By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
With conference realignment back in the news, college football fans are looking for someone to blame for all of this mess. Is it Texas? Texas A&M? The SEC? The Big 12? Oklahoma? Dan Beebe? Mike Slive? While it’s easy to point fingers at a villain in this time of uncertainty, it’s always interesting to look back and wonder what if.
What if Notre Dame had joined the Big Ten in 1999? Would the Big Ten still have courted Nebraska, leaving the Big 12 in a much more stable position? Would we be talking about superconferences right now? Our guess is no.
This isn’t as far-fetched as some may believe. The Big Ten approached Notre Dame in 1999 about becoming the 12th member, but the school's board of trustees voted to remain Independent.
The desire of Notre Dame to remain Independent likely spurred a domino effect across all conferences and many teams. One look at the standings from 1999 reveals college football has changed quite a bit.
Although some conferences have watched several teams come and go over the last 50 years, the Big Ten has been a picture of stability. Before Nebraska joined in 2011, Penn State was the last school to accept an invitation to the conference, joining the Big Ten as a football member in 1993.
Had Notre Dame joined the conference in 1999 or with any of the previous overtures, the Big Ten would have become the third BCS conference with 12 teams and a conference title game.
Here is Athlon’s best guess at how the college football landscape would look like today, had the Irish ditched Independence and joined the Big Ten in 1999.
Impact on the Big Ten
Nebraska became the Big Ten’s 12th member last season, but it’s unlikely that move would have occurred with the Irish in the conference.
Replace Nebraska with Notre Dame in the Legends Division and it’s probably a good idea of how the Big Ten could have looked in 1999.
As a side note, maybe the conference would have created better division names back then.
Impact on the Big 12
Thanks to overall instability and Texas A&M leaving for the SEC, the Big 12 is the conference generating the most national attention right now. Commissioner Dan Beebe is going to need to pull out a lot of stops to save his conference and keep Oklahoma and Texas happy.
Had the Big Ten already had 12 teams, it seems unlikely Nebraska would have left the Big 12 after the 2010 season. The Big Ten could certainly explore adding the Cornhuskers as part of a package to get to 14, but there’s no guarantee.
The issues that popped up last year in the Big 12 with unequal revenue sharing and the Longhorn Network would still likely face the conference. Even though the Cornhuskers may not want to stick around, where could they really turn?
Let’s also consider Colorado. The Buffaloes were an easy target for Pac-10 expansion and it’s very likely they would have left the Big 12 for a spot out west.
With the Big 12 looking to only fill one spot and Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M sticking together in this scenario, BYU would have been a very attractive candidate to fill Colorado’s spot.
Here’s what the Big 12 might’ve looked in 1999 under this scenario:
Impact on the Pac-10 in 1999
With Notre Dame in the Big Ten and Nebraska stuck in the Big 12, the Pac-10 simply invites Colorado and Utah to get to 12 teams.
Overall, the Pac-12 that could have been created in 1999 isn't much different than the current version.
Impact on the ACC
The ACC became a 12-team conference in 2005, as Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College joined from the Big East.
However, if Notre Dame had joined the Big Ten in 1999, it’s fair to say the ACC may have considered expansion a few years earlier.
Syracuse generated a lot of interest when the ACC wanted to make the jump to 12 teams and who knows, maybe the Orange would have gotten a bid over Virginia Tech or Boston College.
We’ll stick with the current ACC alignment for how things could look had Notre Dame joined the Big Ten in 1999 –
Impact on the Big East
The hardest conference to pinpoint in this scenario is the Big East. The conference has studied adding more teams, but is currently at nine with the addition of TCU in 2012.
Projecting what could have happened in 1999 is an even bigger question mark. The conference was composed of (after ACC expansion) Syracuse, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Temple and Rutgers.
It’s a safe bet the Big East would have added Louisville and Cincinnati from Conference USA once again. However, the race would be on to match the other conferences and get to 12 teams, which means the Big East would still have some work to do.
Connecticut was a FCS team until 2000, but the Huskies likely would have been invited once again with Louisville and Cincinnati.
Temple was removed from the Big East in 2004, but may have stayed if the conference wanted to get to 12 teams in 1999.
So where does that leave the Big East? Considering all of the BCS conferences would be moving to 12 teams, we’ll say the conference invites TCU, UCF, East Carolina and Houston to get to 12.
SMU, Southern Miss, Memphis, Villanova and Marshall may also have generated some interest.
Here’s how a 12-team Big East may have looked with expansion in 1999 or in the early 2000s –
Division 1 (North)
Division 2 (South)
Impact on the SEC
Likely none. Texas A&M may have still wanted out of the Big 12 – even with more stability – but it’s likely there would have been no changes in the SEC.
Impact on College Football
Let’s say Notre Dame did join the Big Ten in 1999 and the rest of the BCS conferences all quickly moved to assemble 12-team leagues to keep up. With championship games in all six of the BCS conferences from 2000 to 2010, could the national title matchups differed?
Ohio State has represented the Big Ten in the national title in 2002, 2006 and 2007. What if the Buckeyes were upset in the Big Ten championship game?
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint how the regular season may have differed, it’s certainly a possibility the matchups in the national title may have changed.
Notre Dame has continued to maintain their desire to remain an Independent, even as college football seemingly moves toward super conferences. If 16-team leagues are really around the corner, expect Notre Dame to eventually join the Big Ten.
If Notre Dame had joined the Big Ten in 1999, could college football be closer to super conferences today? Perhaps that’s the case, especially if Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska weren’t happy with the Big 12. Maybe Nebraska still joins the Big Ten in 2011, but Pittsburgh, Syracuse or Missouri follows as the 14th member.
Although 14 or 16-team conferences would remain a possibility even with Notre Dame joining the Big Ten, I think it’s a safe to say there would be less uncertainty and more stability across college football. And we would be hearing more about the play on the field, rather than the potential break up of the Big 12 and the creation of super conferences.