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What If The Big 10 Is Just Bluffing?

After a couple days of hyperventilating speculation triggered by a Chicago Tribune report that the Big 10 may be accelerating its expansion timetable, the Big 10 yesterday, through its human constituents, popped out and said "just joking!"  Apparently we're going to have to wait a modern eternity -- i.e., another seven to 13 months -- to find out whether the Big 10 is going to 14 or 16 schools.

Or if they're adding anyone, or just one.  Yeah, I really just typed that line.  Ever since December, we've been so wrapped up in speculation about what could happen if the Big 10 expanded, and how many teams they may add, that we've completely forgotten about the possibility that they don't expand at all, or if they do, that they only add one school.

Of course, there are good reasons for that.  For one, all of the official information has tended to indicate that expansion will occur.  Expansion to as many as 14 or even 16 teams has been bandied about, making expansion to 12 almost a passe topic.  It certainly makes sense for the Big 10 to add at least one team, so it can play a conference championship game and expand its Big 10 Network at least somewhat.  And what fun is it to speculate about the possibility that the Big 10 adds nobody?

Going back to the penultimate sentence of that previous paragraph, my gut feeling is that the Big 10's most prudent course of action is to expand by one school.  Adding one school brings in a championship game and new subscribers and possibly cable carriers for the Big 10 Network.  Some candidates would be better than others, but the value of a championship game and some level of BTN expansion is probably financially wise.

I've said before, in so many words, that the Big 10 is a relatively conservative conference.  It expanded to 10 in 1950 by adding Michigan State, and then to 11 in 1990 with Penn State.  Notre Dame was offered membership in 1999, but declined.  In other words, it has been shockingly stable compared to most of the other automatic qualifier conferences.  So would Commissioner Jim Delany really add three or even five new members in one fell swoop and enter a world that has not been successfully navigated by any conference?

Maybe.  If the accountants and the consultants he has hired and presumably trusts all tell him it's not only financially feasible but a potential money printing press, then maybe the Big 10 becomes the first AQ superconference.  Delany dreamed big with the Big 10 Network, and that has been a resounding success for the conference.  Beyond that, the conference has some level of cushion.  Even if things didn't work out as planned and the three or five new schools didn't bring in enough new pie that all 14 or 16 schools now had at least an equal -- and preferably larger -- share than they'd had before, they'd still be getting a helluva lot of pie.  The Big 10 already distributes more money to its member institutions than the Big 12 and Pac-10 do, and all those schools still seem to be getting by to some degree.

But I want to imagine a reality that is so unimaginable given what we've all read for five months that I may lose some of you here.  What if Delany never had any intention of adding even three teams, let alone five?  Other bloggers have suggested that the Big 10 may have used Missouri as a stalking horse to get to Texas, theorizing -- probably correctly -- that Texas would not make the first move on its own, but if it believed the Big 12 were in peril, it would happily throw the other 11 (OK, 10 when you take out Texas A&M) schools under the bus to save its own ass.  Let's take the same theory, but apply it to a different situation.  What if the Big 10 is using superconference-style expansion as a stalking horse to get Notre Dame to join?

Granted, this theory makes a lot of assumptions that aren't particularly popular.  Most blogs, BOTC included, have foregone extended discussion of Notre Dame as a candidate.  There are various reasons.  I have foregone that discussion because I have considered it the obvious choice from the beginning, and also because it would have no effect on the Big 12.  If the Big 10 wants to go to 12 schools and that school is Notre Dame, then there'd be no point in even discussing this issue on this site.  Other sites may think they're not worth discussing because they're too obvious, or because they think the Big 10 is still stung by their public denial in 1999, or because they don't think they're as valuable as they used to be, or because they just don't want the Big 10 to add them.

I still think Notre Dame makes sense as an addition to the Big 10, however.  For one, it obviously gets the Big 10 a championship game, which provides revenue and relevance later in the season.  Second, it gets the Big 10 a large national viewership associated with the Catholic Church, an institution that probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  That could potentially be a windfall of new subscribers to the Big 10 Network.  In other words, Notre Dame is the safe, conservative choice; assuming, of course, they are interested.

How would the Big 10 go about getting Notre Dame?  Funny I should ask.  It became clear in 1999 that simply asking Notre Dame to be the league's 12th member was not going to work.  Even now, after another two failed coaches, the Fighting Irish's independent streak still seems to be running strong (at least among fans).  And as mentioned in a previous post, Notre Dame probably still has the financial backing -- for now -- to remain independent if it wants to do so.  Further, if the status quo remained, Notre Dame's administrators would always know in the back of their head that, if worst came to worst, they could always ask the Big 10 to join.

So if you follow me down the trail I'm blazing in my little tin foil hat, the Big 10 has taken away ND's safety net.  Or, more accurately, they're threatening to take it away.  By adding three or five teams, they'd effectively foreclose forever the possibility that Notre Dame could join the Big 10.  Further, by most likely killing the Big East -- and maybe the Big 12 (with a Pac-10 assist) -- in the process, they'd cut off the next two most desirable alternatives for the folks in South Bend.  Thus, if we assume that the staid old Big 10 really has no intentions of expanding to 14 or 16 teams, then they are bluffing in the hopes that ND will evaluate its options, swallow its pride, and join the Big 10 (fold).

Not that there aren't plenty of holes in this theory.  Presumably, the Big 10 is paying a lot of money to consultants to evaluate these schools as possible additions.  It wouldn't make sense to spend all that money knowing there was no way they would add any school other than Notre Dame.  Further, there's the potential for the Big 10 to look even more foolish than it did in 1999 when Notre Dame publicly declined membership.  It's bad enough to get turned down when you propose in front of everyone; it's infinitely worse to concoct an elaborate lead-up to the proposal and then get turned down in front of everyone.

But for the moment, let's assume that this is a bluff, and the Big 10's only real goal is Notre Dame.  As I said, it puts the Irish in a tough spot, because if Brian Kelly doesn't lead them back to prominence respectability, and nobody is interested in giving them a new TV contract when the current one expires, then they're really going to wish they had a conference to join.  Are Notre Dame's administrators willing to take that risk?

Maybe the Big 10 is going to draw this out for several more months, with occasional speculation that Schools X, Y and Z are on the verge of being added, and let ND marinate in its predicament.  Ultimately, maybe there's a private meeting between Big 10 officials and Notre Dame officials, wherein the Big 10 makes its play, telling ND that if the Irish are willing to join, they will be the only addition, but if they don't, the Big 10 will add three teams and ND will never get another opportunity to join, even if they really have no intention of adding three more teams.

What if, however, Notre Dame calls that bluff?  At that point, is the Big 10 willing to add three other teams to save face, or is it banking on ND folding, joining the conference, and just accepting that it will look foolish if ND calls its bluff?  Obviously I don't know the answer, but I thought the theory was just plausible enough to type out.  What do you think?