In a fantasy world, where Pokemon frolic from corpse to corpse, maybe you’d poach Oklahoma and, say, Kansas to balance out the west. You’d draw a line from Shawnee to Poughkeepsie and dare the rest of college football to cross it.
You’d bring back to life and living rooms the greatest Thanksgiving platter in collegiate history — Cornhuskers vs. Sooners — and seal up a western front in the process. You’d have a conference basketball tournament that features Bill Self cracking wise at the podium one minute and Tom Izzo holding court the next.
Alas, we live in the real world, where only the corpses abide.
And the real world has real politicians who insist that wherever Boomer Sooner goes, Oklahoma State, like a pokey little brother, has to go, too.
So when it comes to the topic of Big Ten expansion, even the hypotheticals are complicated. Which is why league’s mission statement on the matter should be perfectly simple:
If you don’t add to the brand – and add in a huge way – then move along.
After a relatively quiet period — of what, two years? Three? — the tectonic plates at the top of college football’s food chain are rumbling again. Consultants told the Big 12 that expansion should cure almost all that ails them, although it still won’t help them get a stinking league-wide network off the ground.
So after some reported hemming and hawing, after Texas being Texas and the league narrative flip-flopping like the dying throes of a goldfish, commissioner Bob Bowlsby was given the green light to pursue bringing the Big 12 to 12 again.
Or 14. Or 16. Or 37.
A virtual who’s who of Conference USA alums lined up in kind: Cincinnati, Memphis, BYU and Colorado State are either trolling Dallas or en route, candy in hand, giddy bachelors all, angling to be handed one of Bowlsby’s roses.
A house divided. A brand diluted. Lovely.
At which point your pal in the Kansas State jacket will gently remind you that the Big Ten started this fight a generation ago, Archduke Ferdinand style, by tacking Penn State onto the family picture. And stuck a steak knife into the Big 12’s soul by plucking Nebraska in the summer of 2010 when defecting was all the rage.
And that the Big Ten snapped up Maryland and Rutgers not so much for Maryland and Rutgers, per se, but because of all those television sets in Washington, Baltimore and New York City.
All of which is true, more or less, and guilty as charged.
But if the Big 12’s list of suitors tells us anything, it’s that the pickings among actively willing jumpers, the non-Power-5s who want a seat at the table, are alarmingly slim, depending on how comfortable one happens to be with BYU.
If it isn’t about football, it’s about televisions. But it’s usually about football, and Central Florida and Houston barely tick the academic boxes, let alone the gravitas ones. To wit: While 12 of 14 current Big Ten members listed endowments of $1 billion or more in 2015, the Knights and Cougars’ war chests added up to a report $837 million combined.
We’re talking about serious beef: Association of American Universities (AAU) membership, fertile recruiting territory, gazillions of television households, a football giant with basketball money to burn.
Granted, like England, the concept of sharing, humility and playing nice to help the greater collective has never been the Burnt Orange’s um, strongest suit.
Texas doesn’t look at Iowa State as a partner. It looks at the Cyclones the way Doug Niedermeyer looked at Pinto when he turned up on the Omega house porch, Flounder in tow.
Yet the Longhorn Network is a vanity vertical that can’t escape its provinciality, an entity with fixed borders and a ceiling. The Big Ten Network has spent a decade expanding the former and raising the latter.
Notre Dame, the No. 1 candidate so long you forget who invited them in the first place, makes Texas look positively humble in comparison.
So the logical choice probably remains a non-starter, at least until the College Football Playoff system convinces the Irish it isn’t.
Beyond that, an argument can be made for standing pat and watching the minnows quarrel. The Big 12 is doing what it has to do, reacting the way it has to react in order to try to cash in, to retrench, to shake perceptions of weakness, division and uncertainty.
The Big Ten doesn’t react. It acts. It pillages.
And the next move, really, depends on the end game.
Of Nielsen’s Top 20 television markets, two are in Florida (Tampa-St. Petersburg and Miami-Fort Lauderdale), two can be found in Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston) and three reside in California (Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland and greater Sacramento). And in proximity to Chicago, all of them give Google Maps a digital headache.
And yet the metrics of 2008 are not the metrics of 2018, and the evolution of news consumption, content and media platforms seem to be rocketing through change at a pace that makes conference realignment look like a Segway.
The bar never stops rising. The goalposts never stop moving.
If the apex is a set of 16-team super leagues, if the laws of the jungle persist and survival trumps all, then try South Bend and Austin one more time. Make a call to Lawrence. And Norman.
Ring up Boulder, too. Gauge how much North Carolina and Duke would love to see trips to College Park on the menu again. In the real world, where the biggest Pokemons command dollars and sense, why not try like hell to catch ‘em all?
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler