A Big Ten Wonk post from a couple of weeks ago explored some views from conference fans about adding a 12th team to the Big Ten. The primary advantage to this is that a conference with 12 teams can split into two divisions and hold a football championship game at the end of the season. That was the main impetus of the ACC grabbing Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech from the Big East a couple of years ago.
The obvious twelfth team for the Big Ten would of course be Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish have the one football program that consistently draws national attention every year regardless of whether they are good or bad and have long-standing rivalries with a number of Big Ten teams, including Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, and Penn State. The problem is that there's no program in the nation that has less of an incentive to join a conference than Notre Dame. The Irish recently renewed their TV contract with NBC and the new BCS rules essentially guarantee that the team will receive a major bowl berth if they can get through the regular season with only two losses.
I do believe that Notre Dame will eventually want to join a conference for football and when that time comes, there's no question that they would choose the Big Ten over the Big East. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx, Notre Dame doesn't want to be a member of any club that would have it as a member. That is, the Big Ten is already arguably the most powerful conference in the nation – it would be great if the Irish joined, but the conference is more than strong enough to stand on its own and doesn't need Notre Dame. The Big East, while having a monster basketball conference, is simply awful in football and is desperate to add any decent football program out there. Is Notre Dame, a school that is obsessed with its national profile, going to choose a conference where the best opposing programs are Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State or one with Pittsburgh and West Virginia as the dominant teams? When thinking along these lines, there's no way that Notre Dame is ever going to join the Big East for football. I wouldn't say the same for the Big Ten.
Still, if there was a 110% guarantee that Notre Dame will never, ever join any conference for football (the Irish rejected a formal invitation from the Big Ten in 1999), the Big Ten ought to move on and add a different 12th team. There's been banter about taking Missouri from the Big 12 or adding Pittsburgh or West Virginia. However, one of the emails printed in the aforementioned Big Ten Wonk post nailed exactly who I believe ought to be that 12th team if there's no shot at Notre Dame: the Syracuse Orange.
To me, Syracuse is the only school other than Notre Dame that would make sense for the Big Ten. The most predominant reason is that the ACC/Big East shakeup has essentially made the Northeastern portion of the United States up for grabs in college football. If the Big Ten has Syracuse paired with Penn State, the conference will have the two schools with the largest fan bases on the East Coast to go along with its dominance in the Midwest.
There are some Big Ten fans that have bemoaned the lack of geographic purity of the conference since we added Penn State. To put it nicely, I think those fans are inward looking people who have no concept whatsoever of the big picture. In this ESPN World where it's critical for college sports leagues to present matchups that have implications at a national level rather than a regional level, it's incredulous to me that we would want to limit the reach of the greatest conference in the country to the Midwestern states.
Let's look at the other candidates mentioned most often. Pittsburgh would be a natural rival for Penn State, but the problem with Pitt is that Penn State already covers the Pittsburgh media market itself better than the Panthers. West Virginia is an even worse choice: the Mountaineer fan base doesn't extend very far past Morgantown – and Morgantown or even the entire state of West Virginia is certainly not big enough in terms of population that the powers that be in the Big Ten would care to grab that market. Missouri is one of the biggest rivals for Illinois, but the Illini also already provide coverage for the Big Ten in St. Louis. The Tigers do open up Kansas City for the Big Ten, but even then, Mizzou has little reason to move when it's already in the financially and competitively strong Big 12 conference. Moving to the Big Ten would be a step up in academic prestige for them, yet that wouldn't be enough to pay for a messy and expensive divorce with the Big 12.
That leaves Syracuse. It's the team that the ACC originally wanted instead of Virginia Tech and for good reason. Syracuse, while down last year, has traditionally had a strong football program. At the same time, the Orange basketball program is consistently one of the best in the country. With Penn State already a member of the Big Ten, Syracuse would have a natural East Coast traveling partner and would not be physically isolated the way Boston College is with the other ACC teams. Since the Big East has been emaciated in football, Syracuse has a strong incentive to switch conferences. Last, and certainly not least, Syracuse has one of the biggest college fan bases in New York City and is considered one of the "home teams" there.
If the Big Ten is going to expand, it should expand its geographic footprint instead of looking within its present boundaries. It's pretty simple to me – New York City and the rest of New York State becoming Big Ten country is a whole lot more valuable than duplicating coverage in Pittsburgh and St. Louis or adding Morgantown. As I said before, Syracuse would make the Big Ten the top football conference on the East Coast as well as keeping its title as the predominant place for college sports in the Midwest. Other than the obvious choice of Notre Dame, I can't think of another school other than Syracuse that could add as much value to the Big Ten.