The past few years has marked a period of immense growth in several power conferences, with the Big Ten especially getting much bigger. The conference is no longer a true “ten,” and the Illinois senate is considering making it even bigger by potentially adding another school from Illinois to the conference.
While previous additions to the Big Ten have been primarily to expand its broadcasting market to different parts of the country, another school in Illinois would be a response to the increasing demand of Illinois students who want to attend a school in the conference.
Because Northwestern is very difficult to get into, Illinois students seeking a Big Ten school have to turn to the University of Illinois. However, U of I can only enroll so many students, resulting in many prospective students leaving for out-of-state schools such as the Universities of Iowa and Nebraska.
To have another Big Ten school in Illinois would mean keeping more in-state students, as well as creating space to enroll more international students. While there are not schools that are being “officially” considered, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Illinois State are considered the early favorites to grab the selection.
As of now, none of those universities fit the mold of a Big Ten school. However, all bias aside it’s hard not to think of ISU as the most ideal candidate.
The initial problem with adding another Illinois university to the Big Ten is that there isn’t a university whose athletic programs are ready to take on such tougher competition. NIU has the best football program out of those being considered, but a basketball program that is consistently one of the worst. SIUE just recently moved up to Division I and lacks a football team, making them less than ideal as well.
Illinois State has a basketball team that is historically one of the best in the MVC, as well as a football team that just obtained the top recruiting class in FCS football and has achieved recent success. ISU is also very competitive in other sports, especially so in baseball and softball. Of the three schools being “considered” ISU likely offers the best all-around athletic program.
That’s not to say that ISU is anywhere close to being able to compete consistently in all sports with other Big Ten schools. It is worth noting however that ISU athletics is clearly on the rise and could be ready to compete sooner than other schools. The men’s basketball team for example defeated lesser SEC, Big East and Big Ten schools this year, Northwestern being that Big Ten school.
Perhaps the other, most important factor to consider is location. While ISU doesn’t offer a location that would benefit expanding the broadcasting market of the Big Ten, Normal has been expanding rapidly and would be a great city for a Big Ten school. The addition of the high speed rail would make ISU even more attractive for Chicago students, and the close proximity to U of I would allow for an intense rivalry. While it would take some time for ISU to be able to compete with U of I, students wouldn’t have far to travel and attendance numbers would likely be great, fast-tracking the schools into a true Illinois-Illinois State rivalry.
Again, there really isn’t a school in Illinois that could fit all the ideal criteria for the Big Ten, but ISU makes the most sense. A steadily increasing athletic program and a great location could make ISU a sure frontrunner. While it may never come to fruition, and even if it does it will take years, it’s at least possible that current students will be coming back to Big Ten banners around campus as alums.