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Penn State's Place In The Changing Landscape Of College Sports

Penn State and the Big Ten are at the front of expansion talk in college sports. What are the Big Ten's options, and how do they affect Penn State?

In case you hadn't heard, the college football world is changing. Almost every media outlet in America has reported in one fashion or another on the effect of expansion and what the future might hold for particular teams and conferences. Until last week, all of these reports were mere speculation. Then Colorado jumped the Big 12 ship for membership in the Pac 10, a conference that has its sights set on even more Big 12 teams. Further diluting the Big 12, Nebraska left to join the Big Ten, which now has an even number of teams and a potential championship game to look forward to in 2011, when Nebraska will begin conference play. Boise State then joined the Mountain West Conference, and that is where college sports finds itself today. Well, this morning, at least, as this ever-changing scene might be different by nightfall.

So how does all of this expansion talk affect Penn State? Anson has a great review of Pitt's options, one of which is joining the Big Ten. Penn State fans are seemingly split on this notion - some (myself included) would love to renew the rivalry that once existed between these two in-state teams, while other fans find this rivalry to be reserved for older fans. Unfortunately for the former group, Pitt's move to the Big Ten is highly unlikely. The fuel that drives expansion (at least for Jim Delaney and the Big Ten bigwigs) is money, and the best way to create revenue is to sell the Big Ten Network (an extremely profitable endeavor for the conference) into new markets and households. Since the BTN is already on Comcast cable in Pittsburgh, the addition of Pitt to the Big Ten would likely increase BTN viewership very little. Pitt would certainly qualify in every other requirement category (good academics, strong research, etc.), but those factors take a distant back seat to the almighty dollar.

The Big Ten seemingly has three options, now that they've secured a 12th team - 1) stay at 12, implement a championship game, appease Joe Paterno's wish to continue playing football after Thanksgiving; 2) grow to 14 teams, split into divisions, and make Notre Dame make a decision once and for all; 3) become a superconference by growing to 16 teams.

Stay At 12
The addition of Nebraska gives the Big Ten four of the top ten winningest college football programs ever. The SEC has been the conference to beat for a few years now, but historically the Big Ten is the strongest conference. College football is cyclical, so the Big Ten's return to prominence is imminent; this is the first step (or steps, once a conference championship game is announced). With Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and now Nebraska, the Big Ten can stop at 12 and be very content with the future. There is no threat to the Big Ten of anyone leaving like there is in the Big 12; the Big Ten is far and away the most lucrative conference, with yearly payouts exceeding 20 million.

Grow To 14
This scenario, at this moment in time, seems to be most likely and logical, depending on the decision of the proverbial elephant in the room, Notre Dame. The proud and storied program has fallen on hard times recently, falling from general relevance (save a few good years) since the last millennium. If Notre Dame agrees to join the Big Ten, the conference would likely take only one more team during expansion (and likely an Eastern team, but that's a story for a different time) to even the conference at 14. If Notre Dame decides that expansion is not for them, and they want to risk being left in the dark, going to 14 would likely involve some combination of Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse, or some other Big 12 or Big East team that fits the Big Ten mold.

Grow To 16
After the Pac 10 announced they were going to extend invites to 6 Big 12 teams, the national consensus was that college sports in general was likely shifting to the MEGATRONCONFERENCE Era. The likeliest scenario in this Era would be the demise of the Big 12 and Big East, the growth of the Pac 10, Big 10, and SEC into 16 team conferences, and an ACC/Big East hybrid continuing to create four mega conferences. The wild card in all of this is the new Mountain West, a conference plagued by always being on the outside looking in, but now a stronger conference with the addition of Boise State. A move to 16 teams by the Big Ten would almost definitely involve schools like Rutgers and Syracuse (to secure, or help secure, a NY tv market for the Big Ten Network), Missouri, Kansas, or Iowa State (to keep the Midwest theme of the conference), and/or the Golden Domers of South Bend, but as mentioned before, getting Notre Dame probably means staying at 14.

Only time will tell what happens to the Big Ten. These announcements are coming daily, and the shifting landscape seems to have new rumors and stories by the hour. No matter what, Penn State will still be a member of the strong and growing Big Ten. Who else will be in that conference is anyone's guess. With Ohio State, Iowa, and Alabama set to visit Happy Valley in 2011, and with a possible addition of Nebraska to the schedule, one thing is for certain - the quality of play in the Big Ten just got markedly better.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.