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Column: Expansion has not led to championship realities

At least in the Big Ten. 

NCAA Football: Maryland at Rutgers Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

What a timely moment to discuss the benefits of Maryland joining the Big Ten, as the Terps just got shut out against Penn State and must now face the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes.

When Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten before the 2014 season, all the talk centered on the benefits to the conference: of expanded media rights, of new markets, of fertile recruiting grounds (sound familiar?). For those of us on the side of the league’s existing teams, we probably were not as concerned about what the move meant for the programs joining the conference.

Unfortunately for those teams — Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska — who have joined the conference during this expansion era, joining a larger than life and lucrative league has not translated into championships on the field. The closest any of the teams came was when Nebraska lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship in 2012. And oh, how the Huskers have fallen off since then.

No one is complaining (probably): From a financial perspective, Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska get all the benefits of the increasing conference revenue, just like the 11 senior teams in the Big Ten, which averages about $50 million per year.

There is a degree of the cohort of Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State/Michigan State being so dominant that they push the other teams out. Admittedly, this theory makes a ton of sense, since Maryland and Rutgers are in the Big Ten East and both have almost always finished in the bottom half of the division. This year, Rutgers has won just one conference game so far. Maryland is 3-4 and is squarely in fourth place in the division. The Terps are also bowl eligible on account of their out-of-conference wins. Neither has ever been a contender for a Big Ten title.

This dearth of championships is somewhat unique to the Big Ten:

  • In the SEC, Texas A&M has never appeared in a conference title game, though Missouri did in both 2013 and 2014.
  • In the Big 12, West Virginia has never played in the championship game when it’s existed, nor won a conference title when it hasn’t. TCU, meanwhile, shared the Big 12 championship in 2014 and played for it in 2017.
  • Finally (because the ACC hasn’t expanded), the Pac-12 has offered the most success to its newcomers. Colorado played for a conference championship in 2016, and Utah has played for three and won one championship.

Why teams in the Big 12 and Pac-12 have had so much more success can be chalked up to greater parity in the conferences. The Big 12 has had up-and-down Oklahoma teams since expanding (while Texas has been down pretty much the whole time) which means that TCU can benefit in seasons such as the one we’re in now. In the Pac-12, USC and the rest of the Pac-12 South dropped off the map for a minute which gave Utah the chance to jump in.

Back in the Big Ten, because there is life outside of football, things have not gone much better on the hardcourt. Maryland won a share of the Big Ten regular season men’s basketball title in 2020 before the conference tournament was canceled. Hoops has been a little more balanced on the women’s side. In fact, the Terps have won the Big Ten regular season (either outright or a share of the title) six times. Maryland has also won five Big Ten tournaments since joining the conference. Nebraska has won one.

Rutgers at least makes an appearance on the lacrosse field, at least as runners up in a few tournaments. Once again, the Terps have been dominant in this sport, winning four conference tournaments apiece on both the men’s and women’s sides. Two men’s and three women’s squads have gone on to win national titles.

Nebraska, meanwhile, has been a strong competitor in women’s volleyball and women’s bowling, earning multiple national titles in both since joining the conference.

But anyway, back to the football field. In future seasons, perhaps we’ll see USC and UCLA be more competitive than the previous additions. USC certainly brings a lot more historical relevance on the football field than Maryland or Rutgers. Then again, that’s what proponents of the plan all told us about Nebraska back in 2011.