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Neil Rudel on college sports: Big Ten expansion leaves a green footprint

Of the Big Ten’s five expansions over the last 70 years — Michigan State in 1950, Penn State in 1990, Nebraska in 2011, Maryland and Rutgers in 2014 — Thursday’s blockbuster announcement that Southern Cal and UCLA would join the league starting in 2024 is the biggest.

It converts the league from a midwestern base with eastern cherry picking to a coast-to-coast footprint that snagged the Los Angeles market and the west’s best two brands while, intentional or not, torpedoed the Pac-12.

An obvious counter to the SEC’s poaching of Texas and Oklahoma, the Big Ten has further positioned itself as the kingpin of collegiate sports.

And if anybody needed another reminder that college athletics are no longer fueled by tradition and geographic rivalries, this is it.

College sports are fueled by one thing — money. That’s why Thursday’s vote among university presidents was unanimous.

There are reports that the next Big Ten television contract could be worth $1 billion — meaning each school would be in line for $100 million annually.

As it is, Big Ten members received $46 million last year – or $27 million more than the Pac-12 distribution of $19 million per school, lowest among the Power-5.

As was the case when Penn State’s addition blindsided the college football world — including many coaches in the Big Ten — this deal came together quietly and now has the rest of the college sports world scrambling.

Penn State’s administration, from new president Neeli Bendapudi on down and including James Franklin, hailed the move.

And indeed, it provides the entire Big Ten with an opportunity to sell football recruits on the chance to play at USC and UCLA, which uses the Rose Bowl for its home games. Plus UCLA basketball remains on a short list of the nation’s most iconic programs.

Whether this news is as attractive to the UCLA and USC athletes, however, is another matter. For them, suddenly the closest conference trip is Nebraska, half a continent away.

Now at 16 teams, is the Big Ten done expanding? National experts believe the Big Ten and SEC are moving toward mega-conferences with 20 teams each in hopes that an expanded College Football Playoff, perhaps with eight, 12 or 16 teams, gains traction.

Is this the time Notre Dame finally raises a white flag and surrenders to joining a conference, either the ACC, where it is a full-fledged member in all sports but football, or somewhere else?

Many of the Irish’s best rivals — starting with USC — could soon have a schedule that doesn’t accommodate them. If you’re Southern Cal and you’re already playing Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and crosstown UCLA, among others, do you really want to play Notre Dame at the end of the year in a non-conference game anymore?

What of Clemson, the top program in the ACC, or The U (Miami)? What of respectable Pac-12 programs such as Oregon and Washington? Would the Big Ten want Kansas for its basketball?

I feel for all the schools — like Pitt and West Virginia — that are sitting today in a cold sweat hoping their houses don’t disintegrate while their league’s flagship chases the almighty dollar.

Ironically, Lincoln Riley bolted the Sooners for USC seemingly to avoid the rigorous SEC schedule and now has landed in a conference that may be almost as difficult.

Southern Cal, though, has already proven to be a step ahead of most schools when it comes to plucking gems from the transfer portal — or encouraging them to hop into it — and then paying them off in NIL funding.

How the Big Ten structures its football scheduling will be most intriguing.

Will it bag the East and West divisions, as it’s said to be considering, to correct the imbalance of power? Or will it wind up with four divisions and an NFL-like playoff alignment?

Will it move to 10 conference games?

There are many questions still to be answered, but one thing already has been: The college sports model we grew up with, whether we like it or not, is long gone.

Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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