Leistikow: How an 18-team Big Ten could work in college football's realigning world

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

College football realignment drama seems to only be escalating, now more than a week since the news broke that Oklahoma and Texas were seeking entry into the Southeastern Conference.

What should the Big Ten do as a response? While staying together and standing pat with 14 teams could work out, the league — with the influential Barry Alvarez last week being named the league’s special adviser in football — certainly must explore every avenue to be well-positioned for the inevitable expanded College Football Playoff and a media-rights deal that expires after the 2023-24 season.

If the Big Ten does act, it needs to add value to the conference, not water it down. That’s why the Big Ten should first look (way) West for expansion.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren speaks at the league's media days last week.

I’m not sure who suggested this first, but I heard Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel theorize that the Big Ten should join forces with the Pac-12’s four California schools — UCLA, USC, California and Stanford — and grow to 18 teams. Such a move would add marquee brands and world-class academic institutions to the Big Ten while leaving plenty of room for three other power conferences to thrive.

More:New Pac-12 boss Kliavkoff doesn't see expansion as a must

How would it work? I outlined the shell of this on Wednesday night’s Hawk Central radio show. This is meant to skip over the upcoming months (years?) of posturing and legal battles and serve as a fun exercise to demonstrate there are potential win-win solutions for the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 to combat the SEC’s eventual acquisition of two of the nation’s richest college brands.

1. West Virginia joins the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Mountaineers are already geographical mismatches with the Big 12. Such a move would give the ACC 15 teams plus its loose affiliation with independent Notre Dame — so essentially, for future scheduling purposes, a 16-team league.

2. The remaining Pac-12 and Big 12 teams consolidate and add one more (BYU?) to form a 16-team super league.

This is where the fun starts. The two-division way I have it lining up …

The Big 8 Division: Baylor, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech.  (Reuniting Colorado with some old Big 8/Big 12 rivals is a fun twist, plus it kind of works out geographically.)

The Pac-8 Division: Arizona, Arizona State, BYU (or maybe Boise State, if the Cougars want to remain independent), Oregon, Oregon State, Utah, Washington and Washington State.

Related:The Big 12 is in a crisis. The Sun Belt's survival may offer lessons for a way out.

Even if the Big Ten scoops up the California schools, a new 16-team merger of the Pac-12 and Big 12 would have rich headliners in Washington and Oregon. Plus, the basketball would be pretty great. Not that anyone cares about hoops in this realignment circus.

3: The Big Ten’s 18 teams split nicely into three divisions.

These three six-team divisions (in football) would be fun to create, but here was my initial split.

The East: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Rutgers.

The traditions of Ohio State-Michigan and Michigan-Michigan State remain intact.

The Midwest: Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin.

Rich rivalries are here. All three of Iowa’s Big Ten trophy opponents continue; Indiana-Purdue is reunited again divisionally; and Minnesota-Wisconsin can still battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on an annual basis.

The West: California, Northwestern, Penn State, Stanford, UCLA and USC.

The academia division? The California schools stick together while recruiting the Big Ten’s lone existing private institution in Northwestern and a semi-private in Penn State. Why Penn State here and not the East? Might not be the worst thing for the league to separate the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes. Plus, sign me up for "Big Ten after dark" — 9:30 p.m. CT kickoffs. (Sure, travel could be an issue. But at most there would be three cross-country road trips for California teams, and no more than two for any of the 14 other members.)

4. How would the scheduling and championship game work?

Big Ten teams could maintain a nine-game conference schedule that they enjoy now with a full divisional round-robin (five games), plus two matchups against each of the other two divisions (four games). Under such a scenario, every Big Ten team plays one another at least once every three years. (Hey, many of you wanted the Hawkeyes to play in the Rose Bowl again, right?)

I think there’s room to continue a “Champions Week” (a 10th conference game for all) where the most attractive or beneficial matchups are created ahead of a potential 12-team playoff. The top two division champions (by record or by CFP ranking) would face off in the traditional league championship game. Presumably, the third (left-out) divisional champion would still have another game where it could play its way into an expanded playoff.

More:Analysis: What's next for the Power 5 conferences after SEC expansion?

Basketball-related sidebar: The current 20-game conference schedules would still work just fine. Have everyone play a round-robin schedule (17 games apiece) plus assign three rivalry partners per school (like Michigan-Michigan State; Iowa-Illinois; the California schools) as two-plays to bring the total of 20. Pretty clean … and pretty darn good basketball.

That’s pretty much it.

Again, this is just an idea meant to be fun. It doesn't dig into every financial and legal detail.

The new Pac-12/Big 12 grows to an entertaining 16 teams. The SEC will be at 16. Locked into a long-term TV deal, the ACC is (basically) at 16. And the Big Ten balloons to 18 and can tout its presence in markets from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York. Overall, that’s 66 Power Five programs in four robust conferences.

And in the future 12-team playoff format, each of the four conference champions automatically gets a top-four seed and first-round bye. Makes sense to me.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.