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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Expansion might not hurt at-large hopes

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

The Big Ten has benefited from the BCS system more than any other conference.

The league has made the most BCS bowl appearances (21), earned the most at-large selections (9) and sent a team to play for a national title three times despite a so-so record (10-11) in BCS games. And while the Big Ten didn't send a team to the Rose Bowl three times (2002, 2003, 2006), it maintains strong ties to the Granddaddy.

The Big Ten did all of it as an 11-team league without a championship game that ended its regular season before Thanksgiving.

Things will change in 2011, as the Big Ten welcomes Nebraska as its 12th member. The addition of a league championship game also is likely.

It begs the question: How will expansion and a likely championship game impact the Big Ten's BCS hopes?

A title game ensures one more loss for one of the Big Ten's top BCS at-large hopefuls. If the Big Ten goes to a nine-game conference schedule, an option athletic directors are considering, it means even more losses for the conference.

It's very likely the Big Ten won't have as many attractive candidates for BCS at-large berths as it did before expansion.

Could the Big Ten soon become a one-bid league?

"I’ve looked back at it and I don’t think you can quantify that [a championship game] has made a whole lot of difference," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said this week. "The jury’s still out on the effect of championship games of how many teams you get in the BCS. We’ll know more when Big Ten and Pac-10 go to championship games, but I don’t see a tremendous advantage or disadvantage."

Perhaps the best barometer for the Big Ten is the SEC, which also boasts famous teams with huge fan bases.

The SEC has only two fewer BCS appearances (19) than the Big Ten and has received at-large berths in each of the last four seasons. While the loser of the SEC championship received at-large berths in each of the last two seasons, five of the SEC's at-large berths went to teams that didn't reach the league title game.

Translation: the Big Ten still could be in good shape for at-large berths, but the loser of the league championship game might want to make alternate plans.

"Conferences that deserve [at-large berths] are getting them," Hancock said. "The at-large spots are filled by the bowls, and they’re choosing those teams for the same reasons they’ve always used."

Those reasons include name recognition and size of fan base, two categories where the Big Ten excels.

Let's look at the Big 12, another league with a championship game. The Big 12 has made 17 BCS bowl appearances but sent multiple teams to the big bowls on only five occasions. The Big 12 title game loser has only reached the BCS once: when Oklahoma qualified for the BCS championship game despite a 35-7 loss to Kansas State a month earlier.

In most years, a loss in the Big 12 title game seals a team's BCS fate. Missouri got passed up for Kansas in 2008 even though Missouri beat the Jayhawks to reach the Big 12 title game, where it got pummeled by Oklahoma. Colorado lost the Big 12 championship game in 2002, 2004 and 2005 and each time failed to receive a BCS at-large berth.

I'm very interested to see how expansion impacts the Big Ten's BCS at-large chances. Bowls always will have a hard time passing up teams like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin when they're available.

Just as long as they don't lose the Big Ten title game.