The Big Ten meetings were last week at a hotel somewhere in Chicagoland and the topic of expansion is hot, hot, HOT. I would like to take a few minutes to discuss Big Ten expansion and what it might mean for Illinois, as well as where I think Illinois football is going in general.
It seems like it has been a decade since our glorious run to the Rose Bowl, when USC crushed us like the Big Ten pretender that we were that year. But alas, it has only been three years. My how the mighty have fallen.
Ron Zook inherited our football program that was absolutely wrecked by none other than Ron Turner and turned it around in three years, only to see us not make a bowl since. Sigh. I will give Ron the benefit of the doubt as I know how f*cked the Illini were but Ron doesn't get the benefit for too much longer. It will be interesting to see how the team performs this year with a new offensive and defensive coordinator. As an aside, our new OC is from Arkansas, an SEC team - I bet he dropped over when he saw the level of talent he was dealing with at Illinois vs. a team from the SEC.
I would like to add that it was refreshing to see the Illini can their OC after ONE year when it was obvious that he was performing dismally. I remember some of our early season games talking to myself and saying "what the f1ck is going on out there - they are hiking the ball and just running all over the field?". My wife probably heard me say this a thousand times last year. Contrast the sudden and quick canning of the Illinois OC to the BEARS who let Ron Turner languish in the OC position for years and years (TWICE) calling the same stupid plays over and over and over. But I digress (painfully).
I have been bagging on Wisconsin the last decade or so for their out of conference joke schedule, but it appears I am the dunce in this thing. Wisco typically has at least three cupcakes that they bring into Camp Randall for a thrashing year after year (this year it will be at UNLV, San Jose St. and Austin Peay). Illinois out of conference this year has only one cupcake, Southern Illinois. So who is smarter? Wisco for going to a bowl game every year with their wins or Illinois doing the "right thing" and playing a tougher schedule but going 3-9 consistently? It isn't just the bowl game itself that is important, you get the extra practices in the time until your bowl game, and the exposure on national TV as well. I have to hand it to my close personal friend Barry Alvarez, the easy wins are the way to go. But it is coming at a greater expense dollar wise, as the cupcake teams are demanding more money to get pounded by the big boys. At the end of the year, when the bowl bids come out, the out of conference schedule no doubt hurts Wisco, but it would be nice to be there unlike the Illini are on a standard basis.
But the cupcake victories don't hurt Wisco that badly. The Big Ten has bowl games locked in for pretty much anyone who can manage to pull off a .500 season and where you go to play will only vary up or down one "tier" of bowl depending on who the individual bowl committees want at their game. Wisco has boatloads of adoring fans who will travel with them wherever they go, probably only matched by Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. So the Illini, to stop being a pernnial doormat in football, need to schedule the cupcakes - but, as usual, what the f1ck do I know.
Now, expansion talk. The conference has been talking about adding at least one more team for a loooong time now. The obvious choice is Notre Dame, but the Irish seem to treasure their independence as relates to their football program. But their other teams all play in the Big East, a schlock conference by any standard in everything except hoops, and even that is on the wane. So you never know.
A more likely scenario has the Big Ten picking up three teams to bring it to 14 and splitting the conference up into two divisions, and then having a championship game, just like the SEC, Big 12 and others do. The three that I can see joining are Mizzou (a natural), Rutgers (New York TV market) and one more, that I can't put my finger on. I have heard Nebraska floated around, and that fits with a great natural rivalry with Iowa, but not much else. Is Nebraska even a decent school? I guess it really doesn't matter as long as they bring the $$.
One other scenario that I have heard floated is that the Big Ten picks up FIVE teams for a total of 16, including TEXAS and that makes the Big Ten a super conference that could rival the SEC in terms of revenue and recruiting. This would be totally crazy but you never know.
In the more realistic three team pickup or five team super conference, this is all very, very bad news for my beloved Illini as far as football is concerned. We already can't beat the crap teams in the Big Ten (and lose to Mizzou every single year), and now you would be adding teams like Nebraska, Rutgers, or (god forbid) Texas into the mix? Cripes they would all pound us into the dirt on a regular basis unless something insane changes in the level of talent we get at Illinois, and fast.
While Big Ten expansion is great for the conference, and may raise the level of talent that we get at Illinois, it won't help us at all getting to a crap bowl since the other teams will have elevated talent as well.
In the end, I guess I will have to be happy with the occasional bowl game appearance every decade or so, and a once-in-a-while surprise victory over a favored opponent and just take my lumps.