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What If...Mizzou had joined the Big Ten in 1996? (Intro)

It's mid-December, meaning I'm looking for a What If... post to fill the space until the bowl game.  I've tossed around a few different alternatives...

  1. What If ... the SWC had survived?

  2. What If ... the Metro Conference (Boston College, Cincinnati, East Carolina, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, South Carolina, Southern Miss, Syracuse, Temple, Tulane, Virginia Tech, West Virginia) had actually formed in the early-1990s as rumored?

    (Or, to take that in a slightly difference direction, What If ... the SEC had added Florida State and Miami as rumored, instead of Arkansas and South Carolina?)

  3. What If ... Mizzou had joined the Big Ten in the mid-1990s instead of the Big 12?

I couldn't decide which direction to go at first -- #2 was eliminated because it's not very Mizzou-centric (although, if Arkansas hadn't landed in the SEC, they'd have landed in the Big 12, which would have been interesting to say the least), but #1 and #3 had their merits.  And then this conversation happened.  And this article went to print.  That made the choice pretty easy.  I think I'll still visit #1 or #2b at some point, but for now, since it's the topic on everybody's tongues, let's take on #3.

Pursuing the Big Ten angle comes with two major problems: 1) some people hate (and I mean HATE) the idea of Mizzou in the Big Ten, and 2) I kind of already wrote about this extensively on the old blog (Part One, Part Two, Part Three).  Regarding (1), well, if you're sick at the thought of jumping conferences, then just skip this series of posts.  Sounds like you may be hearing all you want about the Big Ten in the near future, good or bad, and you'll want to save your blood pressure medication for the future.  Regarding (2), reading through those posts, I've changed my mind about quite a bit, and beyond that, thanks to the Estimated S&P+ measure I've been tinkering with, I have what is probably a much more realistic way of determining winners and predictions, so the results will be at least 1% more grounded in reality.  So I've got that going for me ... which is nice.

Anyway, the best way to think about what impact a Mizzou move to the Big Ten would have is to think about how it would have impacted known quantities, i.e. Mizzou's previous decade-plus of football.  So consider this an exercise in projecting forward by projecting backwards.  What you'll see after the break is a part-recreation of what I wrote on Mizzou Sanity long ago, updated (frequently) as I see fit.  Enjoy.

In late-February 1994, the Big 8 as it had existed for decades was about to change significantly. The Southwest Conference was falling apart, and there was a huge Texas TV market for the taking. The conference invited four SWC schools—Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech—to join. MU Chancellor Charles Kiesler was skeptical:

The Big Eight needs to do more homework before finalizing a deal to bring four Southwest Conference schools into the league, and the union doesn't mean Missouri is in for the long haul, MU chancellor Charles Kiesler says.

"I want to emphasize I'm not badmouthing this deal," Kiesler said last night. "It may well be the best thing that ever happened to the Big Eight and those four other schools. But it's a complicated deal, and we haven't treated it in a complicated way.

"If I went to the curators with a deal as complicated as this, with as many millions of dollars involved and said, `Trust me,' they'd give me my lunch pail and send me home."

Others involved with Mizzou were also skeptical:

No pussy-footing around. I'm starting out against the proposed merger of the Big Eight athletic conference with four teams from the Southwest Conference.

If MU is going to join with teams from another conference, my first instinct tells me, let it be the Big Ten. Athletic implications are not all. Television revenue is not everything. Missouri's flagship campus would be in better academic company hobnobbing with the likes of Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois than with Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor. We have more geographic affinity with the Big Ten. Missourians tend to look east instead of west.


I'm pleased to see that MU chancellor Charles Kiesler at least is skeptical. His stated concern is that it's a complicated deal, and he has not yet given it the complicated consideration he must before recommending it. The governing bodies of all the schools involved will have to sign off. If it comes to a conflict between a majority vote among Big Eight schools and dissidence from individual institutions, the dissidents no doubt would fall in line.

Kiesler made one intriguing comment. Even if the Southwest Conference deal goes through, that doesn't mean Missouri is in it for the long haul. Later, if the Big Ten comes knocking, MU might go that way. However, having made his caveats, Kiesler said he is happy with the Big Eight, has no intention of leaving the Big Eight, would no doubt vote with a majority that wanted the Southwest merger and that, superficially, the merger looks like a good deal.

Let's say for a minute that Super-Conference Fever struck a smidge harder in the Big Ten, and they actually started looking around for a twelfth team around the same time that the Big 8/SWC did.  With Notre Dame perpetually playing coy, they decide to go in another direction.  Joe Paterno calls for another eastern team to join the fray, but a) Penn State hasn't been around very long, so Paterno doesn't hold quite as much clout as he probably should, and b) the Big Ten wants to secure the St. Louis market (more than it already does) and open up part of the Kansas City market.  They choose Missouri.  Because of the academic strength of the Big Ten and the fact that Mizzou doesn't like the shift in power that a proposed Big 12 would entail, Mizzou accepts, and the Big Ten officially has twelve teams*.

(* Something interesting to think about: when did the Big 8/SWC secure the copyright for "Big 12"?  Is it possible that, if the Big Ten were moving on this in the early- to mid-1990s, they'd have actually become the Big 12?  I just totally blew your mind.)

Obviously, as college football is the greatest sport in the history of the world, we will choose to focus solely on football in this series of posts.  A move to the Big Ten(12) would have had interesting implications on Mizzou's basketball trajectory as well, and if these Big Ten flirtations are a bit more real this time and linger further into basketball season, then maybe we'll explore that.  But for now, this is all football.  We will have to make one specific leap in logic: that the relative strength or weakness of Mizzou's football program would have stayed roughly the same in the Big Ten as it did in the Big 12.  I'm not enough of a math nerd to figure out how to calculate how a different conference might impact a program's strength, and I'm also not ready to think about how a Big Ten Mizzou team might have had more Illinois/Michigan/Ohio players and fewer Texas players.  So for the purposes of this exercise, we're going to keep it simple and say that the team Mizzou fielded in, for instance, 1996, or 1998, or 2003, would have had the exact same roster as it did in real life.


Perhaps the most interesting part of the Black Heart Gold Pants weekend discussion about Big Ten expansion in the hell do you create the divisions?  Geographically, by far the easiest way is East-West.

East: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Northwestern, Wisconsin

Honestly, to keep things simple they may have done just that.  That incorporates most of the conference's natural rivalries.  But the only problem is, here are the conference records for the proposed East and West divisions from 1991-95, a.k.a. the time during which these divisions would have been created (for Mizzou, I used Big 8 conference record and record against Big Ten teams):

East: 126-80-8 (0.607 win percentage)
West: 95-139-7 (0.409 win percentage)

Northwestern went 8-0 in 1995, so it was even worse before then.  The only West teams with conference records above .500 from 1991-95 were Illinois (21-17-2) and Iowa (21-18-1).  Not exactly division-carrying powerhouse records.  So in the end, I think they'd have taken a different approach.

It seems kind of silly to think of dividing the Big Ten Conference into a northern half and a southern half, as the conference, even including Missouri, just does not stretch very far vertically.  But look what happens when we apply a North-South division to the conference:

North: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Wisconsin.
South: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa,
Missouri, Penn State, Purdue

North (1991-95): 122-110-8 (0.525 win percentage)
South (1991-95): 99-109-7 (0.477 win percentage)

(The proposed divisions in this comment at BHGP probably could be a pretty realistic setup too, but in the mid-1990s, with Ohio State and Penn State easily the top two teams in the conference, I think any division setup would have broken them up.)

(This also would have set up a nice mid-1990s split for basketball too, with Missouri, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana all starting out on relatively equal terms in the South, and Michigan State starting out a smidge ahead of their North rivals.)

Inter-Division Rivalries

That's about as close a divide as you're going to find in terms of balance.  If you put Ohio State into the South instead of Penn State, you get even close to a 50/50 split, but that would still screw up some necessary rivalries.  This structure fits just about every major historical rivalry into division play (Michigan-MSU, Michigan-tOSU, Minny-Wiscy, Indiana-Purdue, plus Mizzou-Illinois) and really just misses Iowa-Minnesota and Illinois-Northwestern.  But you still have to save the Floyd of Rosedale, so Iowa and Minnesota still have to play.  So I figure that, instead of a simple Big 12-esque schedule rotation (play everybody in your division, play three inter-division teams on a rotation), the Big Ten would have to go to the "one constant inter-division rival" method to preserve all major rivalries.

I talked to The Beef about this, and we decided these would be the most likely inter-division rivalries.  The first two are obvious, but after that it becomes a toss-up.

Michigan State-Penn State (they play for some sort of land grant trophy, don't they?)
Ohio State-Purdue (because why not)
Missouri-Wisconsin (so I'd have had a reason to travel to Madison every other year in college)

So there you go.  To get an idea for what this might have meant for Mizzou, here would be four years' worth of example schedules.

Year One

at Illinois
at Iowa
Penn State
at Purdue
at Michigan

Year Two

at Indiana
at Penn State
at Wisconsin
at Northwestern

Year Three and Four

Flip Michigan and Northwestern for, say, Minnesota and Ohio State.

Year Five and Six

Flip Minnesota and Ohio State for Michigan State and either Michigan or Northwestern.

Honestly, the scheduling for this gets really messy, and I don't really like it -- I would prefer a four-year rotation of playing every inter-division rival twice.  It's cleaner, and as a college student I'd have wanted an opportunity to road trip to every conference rival.  As this stands, I'd have missed out on at least one of the schools in the North division, maybe two.  But I still think this is the way they'd have gone because, well, there are just too damn many figurines (pigs, oaken buckets, axes, etc.) up for grabs in the Big Ten, and you're going to have to preserve as many as possible.

Alright, so it's 1996, and Missouri is about to start its first year in the newly-formed Big T(w)en(elve).  Tomorrow, we look at how things might have played out between then and now.