In case you missed it, USC and UCLA are leaving the PAC-12 and joining the Big Ten in 2024.
A lot has already been made about how this affects the landscape of college athletics as a whole and all that big picture nonsense. A more important question is whether Illinois can beat these two future Big Ten members on the field/court/mat/beam/rings/floor/vault/bar/in the pool.
So let’s take a quick look at how the Bruins and Trojans have done historically, where they’re at now, and, based on all of that plus vibes and a touch of bias, if Illinois could beat them.
Ah, the main driver behind all of this. Historically, USC has been the West Coast’s powerhouse, but since its title in 2004 and runner up finish in 2005, they’ve spun their wheels with uninspiring coaches who couldn’t cash in on their fertile recruiting grounds. However, they look to have gotten their act together by hiring Lincoln Riley, and by the time they join the B1G in 2024, they should be close to reflecting their past glories. Chances are that when Illinois meets the Trojans as conference opponents, the Illini should be Illibuck-level underdogs
UCLA also plays football in Southern California. They don’t quite have the same amount of history, and despite the Trojans having a few down years, the Bruins aren’t currently at the level of their crosstown rivals. The good news is that Illinois will get to play in Pasadena on a regular basis, even if it doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it does now.
Big Ten volleyball was a gauntlet before, and it will still be that with the addition of UCLA and USC. Illinois also has a strange history with both teams. The Illini met both schools in the 2011 tournament: USC in the semifinals and UCLA in the finals (which UCLA won unfortunately). Both schools are traditional powers, with the Bruins winning four NCAA titles in their history and USC winning three. Even at their worst, UCLA is still darn good. They’ve only missed one NCAA tournament in their history. USC is a bit more uneven, but they’re at least a middle of the Pac-12 team in their down years.
Outside of geography, it’s tough to say these two schools will change the landscape of Big Ten women’s volleyball all that much. UCLA will challenge for the conference title more years than not, while USC will make a run here or there and fall at worst to the middle of the pack, much like Illinois.
The best way to describe the level of USC and UCLA women’s soccer is that nationally, they’re about on the same level as their volleyball teams, if not better, but B1G soccer is not quite as strong nationally as B1G volleyball. UCLA has a couple of national titles in their history while USC has just one, but both teams are regulars in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. The names that have gone through UCLA are incredible, with Sydney Leroux, Lauren Holiday, and Sam Mewis all donning the blue and gold collegiately. The teams finished 1-2 in the Pac-12 this past season, separated by a single point in the final standings.
The addition of two powers doesn’t affect Illinois as much as teams like Penn State and Rutgers that are constantly battling for the Big Ten trophy. However, Southern California has a ton of soccer talent, and adding these two schools may make attracting some of that talent to Chambana an easier proposition.
Chances are you already know what UCLA and USC are bringing to the table basketball-wise, but in case you are the rare Illini fan who doesn’t follow college basketball too much, I’ll run through this quickly. The UCLA Bruins are arguably the greatest college basketball program ever. They have the most national titles (11) of any school, most of which came in the 60s and 70s under arguably the greatest coach ever, John Wooden. They won their last title in 1995, made a Final Four here or there, and then spun their wheels for a couple seasons before looking like a national power again the past two seasons under Mick Cronin. USC is ok but nowhere near as successful historically as their main rivals. They’ve made the big dance a good number of times, but they don’t do a whole lot there, last making the Final Four in 1954. After some sanctions in the late aughts, early 2010s, former FGCU coach Andy Enfield seems to have righted the ship.
From an on-the-court Illini perspective, these two schools just add more strength to a usually strong Big Ten. UCLA is now the bluest of blue bloods in the conference, and in their current state, they may be perennial challengers for the conference title. However, the Bruins (or any program for that matter) are unlikely to reach the peak that they found in the 60s and 70s. USC isn’t as exciting, but they’re still solid under Enfield. If anything, this may make Illinois’ future a bit more difficult. UCLA, with all their history and success, may be able to get a foothold in Chicago recruiting. However, many other blue bloods already recruit Chicago heavily, and given Underwood’s success recently attracting Chicago talent, the addition of UCLA may not make much of a difference.
These schools aren’t quite the same additions for the women’s basketball. USC won two national titles in the 80s and boasts alumni such as Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie, but the Women of Troy have only qualified for three NCAA tournaments since the turn of the century (to be fair, that’s three more than Illinois). UCLA is much more respectable in recent years, particularly under coach Cari Close. In 10 full seasons with Close in charge, the Bruins went dancing 5 times (and would’ve qualified in 2020 as well).
Neither addition will cause any sort of seismic shift in a rapidly-improving Big Ten. UCLA will slot somewhere in the mess that is the middle class of the Big Ten, while USC will be towards the bottom (but still comfortably ahead of Illinois). Illinois is once again rebuilding under new coach Shauna Green. If they manage to get to where UCLA currently is, the rebuild would be considered a resounding success. If Illini women’s basketball gets to a USC level, not so much.
This is the easiest section to research because neither school has a wrestling program. The addition of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten probably won’t affect Illini wrestling all that much.
USC dropped women’s gymnastics in 1986, so that won’t matter much in the future landscape. UCLA, however, is a national power with 7 national titles to their name. However, they’re going through some tumultuous times in Westwood, with their head coach resigning this April after a scandal-plagued 2022 season. Fortunately for the Bruins, they’re bringing in Cal’s coach, who turned the Golden Bears into a power, and the top-ranked recruit joins their squad this coming season.
Even for an Illini team that just put up some the best scores in the program’s history this past season, a shaky UCLA team is still in a different stratosphere. The Bruins just need to right the ship to challenge for conference titles, while Illinois is sailing into uncharted waters in their ascent in the Big Ten.
Much like wrestling, neither school has a men’s gymnastics program. This is another very easy section to research.
Swimming and Diving
I’m going to level with you, I don’t follow Illini Swimming and Diving all that much, but I know a couple things about the program. First, the team isn’t all that good within the Big Ten, finishing last or second-to-last at every conference meet this past decade. Second, the high-water mark for Illini swimming and diving within the conference was 5th (IIRC, I remember searching through the media guide to figure out what the program’s best season was, but the media guide is no longer on the site so I can’t confirm it). Basically, the only way USC and UCLA joining the B1G will have any major effect on Illini swimming and diving is if they are cellar dwellers.
USC and UCLA finished third and fourth at the Pac-12 Championships this past season. When they join the Big Ten, Illinois will finish 14th or 15th out of 15 teams at the Big Ten Championships in the future.
With 12 national titles, the USC Trojans may be the best college baseball program of all time. However, they haven’t qualified for the College World Series since 2001, a Super Regional since 2005, or even just the NCAA tournament since 2015. In that vacuum arose the UCLA Bruins to national prominence, who won the CWS in 2013 and were runners-up in 2010. They haven’t quite gotten to that level of success in the past decade, but they’ve consistently qualified for the NCAA tournament consistently since then.
The problem with figuring out where they slot into the Big Ten is that nothing in Big Ten baseball is consistent. No powerhouse has really emerged within the Big Ten the past few years despite the conference slipping a bit in baseball. USC right now is bizarrely unremarkable, and UCLA at least seems consistent. Adding UCLA may help the conference’s strength of schedule, but for Illinois, two more crabs will be added to the bucket in 2024.
USC does not have a softball program. UCLA does, and it is quite the program. The Bruins have captured 13 NCAA titles (one of which was vacated) and is a consistent part of the WCWS. This isn’t a USC baseball thing where they won all those titles early in their history and recently have been put in softball purgatory. No, UCLA won the 2019 title and made the trip to Oklahoma City this past season. It’s a machine.
The only conference that UCLA could join and not be the biggest fish in the pond is the Big 12 (hey there, Oklahoma). The Big Ten is improving but does lack behind other P5 conferences, so UCLA will be the top dog when they join. As for Illinois, they have been consistently good under Coach Tyra Perry, but a Big Ten title has remained elusive. With UCLA joining, capturing that first conference title becomes much more difficult.
These are two solid teams coming in. UCLA has captured two national titles, while USC is having their best run of success in school history right now. The Bruins won the 2008 championship, the last before the switch to match play, and showed up in the final 8 for a few couple years. When they slipped back, USC took their spot, regularly making match play at the NCAA Championships in the later 2010s. Now, both teams finished middle of the table at the 2022 PAC-12 championships, but making the match play portion of the NCAA championships is better than what most Big Ten teams can do.
So once again, the addition of UCLA and USC is increasing the level of a Big Ten sport. However, due to their more consistent success, I believe Illinois will still remain the ceiling. It’s just that our incredible run of Big Ten championships is going to be a bit more difficult to continue.
Three titles a piece, although none incredibly recently, solid teams nonetheless...yeah I sound like a broken record (that’s only going to sound more broken). Probably the biggest thing I’ve found out researching this is how strong the Pac-12 is at women’s golf. Arizona and Arizona State are definitely powerhouses, UCLA and USC are at least worth the consideration, and Stanford just beat out a surging Oregon for the 2022 NCAA title. It’s absurd, and both UCLA and USC are constantly bringing home Pac-12 titles.
So the transition for both schools to the Big Ten should be fairly smooth. The top-ranked Big Ten team at the end of this past season was Michigan at 19. UCLA and USC came in at 6 and 16 respectively. Keeping in mind that the Big Ten isn’t historically a strong women’s golf conference and that Illinois isn’t historically a strong women’s golf program, the two new kids on the block should be lightyears ahead of the Illini, even if the program is making strides.
Between UCLA and USC, men’s tennis might be where these two schools bring the most to the table. UCLA has quite the history with 15 team national championships and two incredible alumni in Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. USC is somehow even more successful with 21 team titles. Now, the Bruins captured most of their titles in the mid-20th century and the Trojans have captured many of their titles in the 2000s.
Currently, Ohio State stands atop Big Ten tennis, with Michigan nipping at their heels and Illinois dropping off a bit. The addition of USC makes a top tier of the Buckeyes, and UCLA slots into a second tier with Michigan, Illinois, and maybe Northwestern. While making conference titles a bit more difficult for Illinois, these two programs will help increase the strength of schedule and respect of Big Ten men’s tennis, which has waned slightly in the past couple of years.
The Bruins and Trojans don’t quite bring as much prestige in women’s tennis, but they still are solid programs. Both have won two national titles. USC won both of theirs in the 1980s, while UCLA took theirs in 2008 and 2014. Right now, UCLA is slightly more of a power, getting seeded in the NCAA tournament at least, while USC has made some strides to get into the tournament and make some runs there.
It’s best to look at Big Ten Women’s Tennis in tiers. The top tier currently is Ohio State and Michigan, while the next step down is Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Illinois. USC and UCLA will probably slide into that top tier, where UCLA will almost certainly stay while USC probably will. Again, the additions will make Illinois winning their first-ever conference title much more difficult, with USC providing another tough hurdle and UCLA likely raising the ceiling of the conference overall.
Men’s Track and Field/Cross Country
Again, these two schools are bringing a haul of NCAA titles with them. USC alone has won TWENTY-SIX NCAA team titles. UCLA has a measly 8. Granted, the last time either school took home the trophy was in 1988, but the last time a current Big Ten school won the championship was 1948. They aren’t quite the powerhouses they once were, finishing 3rd and 7th out of 10 teams at the PAC-12 championships this season, but the Illini men finished 12th out of 13th at the Big Ten championships.
As for cross country, USC doesn’t field a men’s team. However, UCLA does have some harriers, but the squad has consistently been middling. Dare I day, the Big Ten is a stronger men’s cross country conference than the PAC-12, so the Bruins will likely be middling in the Big Ten as well, much like the Illini.
UCLA Track: loss
USC Track: loss
UCLA Cross Country: win
Women’s Track and Field/Cross Country
Once again, USC and UCLA are powers in a non-revenue sport. Both have captured 3 NCAA team titles, which is 3 more than the Big Ten has in its history. UCLA won their last team title in 2004, while the Women of Troy won the 2021 crown. They dropped off a tad this past season, placing 4th at the Pac-12 Championships, but USC will probably be challenging for Big Ten titles come 2024. UCLA was 6th in the Pac-12 this season, so they’ll likely be at least middling in the Big Ten. Illinois meanwhile finished 9th out of 13 teams this season, so UCLA may be somewhere around the Illini’s level.
As for Cross Country, both schools do in fact field teams. However, they don’t have much history of success or any recent good form. Neither team has ever won a conference title, and again, Pac-12 cross country isn’t particularly strong. For a team on the rise like Illinois, USC and UCLA should be in the rearview mirror and shrinking.
UCLA Track: loss
USC Track: loss
UCLA Cross Country: win
USC Cross Country: win