Why the Big Ten expansion is awful, and why it might just save college football (for me)

With Maryland joining the Big Ten, and Rutgers expected to follow suit as early as today, the gold-rush mentality behind college athletic conference reshuffling continues unabated. Aside from the fact that this will bring the total number of Big Ten teams up to 14 — ruining one of my favorite jokes about how the Big Ten has 12 teams while the Big XII has 10 — it also irrevocably changes the conference from a principally Midwest-based organization to something much more polymorphous. Sure, it’s not as egregious as West Virginia joining the Big XII, or TCU (located in Fort Worth, Texas, mind you) originally joining the Big East before the Big XII stepped in and restored a semblance of geographical sanity, but it’s just further fuel to the fire for the argument that conference affiliation has become meaningless beyond financial considerations.

Big Ten logoFor purists, and anyone else annoyed that schools from Pittsburgh and Syracuse will soon be in the Atlantic Coast Conference, it’s anathema to the hopelessly naive belief that college sports is a bastion of amateur pride and not a nakedly for-profit endeavor. And while I can’t defend any of it in and of itself, I’m actually happy about this trend that has made college sports a joke.

Allow me to explain.

About the time I stopped loving watching College Gameday and hating college football was when I suddenly couldn’t be satisfied if my Iowa Hawkeyes won their game. No no, I also had to live and die hoping Penn State did well against Miami, or seeing how Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue fared against Notre Dame. Then as the season went on I’d most assuredly have to keep tabs on those early season non-conference opponents of any other Big Ten school to see how well they did, just to make sure that it was in fact a quality win when Ohio State beat California. Because hey, if California went on to beat USC, then that says a lot about the strength of the Big Ten as a conference, but if Cal ended up being just a Pac-12 bottom-feeder, then who cares?

And to think I used to make fun of fantasy football guys.

To those who say, you did this to yourself, man. You don’t have to care about perceived conference strength, or how anyone other than your favorite team plays: You’re absolutely right. I could choose to ignore the BCS formula, which takes into account the universally-regarded-as-idiotic polls. But the way the game is set up, with comparative scores and meaningless phrases like “the eyeball test” going so far in determining who plays for the national championship — not to mention the dozens of other stupid bowls that litter the landscape — ignoring all that means not fully engaging in the college football fan experience. How many people do you know who root for an NFL team but don’t care about the Super Bowl?

The obsession with comparative scores and the lack of a playoff system makes it so otherwise wonderful stories like Boise State’s rise to prominence, and TCU’s undefeated runs have to be tempered by major-conference snobs saying they don’t deserve to play for the national championship. We can’t just enjoy Cinderella stories, because college football forces us all to be the wicked stepmothers who have to pooh-pooh it all in order to keep our sense of the proper pecking order in tact.

I guarantee there will be people who read this — probably SEC fans — who will say, well, he’s a Big Ten fan, OF COURSE he doesn’t like the BCS. The Big Ten is a weak-ass conference! That’s old man football! War Eagle! Roll Tide! Rocky Top! All right, sure, it hasn’t been fun watching the weekly maiming of my beloved conference that has been going on ever since Ohio State was embarrassed in that national championship game by Florida in 2007. (That game was also the nation’s introduction to Tim Tebow, FWIW.) I can sense the quiet desperation of the anchors on the Big Ten Network as they sadly bring us the highlights of the annual New Year’s Day bowl massacres, and it ain’t fun. But I’m guessing there is a part of all those Auburn fans out there who would be relieved to not feel an obligation to root for Alabama just in the interest of conference pride. Or have to defend new-member Missouri’s performance week in and week out.

College football is the most personal of all sports. When one team beats another, it is felt far more deeply than when, as The Onion might put it, the professional sports team from my area scores more points than the professional sports team from your area. So go ahead, dismantle the Big East into the second coming of Conference USA. Let the Pac-12 include teams that aren’t even in the Pacific time zone. The Big Ten wants to go all the way up to 16 teams, with North Carolina, Kansas and — dear God — Florida State being bandied about as possible candidates? Why the hell not? Then maybe we can forgo all this sham conference pride and get back to enjoying the game we’re watching.

Go Hawks! (Who really suck this year, by the way. But hey, at least Ohio State’s doing pretty well.)