If it were up to me — and I grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, where you could literally hear the roar of the crowd from Spartan Stadium in my backyard on game days — the Big Ten would have stopped expanding after 12 teams. Penn State, added in 1990, and Nebraska, in 2011, were natural-enough fits: big, public Midwestern1 research universities with good academics and excellent sports.
Instead, in 2014, we got … Rutgers,2 which was supposed to deliver the New York metro market to the Big Ten. I’m a huge sports fan who’s been living in New York since 2009, and I have had exactly zero conversations about Rutgers sports. Since joining the Big Ten, the football team’s conference record is 12-58.
Having given up on the Big Ten being a Midwestern conference, I’m actually on board with its newest additions: UCLA and USC. At least they’re schools with great football traditions — and historical connections to the Big Ten through frequent Rose Bowl matchups.
So screw it. At this point, it’s a big game of “Risk” with two superconferences, and the Big Ten is playing for keeps against the Southeastern Conference. Which schools should the Big Ten add next?
The Action Network recently reported that the Big Ten is considering these seven programs: Notre Dame, Miami, Florida State and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Oregon, Washington, Stanford and California. Is that a logical list of schools to want? Do other programs also belong in this tier? And are there good backup options if the Big Ten is spurned by this group?3
Let’s consider a broad universe of possibilities — pretty much every plausible expansion candidate. Specifically, we’ll evaluate:
- All current Atlantic Coast Conference schools.
- All current Pac-12 schools except UCLA and USC.
- All current Big 12 schools except Texas and Oklahoma, which are leaving for the SEC in 2025.
- SEC schools Missouri, which reportedly preferred the Big Ten before joining the SEC, and Vanderbilt, which the SEC probably wouldn’t care too much about losing.
- Football independents Notre Dame and UConn.
- Group of Five schools Cincinnati, Houston, Rice and SMU. (Yes, Cincy and Houston have already been confirmed to be joining the Big 12, but let’s assume the Big Ten is playing an especially long game in its program-poaching strategy.)
That’s a total of 38 schools. We’ll measure them in three broad categories — sports, fit and market — using a series of quantitative metrics. I’ll describe the process below.4
Within each major category, schools can score a maximum of 100 points. For instance, Notre Dame has the highest sports rating among potential expansion candidates with 77 points, while Rice has the lowest, with 6.
This score is determined by rating each school from 0 to 10 in a number of subcategories, each of which has a multiplier based on its relative importance.5 Those scores are calculated based on the school’s placement relative to the nation’s highest and lowest values in each category.6
In sports, the subcategories are:
- Recent football performance (3x multiplier): The football program’s performance over the past 20 years according to Sports-Reference.com’s SRS ratings, where the most recent season (2021) was assigned a weight of 20 and 20 seasons ago (2002) is assigned a weight of 1.
- Historical football performance (3x multiplier): Historical finishes in the final AP poll of each season, where a first-place finish scores 25 points, a 2nd-place finish scores 24 points, and so on.
- Historical men’s basketball performance (2x multiplier): Getting the balance right between football and other sports was a little tricky. Men’s basketball brings in a fair amount of revenue, and sports like women’s basketball, hockey and baseball also contribute to the bottom line at some schools. But it’s football that drives TV contracts. In any event, I gave some credit for non-football sports in the sports category. To evaluate historical men’s basketball performance, I counted each NCAA tournament appearance, plus a 3x bonus for each Final Four appearance and a 5x bonus for each national championship.
- Total NCAA championships in all Division I team sports (2x multiplier). This varies greatly by school. For instance, Stanford leads the pack with 131 NCAA championships across all team sports, while Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Kansas State have never won a championship in anything.
Here, then, are the sports ratings for every possible expansion candidate.
|School▲▼||Football, recent (3x)▲▼||Football history (3x)▲▼||Men’s Basketball (2x)▲▼||NCAA Titles (2x)▲▼||Sports score▲▼|
No one totally maxes out this category. Although several current Big Ten schools (such as Ohio State) have strong sports programs across the board, most expansion candidates excel at either football or non-football sports, but not both. Still, Notre Dame comes the closest, scoring a 77. Oklahoma State, which has had excellent football results in recent years and has also won lots of championships in sports like wrestling and golf, is next with 65 points, followed by North Carolina (61) and Oregon (60).
I already discussed some of the characteristics that describe current Big Ten schools. They are mostly public schools7 with very large enrollments and good research programs (all but Nebraska are members of the Association of American Universities, or AAU). No current Big Ten members have a religious affiliation. Most are flagship schools in their states. They’re all at least decent academically, and some have good or great academics.
And geographically? Well, they used to be Midwestern, but when your last four additions are Rutgers, Maryland, UCLA and USC, you’ve pretty clearly given up on that. Because I tried to replicate the Big Ten’s thinking rather than describe what I’d prefer, there’s no category in my fit index for geographic proximity to current Big Ten members. However, I did consider rivalries against current (and newly incoming) Big Ten schools, which are geographically driven to some degree.
More specifically, these factors make up the fit component:
- Academic ranking (3x multiplier), from U.S. News & World Report.
- AAU membership (1x multiplier), The Big Ten has sometimes spoken of AAU membership as a near-prerequisite for addition to the league. Maryland and Rutgers were AAU members, as are UCLA and USC. However, I think we need to take this with a grain of salt. Nebraska was kicked out of the AAU after it had accepted a Big Ten invitation but before it officially joined the conference. The Big Ten would clearly be head-over-heels for Notre Dame, which is not an AAU member. And rumored targets such as Florida State and Miami are also not in the AAU. So I assigned this factor only a 1x multiplier. Still, it has more impact than you’d think, because I treated it as an absolute: a school got 10 points for being in the AAU and 0 otherwise.
- Enrollment (2x multiplier). Total enrollment at a school’s main campus. Note that the current Big Ten schools8 have very large enrollments, with an average of just under 44,000 students (Northwestern is the smallest with about 22,000, which is still relatively large for a private school).
- SPF: Secular, Public, Flagship (2x multiplier). This SPF isn’t about sunscreen: it’s a bunch of minor categories rolled into one. A school got 4 points if it’s a public university, 3 points if it’s a state flagship university and 3 points if it has no religious affiliation.
- Rivalries (2x multiplier): Rather than evaluate this subjectively, I simply added up the total number of football games each school has played against current Big Ten members, plus incoming USC and UCLA. Notre Dame easily tops the list with 460 all-time games against Big Ten opponents — that’s actually more than Penn State, which has been in the Big Ten for 29 seasons!
|School▲▼||Academics (3x)▲▼||AAU (1x)▲▼||Secular, public, flagship (2x)▲▼||Enrollment (2x)▲▼||Rivalries (2x)▲▼||Fit Score▲▼|
The top fit score belongs to Cal with 87 points. It checks pretty much every box as a flagship state school and AAU member with a large enrollment and very good academics; it even does OK in the rivalries category because of its long tenure of matchups against UCLA and USC.
Other state flagship universities with strong academics follow just behind it: Washington (83 points), North Carolina (73) and Virginia (73).
While the Big Ten gives a lot of lip-service to academic and athletic “fit,” here’s what I suspect it cares about most: a school’s market size, popularity and TV ratings. So any measure of conference candidacy must also give heavy consideration to those factors.
Before we proceed further, there’s a twist that affects all of the ratings in this category: They’re adjusted to account for projected population growth through 2040.9 Conference-building is a very long-run process: Though it doesn’t always work out that way, you’re hoping to keep schools together for decades (consider that the current Big Ten was founded in 1896). And different parts of the country are expected to grow at much different rates. Population growth in the Big Ten’s traditional footprint, the Midwest, has stagnated, while states like Texas (35 percent projected population growth between 2020 and 2040, according to the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group), Florida (32 percent) and Colorado (32 percent) are expected to become considerably more populous. That may help explain the Big Ten’s interest in expanding westward and southward.
With that caveat out of the way, here are the components of our market ratings:
- College football TV ratings (3x multiplier). As listed here and here from the diligent work of sports journalist Zach Miller, this reflects the school’s average TV viewership between 2015 and 2021, skipping the COVID-19-affected year of 2020.10 This method may appear biased toward weak schools in strong conferences since they can piggyback off matchups against stronger rivals, but that’s not really how it works. The SEC is not going to waste a prime-time slot on Vanderbilt, even if the Commodores are playing the Crimson Tide. So considering how much TV contracts drive revenue and everything else in college sports, this is one of the more robust categories.
- Media market footprint (2x multiplier). This one’s complicated, but the idea is to evaluate which media markets the school is the dominant college football brand in, using The New York Times’s college football fandom map from 2014.11 However, I also gave credit to schools for their immediate metro areas even if they aren’t the dominant football brand there, although with a penalty if the school is competing against other current Big Ten members.12 In doing so, I tried to replicate the Big Ten’s thinking in adding Rutgers (its nominal presence in the New York media market, despite schools like Notre Dame having a bigger following in NYC).
- All-sport revenues (2x multiplier). Using data from CollegeRaptor.com — not related to our RAPTOR NBA projection system, so don’t ask it about the Boston Celtics — the university’s earnings across all sports.13
- Popularity on Google Trends (3x multiplier). The combined number of searches for the school’s football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams since 2015 using Google Trends topics data.14 Football tends to dominate here, although men’s basketball moves the needle at schools like Duke and UNC, and women’s basketball makes some difference for UConn.
|School▲▼||All-Sport Revenues (2x)▲▼||Football TV Ratings (3x)▲▼||Football + Basketball Popularity (3x)▲▼||Media Footprint, FOOTBALL (2x)▲▼||Market Rating▲▼|
The market category correlates pretty closely with the schools the Big Ten is most interested in, according to the Action Network’s report. Notre Dame dominates with 93 points — nearly a perfect score. Florida State (82), Oregon (77), Clemson (75) , Miami (72) and UNC (71) are next.
Next up, let’s look at the composite rankings for all expansion candidates, broken down into five tiers. But before we do that, let’s inspect how current Big Ten members would score in all of these categories.
As you’ll see when we get back to the expansion candidates, these scores won’t be easy to beat. It’s not just Michigan and Ohio State, either: College sports are a very big deal throughout the Midwest, so even middle-of-the-road Big Ten members such as Iowa and Minnesota are huge, revenue-generating institutions.
But here are some numbers to keep in mind when thinking about the candidate tiers: The average composite rating among current Big Ten members — including UCLA and USC — is 65. The lowest rating (42) belongs to, of course, Rutgers, so we’ll call this the “Rutgers Line.”
I also considered a rating of 50 to reflect what the Big Ten probably thinks of as its “replacement level.” All Big Ten members except Rutgers and Northwestern are above this line, and Northwestern was always sort of a weird fit (of course I’d say that as a graduate of the University of Chicago, Northwestern’s academic rival). Notably, the Big Ten has previously spurned both Missouri and Pitt — logical, regional fits for the Big Ten that fall below this 50-point threshold.
All right, let’s break the candidates down into five tiers. You can probably guess the highest-ranked school:
Do I really need to go into detail here? The Big Ten would take Notre Dame in a heartbeat.
It’s worth noting that Notre Dame’s composite score isn’t that much higher than the four schools in the next tier. That’s because it would be a fairly big outlier for the conference as a private, religious, non-AAU school with a fairly small enrollment — although it makes up for that in the fit category with a strong academic score and by being a football rival to many current Big Ten programs.
But it blows everyone else away in the market category. There might be a lesson here: With a big enough market, your fit doesn’t need to be perfect — rather, it just needs to be good enough that you can squint and see it. Good academics plus strong rivalries against many current Big Ten members is likely enough for Notre Dame to pass the squint-and-see-it test in the conference’s eyes, despite its other oddities.
North Carolina, Oregon, Florida State, Washington. I call these no-brainers because they all rate as at least average relative to current Big Ten members.
Why does that matter? Well, the Big Ten faces somewhat conflicting incentives. On the one hand, it wants to expand the pie as much as possible. There’s no harm in adding a TV household in Seattle just because you already have one in Des Moines. On the other hand, it does sometimes need to divide that pie. Of course, this can be subject to negotiation: whether new members get a full share when the conference signs a huge TV contract. But you run some risk of dilution if a school takes from the league more than it brings in.
I don’t think that’s a risk with these four schools. For one thing, as I mentioned, they all have at least average overall ratings relative to current Big Ten members. And they all have above average market ratings (the average market rating among current Big Ten members, plus UCLA and USC, is 59). To some extent, the other categories would probably also improve over time.15
North Carolina, Oregon and Washington are also schools that fit the paradigmatic Big Ten template of public flagship schools which are AAU members and the dominant college brands in their states. Beyond that, there are some variations on a theme. Oregon has the lowest U.S. News ranking and the smallest enrollment of these schools, but the best sports program. Washington brings the Seattle market and 47,400 students. Both schools would also provide natural rivals to USC and UCLA.
North Carolina’s position might be more surprising here, given that it wasn’t on The Action Network’s short list. But in many ways, it’s comparable to Oregon and Washington, or perhaps even a superior option in some respects. North Carolina is a big state and getting bigger, UNC has improved on the gridiron to the point where it’s at least usually making bowl games, and it’s excellent in the non-football sports.
Florida State isn’t in the AAU, but it has a pretty good academic ranking and a huge enrollment. I’d put it like this: if you think Notre Dame is a good enough fit for the Big Ten because of its other attributes, then Florida State has to qualify as well; it has a better fit rating than Notre Dame, in fact. And it has the second-best market rating after Notre Dame.
OK, now let’s discuss some of the more borderline cases:
All five schools in this tier rate above replacement level (a 50-point composite score) but below the 65-point average of current members. Let’s briefly discuss their individual strengths and weaknesses, since they each have a unique case.
Clemson hasn’t been discussed much in the context of Big Ten expansion, probably because it’s a more intuitive fit for the SEC. If the Tigers were interested in the Big Ten, though, I’d assume the interest would probably be mutual. Yes, there are some risks; Clemson’s case rests heavily on having been a dominant football team lately and getting high TV ratings as a result. They haven’t been so great historically, don’t offer much in the other sports and play in a small state in a small market. They also have a worse fit rating than Notre Dame, and you could argue that they don’t quite pass the squint-and-see it test. Still, they have a higher composite rating than other members of this tier — and more to the point, stealing Clemson from the clutches of the SEC would be such a coup that I have to assume the Big Ten would do it.
Miami has been a rumored expansion target. That may in part reflect that it’s an easier “get”; the University of Florida would reportedly object to its presence in the SEC. And perhaps Miami feels more “on brand” for the Big Ten, which has a presence in other big urban markets (New York, Chicago and now Los Angeles). Still, it’s a fairly small private school that’s not an AAU member, albeit one with pretty good academics. It actually has a lower fit rating than Clemson. Then again, its market rating is well above the current Big Ten average, which probably matters most for the league.
Stanford and Cal rate lower than I would have expected. They’re great fits — yes, Stanford is private, but its academic prestige and AAU membership are probably enough to make up for that — and Stanford has an excellent athletic program (that’s less true for Cal).
But they just aren’t very big as sports brands. There are several problems: The Bay Area has low interest in college football, and these programs have little following outside that region, even as compared to schools like Fresno State and Oregon (not to mention incoming Big Ten members USC and UCLA). Also, there are two of them. Maybe the Bay Area is worth planting a flag in, but is it worth doing so twice over? Cal does particularly poorly in the market category, with a score of just 24. Stanford at least gets a 35, which is well below the current Big Ten average but is at least higher than Northwestern’s, a peer school in many respects.
Then there’s Utah, which rated higher than I expected. It has a few things going for it: The football program has turned from terrible to very competitive in recent years; it recently joined the AAU; and the state is growing prodigiously.
Now that we’ve covered all of the teams the Big Ten might realistically consider for expansion, let’s zoom out to the schools that clearly aren’t great candidates but might be worth at least thinking about:
Would I be hugely surprised to wake up to the news that the Big Ten had added Duke, Arizona or even Oklahoma State? No, not really. I’d assume the Big Ten had some sort of strategic rationale. Maybe not a good rationale, but a rationale nevertheless. (Remember, all of these candidates rate higher than Rutgers.)
For the most part, the universities in this tier fall into the “good fit, mediocre sports and market” category. Virginia, Missouri, Pitt, Colorado, Arizona, Georgia Tech and Kansas all meet this description, for instance. The fact that the Big Ten has historically spurned both Missouri and Pitt should make the other schools in this category feel worse about their chances, although I would asterisk Georgia Tech as a high-upside play as an AAU member in the Atlanta market that used to have pretty good football.
What about the other programs? Arizona State is a well-rounded candidate in a state with a growing population; its case is pretty similar to Utah’s, though it isn’t an AAU member or a flashship university (but does bring the Phoenix market). Duke’s case depends entirely on how much you care about academics and basketball. Oklahoma State has an excellent sports rating but is a big stretch in terms of both fit (largely because of its poor academic rating) and market (although, if the Big Ten were desperate to add members in the South and couldn’t get the ACC to split up, it’s one of the only palatable options). TCU is in the very desirable Dallas market but has the worst fit rating of any of the 38 schools I tested.
Finally, there are some candidates in Tier 5 that fell below the Rutgers Line:
There’s not much to see here. Getting into New England could be interesting for the Big Ten, but the only Division I football programs in the region are Boston College, Connecticut, and UMass, and BC and UConn rated poorly enough that I didn’t even bother testing UMass.
Ultimately, this is all a question of how “big” the Big Ten wants to be, and I can’t really answer that. Does the conference risk brand dilution if it’s in every nook and cranny of the country, or is that exactly what it wants?
But from a football perspective, my personal view is that once you get past the point where every school can play one another in football every year or at least most years — something that’s already hard once you’ve expanded to 16 teams — I don’t know that there are any particularly bright dividing lines. For instance, expanding to 24 schools — say, by adding everyone in Tiers 1, 2 and 3 — might even work better than 20, since you could split them into four fairly geographically balanced divisions:
Pacific: Cal, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington
Great Plains: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Great Lakes: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue
Atlantic: Florida State, Maryland, Miami, Rutgers, North Carolina, Penn State
You could also use a promotion-and-relegation system. Split into a First Division and a Second Division. With the 24 schools listed above, for instance, maybe you’d start with something like this, given each school’s recent football performance:
Upper Division: Florida State, Iowa, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, USC, Wisconsin
Lower Division: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Northwestern, Purdue, Rutgers, Stanford, UCLA, Washington
Get as creative as you want; the dividing lines could be somewhat porous. In a nine-game conference schedule, for instance, each team could play six members of its own division, two members of the other division and one designated rivalry game. You could have a four-team conference playoff featuring the top three finishers in the Upper Division and the first-place finisher in the Lower Division. To facilitate promotion and relegation, the top team in the Lower Division could be promoted to the Upper Division, and you could have a one-game playoff for the second promotional slot. Some teams could also earn immunity from relegation if, say, they’d made the College Football Playoff Top 25 in two of the last three seasons.
However the Big Ten wants to approach things, it’s clear that its days as a concentrated group of Midwestern schools are over. The SEC versus Big Ten arms race is on. The only question is which side of the battle lines your school lands on — if it’s invited to the fight at all.