Posted: Thursday June 10, 2010 1:00AM ; Updated: Thursday June 10, 2010 10:16AM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Believe it: Big Ten for Big Red

Story Highlights

All signs point to Nebraska being extended an invitation to join the Big Ten

This isn't Miami leaving the Big East -- NU is breaking from historic Big 8

It's undoubtedly a stunning move, but it also makes perfect sense

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Before the other dominos start falling, before the race begins to see how far east the Pac-10 will grow, whether Texas will choose to save the Big 12 or put it to pasture, and whether the SEC or Big East will step in to claim the leftovers, we should really stop to pause and reflect on what is, by itself, a monumental moment in the history of college athletics.

Folks -- Nebraska is about to join the freaking Big Ten.

Nothing will be official until Friday at the earliest, but the fact that Nebraska's Board of Regents has added an item to its official agenda for that day entitled "Resolution regarding UNL athletic conference alignment" marked the first sign that the school intends to respond to the Big 12's reported stay-or-go ultimatum. And its expected answer was confirmed Wednesday night by the Chicago Tribune, which reports that the five-time national champion program will be invited to apply for Big Ten membership.

(Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany previously described the league's expansion process, in which a school applies and then the conference presidents must vote by at least an 8-3 margin for approval. It's also generally understood that the league wouldn't "invite" a school to apply just to turn around and reject it.)

The Big Ten has not added a new member since approving Penn State in 1990. Prior to last December, there had been nary a hint that the league was looking to get bigger, and even then, when it authorized Delany to begin exploring the topic, few guessed it would lead to a day where the Cornhuskers ditched the Big 12. (Though, it should be noted, at least one national columnist did suggest it; scroll to the bottom.)

Nebraska, for its part, has been competing alongside some of its old Big 8 counterparts -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Colorado -- since as far back as 1892. This isn't Miami ditching the Big East, folks. That league didn't even begin fielding football for another 99 years. This is one of the bedrock institutions of a century-old alliance suddenly choosing to align itself with a completely different crew.

It is both stunning and completely logical.

Once you get over the sentimental part of it -- which, mind you, Kansas isn't about to do anytime soon -- Nebraska's decision is a no-brainer. The fact is, Tom Osborne and Co. aren't leaving the actual Big 8, the league in which it used to vie annually with Oklahoma for annual supremacy and accompanying trips to the Orange Bowl. There's no going back to those glory days of Johnny Rodgers, Mike Rozier and Thanksgiving dates with Barry Switzer.

No, Nebraska is leaving the Big 12, a highly competitive but highly dysfunctional marriage of the old Big 8 schools with four Texas schools from the scandal-savaged Southwest Conference. At the time of the league's 1996 inception, the Huskers were kings, in the midst of their amazing run of three national titles in four years. A decade later, the center of power in the Big 12 had shifted squarely to its South Division lynchpins Texas and Oklahoma and, while third-year coach Bo Pelini seems to be engineering a resurrection, even he couldn't fix the off-field issues that hampered the league -- years of mismanagement and in-fighting; archaic television contracts and unequal revenue distribution.

Enter the Big Ten, which in many ways is the antithesis of the Big 12. On the field, its teams have struggled to gain national respect, and, not coincidentally, the density of top-shelf recruits in its home states appears to be waning. Off the field, however, the 115-year-old conference is a model of stability. It boasts the shrewdest commissioner in the sport, the richest television deals in the land (highlighted, of course, by its ground-breaking cable network) and the high academic standing of its institutions.

In the coming days and weeks, Nebraska will inevitably be pinned with blame for the possible demise of the Big 12 and ensuing ruckus nationally, but that's not entirely fair. No one's putting a gun to Texas' head and telling it to fly to the Pac-10. It's believed Texas had its own chance to be courted by the Big Ten but felt happy where it is, which is fine.

But Nebraska did not. And no one can question the fact that it's moving to greener pastures. It isn't even really leaving behind storied rivalries. The Big 12 divisional format disrupted its Oklahoma series, leaving Colorado as its closest thing to an annual rival. In the Big Ten, it walks into one ready-made rivalry with border foe Iowa (which it hasn't faced in 10 years) and will actually be geographically closer to Minneapolis and Madison than it was Boulder. More importantly for the Big Ten, the addition of Nebraska gives the league three of the sport's five all-time winningest programs (No. 1 Michigan, No. 4 Nebraska and No. 5 Ohio State) and, along with No. 9 Penn State, four of the top 10. Not even the mighty SEC can match the new league in terms of sheer star power.

It does beg the question: Is that really what this was about?

At various times over the past six months, Delany and other league administrators have espoused a variety of motivations behind expansion. Quite frankly, Nebraska doesn't seem to satiate any of them.

Joe Paterno and Barry Alvarez wanted a 12th team to be able to stage a championship game. That's fine, but any number of other, closer programs would have done the trick. Delany cited the league's admitted population crisis, yet Nebraska is only slightly more populous than Idaho, which means that state won't be racking up Big Ten Network subscriptions, either. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon stressed the importance of academics, and while Nebraska is a respected research institution (and, like the Big Ten's current 11 schools, an AAU member), it's ranked lower by U.S. News and World Report than any existing Big Ten university.

While it's entirely possible the Huskers will be joined by two to four other newcomers by year's end -- be it Notre Dame, Rutgers, Maryland, Missouri or Syracuse -- for now, Nebraska's addition appears to be largely Delany's way of making a splash. Tired of being overshadowed by the SEC and threatened by a possibly even bigger splash by the Pac-10, there's no question the Big Ten will be rejuvenated the first time ABC or ESPN airs a Nebraska-Ohio State clash with Rose Bowl implications. And you better believe a big chunk of the Huskers' rabid national fan base will soon be calling their cable operators or switching to DirecTV so as not to miss the Indiana or Illinois game on the Big Ten Network.

The rich kids on the block are about to get even richer.

And as strange as it seems that Nebraska will no longer be coming through Ames, Iowa or Lawrence, Kan., every other year, in many ways, the Big Ten is its logical home. Huskers football in its glory days was synonymous with the same type of blue-collar toughness preached by Woody, Bo and JoePa. Its current coach, Pelini, is even a native Ohioan. A Nebraska-Penn State game played under a gray sky in mid-November just seems more natural than a sunny trip to Austin.

Admittedly, there will be nothing natural about the awkward, clunky months to follow as the consequences of Nebraska's move reverberate through the rest of the Big 12 and college football. There will be bickering. There will be bitterness. There could well be burned bridges from Piscataway to the Pacific Coast by the time all is said and done.

But Nebraska didn't win all those games over the years with sympathy. At the Huskers' peak -- think Tommie Frazier against Florida -- they bowled over their competitors. It's been a long time since they enjoyed such a decisive victory, but this move, unquestionably, is just that.

 
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