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Monday, August 08, 2022
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Column: Predicting next schools to join the Big Ten

College sports are in a state of realignment chaos. Now that USC and UCLA are joining the Big Ten, anything is possible. The Big Ten should strike while the iron is hot and expand its empire even wider.

In case you missed it, the Big Ten grew. On June 30, the Big Ten announced USC and UCLA would join the conference in 2024.

The move was met with shock from all corners of the college sports world.

Realignment isn’t a new concept in college sports. Just last year, Oklahoma and Texas accepted an invitation to join the SEC in 2025. But the nature of this move felt different than the conference shake-ups in recent memory. 

Nobody ever imagined a world in which Los Angeles schools would join the Big Ten. Teams on the West Coast have always played other teams on the West Coast. Teams in the Midwest play other Midwest teams. This world is no more. 

“I wasn’t going to come into [this job] saying, ‘Oh, well, this is the way it’s been,’” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said regarding the USC/UCLA announcement. “The organizations, the entities and the people who are going to be able to thrive in a disruptive environment are those who embrace being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. 

“The organizations or conferences that are going to come out of this in a really good position are those that are able to adapt and be nimble,” Warren continued. 

The chaos isn’t stopping, either. It will likely accelerate — sooner rather than later.

Luckily for Big Ten schools, the conference seems to be in a position of power. On top of expanding westward, they’re on the cusp of an alleged $1 billion contract with Fox. 

Realignment is never certain, or even predictable. The USC/UCLA news came out of nowhere. Regardless of what Big Ten suits reveal to the public, they have their eyes set on their next target(s).

"It will be done for the right reasons at the right time with our student-athletes, academic and athletic empowerment at the center of any and all decisions that we will make regarding any further expansions," Warren said about potential realignment. "We will not expand just to expand.”

Now, the question is, who fits the Big Ten criteria?

Notre Dame

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Let’s stop beating around the bush. Notre Dame belongs in the Big Ten. 

The Fighting Irish are one of the biggest brands in all of college sports. Yet in football, they’re independent. Most of Notre Dame’s sports — except football — belong to the ACC. Their football team even joined the conference during the shortened 2020 season. 

But, Notre Dame is too good of a program to invest in a conference that isn’t the Big Ten or SEC.

The Fighting Irish have remained tight-lipped amid the realignment chaos. Yet CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd recently reported that the Irish are looking for $75 million annually from their broadcasting partner NBC to remain independent. Notre Dame currently earns $22 million annually from their contract. NBC is only willing to offer the significant raise if the Irish seek “shoulder programming” from a major conference. 

It wouldn’t be nearly the same as becoming a member, but could indicate the beginning of a future partnership. Regardless, the Big Ten should show maximum interest in any sort of relationship with the Irish. 

The Big Ten’s academic reputation was an important factor in USC and UCLA’s decision to join the conference. Notre Dame likely shares these values, given their supreme academic standing

Ultimately, the move makes sense. Indiana is already home to two other Big Ten universities. Along with Michigan, the Big Ten will be home to two of Notre Dame’s biggest rivals after USC arrives in 2024.

Many Irish decision-makers and fans take pride in their independent status. If Notre Dame can continue to contend for the college football playoff and remain financially viable, they’ll see no reason to scramble and join a conference. Yet if the Big Ten and SEC become too rich and powerful, Notre Dame could fall behind and become desperate for a bigger paycheck.

Oregon, Washington

The Pac-12 is in a rough period. They lost two of their biggest brands: USC and UCLA. There’s been talks of a merger with the Big 12, although those rumors will reportedly not materialize. 

Of the remaining Pac-12 schools, the University of Oregon and University of Washington are perhaps the two biggest targets. 

Sports Illustrated's Pat Forde ranked all Power Five schools based on “desirability” — a mixture of sports and academic rankings, viewership, revenue and more. Of the remaining Pac-12 teams — not counting USC and UCLA — Washington finished highest, ranked at 15. Oregon was ranked 22, third in the Pac-12.

Oregon and Washington are recognizable brands with passionate fanbases, as both finished within the top 20 in the viewership metric. Perhaps most importantly for realignment, they were ranked as top 25 football programs. These are consistent football programs that will create attractive matchups with other Big Ten schools — garnering higher ratings and revenue. 

This move makes sense for both sides. Washington and Oregon can invest in a true powerhouse conference instead of sinking with the ship that is the Pac-12. The Big Ten can expand their breadth of influence even wider. A primarily Midwest conference could come to dominate the West Coast.

Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported that the Big Ten is additionally considering the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University as potential members. While both are viable academically, their football programs have underachieved in recent years and may not be as attractive to television networks. The Big Ten will likely prioritize Oregon and Washington.

North Carolina

The Big Ten could also potentially take their pick from the unstable ACC. 

Some of the ACC’s best programs don’t seem to want to stay in the conference, which is stuck in a media rights deal that essentially depreciates in value and won’t expire until 2036. This isn’t the place to be.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should leave now while everybody else is.

North Carolina shares many of the same values as major Big Ten universities. Their academic standards are higher than most SEC universities. 

Football viability is perhaps North Carolina’s greatest flaw as a program. It would make more regional sense for UNC to join the SEC, but the Tar Heel football team would likely get pummeled for years. 

UNC will become a better football program if they join the Big Ten while playing more opponents on their level. They’ll earn more money just by being in the conference. The Big Ten status will make the Tar Heels more familiar on a national scale, especially to recruits. It will help them stand out in the crowded South.

OfficialVisit surveyed 1,000 high school football players to measure the strength of each Power Five program’s brand. UNC finished fourteenth, which was higher than Michigan and would have ranked third in the Big Ten.

North Carolina is a valuable program with untapped football potential, and it would serve them most to join a competent conference with similar values.

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