Isn’t it about time the Big 10 dropped that silly number that stands adjacent to those three iconic letters? After all, there haven’t been ten members in the Big 10 since 1990 when the original “Big 10” schools invited Pennsylvania State University to join its ranks. Today, after the subsequent invitations to the University of Nebraska, the University of Maryland, and Rutgers University, the Big 10 stands at fourteen teams - with two more on the way.
In a shocking turn of events, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have applied - and have been accepted - into the Big 10 Conference beginning in 2024. It’s shocking for a few reasons. For one thing, California is a long way off from the Midwestern heartland of the Big 10.
Quiz time! Which is closer, the distance between Piscataway, New Jersey (the home of Rutgers Scarlet Knights) and Pasadena, California (the home of the UCLA Bruins), or the distance between Madrid and Moscow? If you guessed Madrid and Moscow, congratulations! You are either excellent at geography or were keenly aware that this question was a set-up.
Let me repeat that, though: Madrid and Moscow are closer to one-another than Piscataway and Pasadena (by almost 400 miles!). And yet, the schools in those towns will be in the very same conference. I’m sure the Rutgers wrestling team will be stoked for a meet in sunny LA - but I have a feeling USC’s swimming and diving team will be a little bummed out to hop out of Newark Liberty Airport and into a January snowstorm.
The other reason USC’s and UCLA’s move was so surprising was that it came at the direct expense of the Pac-12 Conference. The Rose Bowl Game, which traditionally featured the champions of the Big 10 and Pac-12, has been played annually since 1916. It’s the “Granddaddy of Them All.” But after 2023, it will have lost almost all of its tradition and significance.
After this upcoming season, when USC’s and UCLA’s move becomes official, the Pac-12 will have lost two of its most critical members. The Pac-12 may be nicknamed the “Conference of Champions,” given the conference won more NCAA national championships in team sports than any other conference in history, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that nickname doesn’t seem to fit anymore.
The Pac-12 (10?), as we know it, is dead. The power structure of college football, as we know it, is dead. The NCAA is powerless to stop any of this.
With the Big 10 accelerating into the teens with its membership, expect other conferences to begin mobilizing to maintain their relevance. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) got a head start last year, with the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, formerly of the Big-12 Conference, set to join the SEC’s ranks by 2025. I know that when I think about the Southeastern United States, the prairies of Tornado Alley come to mind immediately.
Basically, expect a lot more movement. Oregon, backed by Nike founder Phil Knight, Clemson, National Champions in 2016 and 2018, and Notre Dame, which has remained conference-independent, are the next big dominoes to fall. But the effects of conference realignment won’t stop with the top schools - every college football team will feel the aftershocks of this seismic event.
What will happen to the University of Cincinnati, which is set to join the depleted-Big-12 Conference in 2024 and just completed its most successful season in school history, becoming the first non-Power 5 conference member to earn a bid to the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014? What will happen to the University of Washington, the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University or the University of Arizona, all abandoned by USC and UCLA on the sinking-Pac-12-ship? What will happen to every other member of all the smaller conferences, like the American Athletic Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Mid-American Conference, or the Sun Belt Conference?
We will learn the answers to these questions in due time. The most likely scenario is that, before the end of the decade, we will only have two major conferences - the Big 10 and the SEC. Forget everything you thought you knew about how conferences are organized. Geography doesn’t matter anymore. School size doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that matters is cold, hard cash.
College football will continue to move into a more and more professionalized setting. We’ll probably see the College Football Playoff move towards a playoff format for both major conferences, with the champions of each meeting to determine the national champion. If that sounds an awful lot like the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference meeting up at the Super Bowl for the first time in 1967, that’s because it’s almost the exact same format! College football is marching towards becoming a full-fledged minor league.
Of course, there will never be anything “minor” about football at Ohio State or Michigan or USC or Texas or Alabama or any of the blue bloods. Those schools will still draw huge crowds, attract the best talent, and earn massive, massive TV deals. They aren’t going anywhere.
The situation is far more dire for the sidekicks of college football. The UCs, the Washingtons, the Arizonas, the Georgia Techs…they all could be relegated to permanent little brother status. So much for UC’s run to the College Football Playoff being a harbinger of a more egalitarian landscape…
In less than 24 months, two schools from California will be joining a Midwestern-based conference. Imagine the chaos that will follow 24 months after that. Drop the “10” from your name, Big 10. The Big Conference has a nice ring to it. Besides, can we really keep calling you the Big 10 when your membership will be closer to 20?