It looks like - for now, anyway - all this conference expansion talk has settled down and we can finally come up for air. The Pac-10 failed in its attempt to become a mega-conference, when Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State decided to try and stick it out in a Big 12 Conference that's losing Nebraska and Colorado. The Big Ten appears comfortable only adding the Cornhuskers, but surely the ears of conference officials will perk up if Notre Dame demonstrates even the slightest bit of interest.
With Texas out of the picture and Missouri and Kansas at least ostensibly committed to preserving the Big 12, the Big Ten should stop right where it is. The conference acquired a wonderful new member in Nebraska, a great fit athletically and academically. Nebraska has a strong football tradition, with several national titles to its name, an improving basketball program set to build a big new arena in the coming years, a rabid fan base that travels well, the name recognition to get the NCAA's attention, and an overall commitment to athletic success. UNL is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), no small selling point for a conference that prides itself on the research generated by its member schools. While Nebraska ranks just 96th in the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings of American colleges - the lowest existing conference members rank 71st - the theory is Nebraska is poised to make a leap up that chart once it gets its hands on some of the Big Ten Network money and surrounds itself with the influence of the conference's premier institutions. Finally, the move lets the Big Ten retain its geographic cohesion, which still matters to some of us. Nebraska shares a border with Iowa, which means the conference will at least be nine contiguous states.
I am convinced most schools the Big Ten has looked at while shopping around can make a reasonable case that they fit into the conference athletically and academically. For me, though, it comes down to one question for each school. In this tradition-rich conference in which football is the undisputed king, would I be excited to see that school play at Camp Randall Stadium? The smart-aleck in me would say that after suffering through years of Wisconsin's non-conference football schedules, any squad with a few scholarship players and a mascot would get the blood flowing. But, in all seriousness, if a conference based so heavily on football tradition is going to add more chairs to the table, the teams it brings in had better excite football fans.
With Nebraska, the answer is unquestionably yes, a game against the Cornhuskers in Madison would intrigue me. The only other once-possible expansion candidates whose football teams would unequivocally pique my interest with a trip to Wisconsin, no matter their records, are Texas and Notre Dame.
Missouri and Kansas? Maybe, depending on how good those teams are in a given year.
Maryland? Probably not. Syracuse? No. Rutgers? Absolutely not.
It really is as simple as that. It's important to remember that conference expansion is not without costs. Sure, adding a member instantly turns another fan base into Big Ten loyalists - and Big Ten Network subscribers. But it also means another proverbial mouth to feed. In a conference like the Big Ten, which has retained its remarkable stability in large part because of equitable revenue sharing, that means another school with which to split the millions garnered from bowl game appearances and Big Ten Network distribution. This isn't the Big 12 where Texas eats first and the rest of you can have what's left when they're finished. It makes little sense to add a team whose on-field product doesn't immediately make the conference more attractive.
In the Big Ten Conference, the field that matters most is undoubtedly the one that measures 360 by 160 feet. Since that is the lens through which every expansion candidate should be viewed, it is clear what the Big Ten's next move should be.
Welcome its 12th member, sit back, relax and enjoy the epic football games.