In the beginning, there was chaos.
College football started in 1869, when Princeton played Rutgers in two games. In 1870, Columbia fielded a team for a game against Rutgers. In 1872, Yale joined the act, and football slowly expanded from there through schools now known as members of the Ivy League. Eventually, schools outside the northeast picked up the sport. Northwestern played one game in 1876 against a club team from Chicago, lost 3-0, and did not play again until 1995. Navy played its first game in 1879, Michigan a year later. Kentucky, Minnesota, and Cal fielded teams in the early 1880's. By 1895, there were 56 collegiate football teams, all independent.
The system was unwieldy. There was no limit to who a team scheduled or how many games a team could play. Rutgers played the first 10-game schedule in 1882. Four years later, Penn played 17 games, going 9-7-1, while Harvard had 14 games on the schedule. By 1889, when Princeton quarterback Edgar Allan Poe (cousin of that Edgar Allan Poe) made the first-ever all-American team, five programs were playing 10 or more games while some, including Notre Dame, played just one or two. The expansion of the game demanded some sort of order.
Enter the Big Ten, then known as the Western Conference, created by seven Midwestern universities -- Wisconsin, Michigan, Northwestern, Chicago, Minnesota, Illinois, and Purdue -- for the 1896 season. Of the first conference's charter members, only one -- Chicago -- is no longer a member of the athletic arm of the conference, and Chicago remains a member of the academic arm, the CIC. The Big Ten has been a remarkably stable institution, allowing for collaborative research and unimaginable wealth for its members, but in 1896 it was just there to help with scheduling some football games. Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten championship, going 2-0-1 in conference play. The Badgers won the second title, as well. In 1900, the conference expanded, adding Iowa and Indiana, largely for their radio and telegraph markets.
It turns out 1900 was a big year for realignment. Not only did the Big Ten expand, but the second collegiate football conference was formed: The Rocky Mountain Conference. The RMC consisted of five Colorado-based institutions: Colorado, Colorado State, Colorado College, Northern Colorado, and Colorado School of Mines. Northern Colorado dropped out after one season, and the RMC spent 1901 as a four-team league before getting expansion crazy in 1902. Not only did the league add Denver, a natural geographic fit, but it expanded its footprint westward by picking off Utah and Utah State. Wyoming joined the league in 1905, evening its numbers at eight and setting the stage for the future Western Athletic Conference.
The Big Ten began a different kind of expansion in the early 1900s, as its teams began routinely playing 10-14 game schedules. By 1901, all nine members of the Western Conference were playing at least nine games a year, with Chicago scheduling twelve games and Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern playing eleven. This matched the trend of future Ivy League schools like Harvard, Cornell, Dartmoutn, Yale, and Pennsylvania, which routinely scheduled 11-17 games per season. Obviously, this had a negative effect on the academics at both the Ivy League and Big Ten institutions who played such arduous schedules, an effect we can see to this day in their U.S. News and World Report rankings.
However, football was on the verge of extinction. When 18 players died during the 1905 season, the president of Harvard attempted to ban the game altogether. Big Ten schedules reduced dramatically, from the 10-11 game slates of the aughts to five games apiece in 1906. Northwestern didn't play at all. Nobody seemed to mind. Teddy Roosevelt called off the dogs and saved the game, the forward pass was invented, and everyone went about their business, albeit in a much more controlled environment.
At the close of 1906, there remained only two football conferences and 54 independents. In the next decade, that would all change.