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Big Ten Football: What a 16-Team Conference Could Look Like After Expansion

Big Ten Football: Ohio State Buckeyes Football

How different will the Big Ten look once USC and UCLA join in 2024?

The Big Ten has joined the SEC in becoming a 16-team Power 5 conference. USC and UCLA are slated to join in time for the 2024 college football season, but in the meantime, the Big Ten will continue with its current 14-team slate for the next two years. However, it's safe to assume the Big Ten will look a lot different once the '24 season arrives and the conference's footprint expands to the West Coast with the Trojans and Bruins officially in as members.

Welcoming USC and UCLA into the conference and working to mesh the two new members into the league will require a lot of work, and on top of that, commissioner Kevin Warren and the rest of the conference leadership have some big decisions in the near future about the overall structure of the Big Ten.

Change, chaos and overall uncertainty are really the only three certainties right now in college football. The sport is going through a period of massive upheaval, as NIL, the transfer portal, the number of conference games played, divisions or no divisions, conference realignment, the overall structure of the NCAA, and potentially new governance or a new system for the FBS level has consumed (or will) the sport over the last two-plus years. Additionally, a postseason format after the 2026 season still needs to be decided. Some of those factors could play into how the Big Ten chooses to structure its conference in the near future.

The arrival of USC and UCLA creates a dilemma for the conference: How will divisions look and what changes to the schedule could come in 2022? Of course, divisions aren't guaranteed in the future Big Ten. The league could choose a different path, including pods or no divisions.

How could a 16-team Big Ten look in the future? Here’s a guess at what the conference could explore:

Big Ten Football: What a 16-Team Conference Could Look Like After Expansion

Scenario 1: The East/West Split

East

Indiana
Maryland
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State
Purdue
Rutgers

West

Illinois
Iowa
Minnesota
Nebraska
Northwestern
UCLA
USC
Wisconsin

Analysis: Thanks to a recent rule change by the NCAA Division I Council, the Big Ten does not have to maintain divisions in the future (or in '22 or '23) to hold a conference championship game. Although the option is listed here, maintaining divisions in the future seems unlikely for the conference. However, if it did pursue this path, USC and UCLA are easy to slide into the West Division. And if that is the decision, one team (Purdue) would need to move to the East. Keeping Purdue in the West and shifting Illinois to the East is also an option.  

Scenario 2: No Divisions

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Maryland
Michigan
Michigan State
Minnesota
Nebraska
Northwestern
Ohio State
Penn State
Purdue
Rutgers
UCLA
USC
Wisconsin

Analysis: This format is pretty straightforward. Instead of breaking off into an East-West structure in divisions, the Big Ten would go with all 16 teams in one division and take the top two by whichever metric the conference prefers (conference winning percentage most likely). In this format, the top two teams would play for the conference title. So in theory, Ohio State and Michigan could play for the Big Ten Championship after playing in the regular-season finale. A format like this one would also force the conference to rethink its annual scheduling model. Protecting three rivals and rotating six opponents every two years would allow every program to play a home and away game against every team in the Big Ten in a four-year window.

Scenario 3: Pods

Pod A: Indiana, Maryland, Purdue, Rutgers
Pod B: Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State
Pod C: Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Pod D: Minnesota, Nebraska, UCLA, USC

Analysis: The pod system is probably a longshot here, but the idea has gained interest in recent years. This setup essentially matches teams up with guaranteed opponents every year from their pod (three games), while playing two opponents from each of the other pods (for nine conference games overall). The pods could be tweaked over time for competitive reasons or if the league wants to create different matchups. In this setup and at the end of the season, the Big Ten could take the teams with the best conference winning percentage to play in the title game. In the above scenario, Pod B is loaded with four of the Big Ten's top programs, while Pod D features three of the conference's newest members - Nebraska, UCLA and USC.

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