviously we're in an unbelievable, crazy time with college athletics and the many moving parts and things to be decided. I wish I had a crystal ball, I really do,” Smith said. “You asked me this question in March of this year, I wouldn't have been able to project it. So I don't know, I really don't.
"Obviously, the landscape will continue to change, and who knows how. But we're really happy with this.”