Study: Big Ten teams most popular

Nate Silver, a statistician known for his work on baseball and politics, took on a new challenge in The New York Times this week: figuring out which college football teams are the most popular in the country.

In this article, Silver extrapolates data from Google searches, TV markets and census information to come up with an estimate for the number of fans by team.

Interestingly enough, Silver's study concludes that the three most popular teams in America all play in the Big Ten. Ohio State is No. 1 with more than 3.1 million fans, followed by Michigan with more than 2.9 million and Penn State at more than 2.6 million. Notre Dame is fourth and Texas is fifth. (Surprisingly, Texas A&M ranks sixth, ahead of every SEC team, which may help explain that conference's interest in the Aggies).

Silver also lists the popularity of teams by conference. Here is his breakdown of the Big Ten (numbers on the left represent national ranking):

1. Ohio State: 3,167,263

2. Michigan: 2,921,066

3. Penn State: 2,642,275

12. Wisconsin: 1,441,955

15. Iowa: 1,273,954

18. Nebraska: 1,230,558

20. Michigan State: 1,145,819

27. Illinois: 965,087

28. Minnesota: 963,581

44. Indiana: 636,954

46. Purdue: 624,944

54. Northwestern: 514,540

"The Big Ten can afford to be picky," Silver writes. "Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are the three most popular college football teams in the country, according to our study. Seven Big Ten teams, including new addition Nebraska, rank in the top 20 nationally. And all but one Big Ten school is in the top 50, the lone exception being Northwestern, which has the Chicago market and strong academics going for it.

"The only plausible additions that would allow the Big Ten to improve upon its average of about 1.5 million fans per team are Notre Dame (2.3 million fans) and Texas (also 2.3 million). But good luck adding those schools."

And here are some numbers for oft-mentioned Big Ten expansion candidates:

23. Missouri: 1,084,889

32. Rutgers: 937,874

40. Kansas: 768,002

47. Connecticut: 618,724

Silver acknowledges that these numbers are only estimates, but it gives you an idea of where teams stand -- and which ones would bring the most attention and eyeballs in an expansion scenario.