College football is now two years removed from a significant restructuring and – surprise – the specter of further conference realignment still lingers. With the creation of a four-team playoff and a hierarchy of five ostensibly equal power conferences, it was perhaps inevitable that one conference would consider itself at a disadvantage – and that conference is the Big 12. They were the big loser of the last round of realignment: Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Colorado all found more stable homes in three separate conferences and the Big 12 added TCU (great on the football field, horrible on the hardwood) and West Virginia from mid-major leagues to compensate. They’re the only conference without a championship game, which is perceived to be a significant disadvantage. That they missed out on the playoff in one of the two years of its existence has driven them to question whether expansion might improve the league – though apparently immediate action is unlikely. However, it’s a pretty good bet that the Big 12 won’t exist in its current form in five years.
It’s worth noting that some of the different members of the conference have disparate goals (which isn’t the case in most other Power Five leagues). Texas is content with the present arrangement, which enriches itself with the lucrative (for Texas) Longhorn Network contract and effectively exists as the celestial body around which all others orbit in the Big 12. They and the other Texas schools are probably quite leery of Houston (arguably the best candidate for Big 12 expansion); promoting TCU to the Power 5 level has weakened its neighbors and with Tom Herman at the helm at UH, it’s easy to envision history repeating itself. Oklahoma isn’t happy with looking up at Texas in the Big 12 power structure but – perhaps because it’s saddled with Oklahoma State – can’t flee to the Pac-12 or SEC. West Virginia probably wants expansion to bring more geographically proximate foes into the league. Iowa State’s just happy (and a little confused) to be here.
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So, in order to reconcile the competing interests of different schools – and because they’re probably in it together for the long haul, barring one of the other Power 5 conferences surprisingly deciding to expand – I’ll try to consider what’s best for the entire Big 12 and what they might decide to do moving forward. There are a couple of realistic options:
Burn Baylor to the ground, replace them with Houston
Add a conference championship game without adding any teams
This is the current route – they’re making the change in 2017. They’ll likely form two five-team divisions, though the geography doesn’t provide for a clean split; perhaps they’ll change the divisions on a yearly basis or something. There’s no precedent for ten-team conferences with a divisional setup.
I don’t see the appeal. The biggest draw seems to be the money – even though it probably wouldn’t provide a huge windfall at the end of the day. That there’s an argument that there’d be an increased competitive benefit for playoff-contending teams makes little sense: in 2015, a rematch between Baylor and TCU may not have even seen the winner make the playoff and in 2016, Oklahoma was safely in and a conference championship could have only hurt them. There’s no evidence that a conference title game is inherently beneficial, and any judgment the playoff landscape after just two trial runs seems fraught with sample size issues.
With a full round-robin schedule, creating an inevitable rematch as a money grab seems shortsighted. What if a one-loss team loses a rematch to a two-loss team it had previously beaten? What if an undefeated champ chokes against a four-loss team? There seems to be the underlying assumption that the lack of a championship game in 2015 screwed over Baylor or TCU, but it’s wrong to assume that the addition of a 13th game would help teams reach the playoffs – in fact, it could do the opposite. If a team goes 9-0 in conference play, a rematch with a 6-3 team wouldn’t be helping them out.
To me, this indicates that the conference doesn’t think that there are worthy contenders for the 11th and 12th spots in the league – spots that, if filled, would put the Big 12 at a much better number for a division split and a conference title game. That’s the other option:
Add an even number of teams, split into divisions
The obvious catch is that no other Power 5 team will flee a conference that’s more stable and probably more geographically appropriate than the Big 12. However, as we’ve seen in the last round of realignment (most notably with West Virginia and particularly Rutgers), there’s a precedent for an addition that doesn’t necessarily make sense on the face in terms of competitiveness or proximity. TCU was a clear fit for the Big 12 last time around, but WVU – the school that the Big 12 was forced to grab to avoid falling to nine teams – isn’t close to any other schools in the league (the closest is Iowa State, 14 and a half hours away by car). With the dearth of great candidates (outside of Houston, maybe), the Big 12 would have to make another reach in order to get back to twelve teams.
One thing to consider is that the Big 12’s media rights deal is still good through 2024-2025, so there’s no impetus to chase TV markets with the prospect of a huge payday on the immediate horizon. Expansion with the intention of extorting more money from ESPN, Fox, or whoever certainly wouldn’t be unprecedented, but there isn’t an opportunity to do so here. Texas’s deal with ESPN’s Longhorn Network complicates matters somewhat, and while the other nine members of the conference would favor a more egalitarian media money distribution, UT probably won’t give up their cash cow without tearing apart the league in the process. With that in mind, who are the candidates for Big 12 expansion?
HOUSTON – Pros: big media market, closest candidate to most schools, promising football program. Cons: probably can’t deliver said media market, would be a recruiting competitor, Herman probably won’t stay forever.
BRIGHAM YOUNG – Pros: relatively large, national fanbase, already has own media rights deal with ESPN, strong football history. Cons: requires religious accommodations, not close to any current members.
MEMPHIS – Pros: AD theoretically has a lot of potential (and, more importantly, the FedEx guy, a possible financier), in a good-sized city within the region. Cons: “potential” implies that there’s not much there right now, basketball program has been down.
CENTRAL FLORIDA – Pros: located in Orlando, could open up recruiting inroads in Florida for the conference, huge school. Cons: not good at football or basketball, not much history to speak of.
SOUTH FLORIDA – Pros: many of the same positives as UCF, though in Tampa instead. Cons: might be best as a hanger-on with UCF, probably can’t get in alone on their own merits.
CINCINNATI – Pros: well-established sports, decently-sized media market, would provide West Virginia with a geographically suitable rival, could open up recruiting areas. Cons: not as much potential for growth, dwarfed by Ohio State.
UCONN – Pros: would be a great addition to an excellent basketball conference, has as much argument as New York’s team as Rutgers does. Cons: even further from everybody than West Virginia, doesn’t bring much football interest.
COLORADO STATE – Pros: would effectively replace Colorado, geography is a big plus (plenty of Big 12 alumni in Denver, an hour and a half away), have been competitive in Mountain West hoops. Cons: moves the needle very little, less ready for the jump than others.
BOISE STATE – Pros: maybe the best mid-major football program over the last however many years. Cons: about as far from a major media market and other Big 12 schools as possible, Chris Petersen is gone.
TULANE – Pros: NEW ORLEANS. Cons: pretty much everything else.
Admittedly, it feels like there aren’t a lot of great names on the list. While the Big 12 could force new members to take a fraction of the revenue ordinarily given to each team (like they did with WVU and TCU, though both will be receiving the full value soon), it’s easy to question whether any of these names could provide a boost significant enough to change the calculus when the next media deal is negotiated. Anyways, it’s hard to know if ESPN will even be able to fork over these enormous sums indefinitely, though the recent Big 10 deal has indicated that the bubble hasn’t popped yet.
I feel like the biggest reason to expand would be to enable divisions and a conference championship, but somehow the Big 12 managed to convince the NCAA to let it hold one even though they have a full round-robin schedule. Once that option was established as a possibility, odds of immediate expansion dropped – but it’s hard to say what will happen if the Big 12 proceeds with that plan. It’s possible that, in the first few years, the conference championship game could only be a detriment to playoff-contending teams, and the reflexive desire to add one after the Baylor / TCU / One True Champion mess could backfire completely. It’s possible that everything works out fine and the Big 12 decides against further expansion. Still, with an eye towards the future and perhaps a further reshuffling of the deck once the next wave of media negotiations gets underway in about a half-decade, there’s motive to make the Big 12 look more attractive to other Power 5 schools that might be looking to make a move. Courting a Florida State would probably require Texas to make some concessions, which is to say – it probably won’t happen.
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So… what should the Big 12 do? They seem to be convinced that a conference championship game is necessary (it’s not), so keeping everything as is doesn’t seem to be an option. Honestly, that may be the best choice: perhaps the Big 12 will discover that a conference championship might actually disadvantage its best teams instead of adding a resume-padding win. If the league sticks with ten and adds a divisional setup and league title game on top of its full round-robin schedule, there’s a good chance that, in a given year, the champs will have beaten the same team twice to get there. How much that would help a team in a playoff debate remains to be seen.
In order to accommodate the desire for the renewal of the Big 12 Championship Game, I’d recommend adding two teams to bring the number to twelve – though picking which two teams should get the magical ticket into the Power 5 is difficult. Surely any of the Big 12’s targets would accept, which makes things a little easier, but there’s no slam dunk candidate and factoring in the logistics of who they might add only complicates things. Assuming that the four Texas schools are unwilling to let Houston in – and that the other six schools don’t have the leverage (or inclination, really) to get them in – we’re left with some combination of BYU, Cincinnati, Memphis, and UCF as the leading candidates.
I’d pick Cincinnati as my first choice and BYU as my second. Splitting up into two divisions could look something like this:
Division A – BYU, Cincinnati, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia
Division B – Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech
It seems unwise to lump the Oklahoma schools in with the Texas schools for competitive balance reasons (West Virginia would probably love that, but a division with them, ISU, KU, KSU, and the newcomers just doesn’t make practical sense) so an alignment with strictly geographical considerations might be fatally flawed. If Houston were to somehow make it in, a division with five Texas schools and one “other” – maybe Memphis? – could work, but splitting up Texas and OU into separate divisions seems wise. They could always have permanent cross-division rivalries to preserve that matchup.
Cincinnati and BYU each offer competitiveness in both football and men’s basketball, the two sports linked to huge paydays from the networks; while neither program is elite at either, no other candidates have the same combination that would probably increase the Big 12’s strength in both sports. If that’s a motivation, certain other names would be non-starters. Cincinnati would give West Virginia a geographic rival (not that it matters a whole lot, just ask Utah and Colorado about their “rivalry” in the Pac-12), and more importantly, is located in a talent-rich state, albeit one that’s dominated by Ohio State – and to a lesser extent, Notre Dame and the rest of the Big 10. BYU’s cachet as a football program is probably overrated, but they command a fanbase much bigger and stronger than any other expansion candidate; their independent status was a gamble (which may or may not work out) and life in the Mountain West wasn’t ideal, so it’s not hard to envision BYU thriving in a new environment.
The biggest problem is that there are five leagues and four playoff spots, so barring the dissolution of the Big 12 and a move to auto-bid playoff slots, there will always be a degree of uncertainty in the current setup. The Big 12 seems determined to add a title game in football, so they should add BYU and Cincinnati and do it right – with twelve teams, not ten. Upgrading the league on the hardwood and the gridiron would just be a nice bonus.