Joe Pa's expansion idea: Rantings or reason for concern?

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

By now, you've surely seen Penn State coach Joe Paterno's comments from Thursday night, when he proposed expanding the Big Ten to 12 teams and going to a conference championship game. Paterno even suggested three potential 12th members of the league, all from the Big East.

"Everybody else is playing playoffs on television," Paterno said. "You never see a Big Ten team mentioned. So I think that's a handicap.

"I've tried to talk to the Big Ten people about, 'Let's get a 12th team -- Syracuse, Rutgers, Pitt -- we could have a little bit of a playoff.'"

You can forgive Big East fans for feeling a bit nervous whenever this topic is raised. After all, the conference nearly died after the ACC raid of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The league might not be able to survive another plundering of its teams.

But Paterno's idea seems to be merely that -- his own thoughts. He even acknowledged that Big Ten officials don't take him seriously.

"You know, it's a conference that's dominated by a couple of people," Paterno said. "If I start talking, they're polite, but they snicker."

The Big Ten hasn't seemed too interested in expanding and adding a conference title game. Bob Hunter of the Columbus Dispatch says that Paterno may come off like an old fogey at times, but he's being more visionary than the conference on this issue.

This is a hard decision for a traditionalist league that still sees itself on top, even if the rest of the world doesn't. Adding a 12th school probably would mean creating two six-team divisions in football, which could make for some tough choices depending upon which school was added.

The league talked to Notre Dame about membership in 1999 and was eventually turned down. The Big Ten probably could force the issue if Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue quit playing Notre Dame. Despite the Irish's fall from grace, they remain the best option.

Besides the schools on Paterno's list, West Virginia, Missouri, Iowa State, Virginia Tech and even Nebraska have been mentioned at one time or another. If three or five schools were added ... both the league and its TV network would enjoy unparalleled power.

This doesn't look like anything the Big East has to worry about in the immediate future, but conference realignment is always a possibility. And if other leagues like the Big Ten start seeking new members, it's very likely that they'll turn to the Big East schools early on to gauge their interest. Losing one member might not kill the Big East, but then the conference would have to find a new school to replace it, and right now it can't even locate a suitable ninth member to fix the football scheduling problems.

Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida are not logical fits with the Big Ten's profile, and Connecticut doesn't make much geographical or historical sense. The other four Big East schools could potentially be a match.

Rutgers has the New York City market. Syracuse has some of the same demographics, plus more tradition and a highly successful men's basketball program. Pittsburgh has a natural geographic tie-in with Penn State. West Virginia has a huge and passionate fan base, but lacks few historic ties to the Big Ten.

I ask you this for the sake of argument: If any one of these schools were to bolt to the Big Ten, which would be the least damaging to the Big East? Which would be the most damaging?