Nothing encapsulates the big-money posturing of conference expansion more than two middling East Coast football programs joining a historically celebrated conference thanks to branding and TV viewership.
Commissioner Jim Delany sent ripples through college football when plucking the Terrapins and Scarlet Knights out of the ACC and Big East, respectively, in November 2012, creating instability for those two conferences while strengthening the Big Ten’s strategic ground.
Never mind that Maryland and Rutgers are a combined 61–65 in football since 2009, or that the campuses are 11-plus-hour drives from the Big Ten’s home office in Chicago, or that more long-standing rivalries will likely be severed as a result.
Conference realignment was never about all that. It’s about the projected $270 million for the Big Ten Network in 2013. It’s about commercial markets, where Maryland and Rutgers happen to be well positioned. Yes, it’s about tradition — Maryland and Rutgers were playing football in the 1800s.
But it’s also about something happening four hours north of Maryland’s campus — the Big Ten office that Delany is building in Manhattan.
Not only did the moves partner Penn State with two East Coast schools, but they also accentuate the notion that the conference can get away with this because of its deep alumni base coast-to-coast.
SEC fans are unmatched, particularly in the South, but the Big Ten’s list of donors from California to New York is impressive.
So when cash-strapped Maryland needed a financial boost and Rutgers saw a bleak future in the depleted Big East, they showcased their meticulous resource/facility investments to offset any lagging football results.
Maryland and Rutgers were willing to jump when others — such as North Carolina and Georgia Tech — apparently were not.
Their reward: Entering a conference that’s expected to distribute $25.7 million to each of its schools next year, mostly from a contract with ESPN/ABC and the joint BTN venture with FOX, which also has the East Coast-based YES Network.
With both sides consummating the marriage in July, what will this long-distance relationship look like? And what do the football programs of Maryland and Rutgers really offer?
Maryland and Rutgers On the Field
While the Big Ten gets Maryland at a relatively good time in the Terps’ transitional arc, Rutgers has work to do to avoid the bottom of the seven-team East division.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall survived a shaky two-year start and produced seven wins last year despite several key injuries offensively. When healthy, receiver Stefon Diggs is one of the country’s best playmakers. Diggs will return as a top target for C.J. Brown, a quarterback who won’t overwhelm but has impressed many ACC coaches with his football acumen.
Having two solid coordinators — Mike Locksley on offense and Brian Stewart on defense — eases the transition. Maryland has been stout at linebacker and defensive back under Stewart, who loses top corners Dexter McDougle and Isaac Goins.
Inexperience is an issue on the offensive line, but that’s why Maryland brought in former LSU offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, one of three new Terrapins coaches.
Maryland won’t dominate in Year 1 but comes in as a respectable ACC team with program improvements looming.
Rutgers seems to have the steeper climb of the two. That can change if the Knights prove they have a reasonable quarterback option. Gary Nova flashed brilliance but hampered the offense with 14 interceptions. Nova is one of several quarterbacks competing for the starting spot.
The firing of defensive coordinator Dave Cohen amid bullying accusations from a former player cost Rutgers several highly ranked recruits. Rutgers’ 2014 class dipped to a No. 60 ranking on Signing Day. With the problems of basketball coach Mike Rice, the school couldn’t tolerate similar allegations. Recruits noticed.
Rutgers enters Big Ten play with two new coordinators, most notably Ralph Friedgen, a well-respected play-caller who enters the Big Ten at the same time as a Terps team he used to coach. Rutgers is counting on Friedgen to stabilize a rhythm-less offense. He’ll start by finding someone to get the ball to talented receiver Leonte Carroo.
One American Athletic Conference coach believes Rutgers will have a tough time competing in the Big Ten. “I think they will struggle to be .500 in that league, especially in the East,” he says.
How Much of an Upgrade is the Big Ten for These Two Teams?
The Big Ten is probably the country’s third- to fifth-best league, depending whom you ask.
The SEC still has the strongest profile. The Pac-12 and Big 12 have serious depth, and FSU’s national title lifts the ACC’s profile.
You could argue that Maryland is downgrading in football competition, though both leagues are probably equal top to bottom. Rutgers is upgrading, but this isn’t Division II to FBS. It’s a manageable move.
The Big Ten East should be a beast, though. It features Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana. The first four on that list range from national title contenders to potential conference winners. Maryland and Rutgers must play all six divisional opponents plus two crossovers.
But the bottom third of the league still plays uninspired football. Purdue, Indiana and Illinois have been bad for a while, and Northwestern is coming off a 1–7 conference season.
“The Big Ten is getting better,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer says. “Michigan State, Penn State coming off the sanctions, Wisconsin is a helluva football team. We were right there on the 35-yard line to beat Clemson. Traditionally there’s an Iowa, that’s a helluva team. I think it’s coming.”
A fully loaded Big East/American was known in coaching circles for its physical teams. Syracuse, Pitt and Boston College — current ACC schools with roots in the Big East — each won seven games last season with power-run principles.
The best move for Rutgers might be to mirror those programs.
For Maryland, improving in College Park will help its league debut. The Terps are 3–9 in conference home games since 2011. The games won’t get easier with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State visiting Byrd Stadium this year.
The Big Ten East
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Coaches and athletic directors use the word all the time — branding.
In the big picture, the branding presence of Maryland and Rutgers will be less about the schools and more about Big Ten sprawl. Not many New Yorkers will watch Rutgers sports over the Yankees, nor will D.C. fans watch Maryland over the Redskins. But these schools are in huge markets where the Big Ten will capitalize.
If the Big Ten ever goes to 16 teams, it will undoubtedly add East Coast schools to create a five-team division for travel purposes and commonality.
The question is, will Rutgers and Maryland lose their identities in the process? Maryland was a founding member of the ACC. When people talked about the ACC, Maryland was probably among the first seven teams the common fan would list.
Rutgers was in a league it was capable of winning. Greg Schiano had resurrected the program.
Of course, Rutgers would make about 10 times less in the American, which makes a few more potential losses on the field easier to bear.
Joining the Big Ten was never a 12-month decision for either school. It was a move made for the long term, with financial stability the primary motivation. And as strange as it feels — and it feels awfully strange — it just might work out for everyone involved.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.