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Big 12 Expansion: 3 Near Certainties, 1 Big Question Mark

Senior writer Joe Yeager weighs in on how he thinks Big 12 expansion will eventually shake out.

The chaos that is college football realignment, after a brief cessation, now appears ready to resume at full tilt, with the Big 12 the conference set to trigger the tsunamis. 

Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby let slip that the conference’s Board of Directors has charged him with pursuing expansion, and there is no shortage of schools who would be delighted to land in the Big 12. The bigger question is, are there any viable universities that the Big 12 really wants?

That question, however, is only partially relevant. Money—and that’s what college sports is exclusively about these days—is the prime mover, and one surefire way to make a lot of it is to have more sporting events. More teams, regardless of their merits, mean more events and more dough. The clear implication of this fact, moreover, is that not only is expansion financially wise, the greater the expansion, the better for the pocketbook. 

That being the case, look for the Big 12 to cast a big net. The conference will expand by four rather than two teams. 

Two schools appear to be cast iron cinches for expansion. 

The first, and by far the more alluring, is BYU. The Mormon megalith is the Notre Dame of the west. Its football program, since LaVell Edwards really got the ball rolling in 1976, has been a borderline powerhouse. 

The Big 12 is a passing football conference that produces superb quarterbacks. BYU, which has spawned the likes of Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and Steve Young, fits the Big 12 style to a tee. What’s more, BYU won the national championship in 1984 and has gone 11 straight seasons without a losing record. 

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BYU’s football attendance is also very good, the fanbase is broadly distributed throughout the west, and Utah is a growing state. As further perks, BYU basketball is also very respectable, and the school’s academic reputation is good. 

But most important of all, BYU wants to joint the Big 12. The school has been independent for many years but the brass in Provo think the time is right to join a conference. All that needs to be done is draw up a contract.

The second sure thing is nowhere near so impressive. It appears almost a foregone conclusion that the University of Houston will join the Big 12. The University of Texas, which had hitherto opposed expansion, suddenly, mysteriously, jumped onboard. Now we know why. There was a quid pro quo. UT would support expansion but only on its own terms. The inclusion of the harmless and pliable University of Houston was Texas’ deal-maker.

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Except for possessing a surprisingly resilient football program, UH’s resume is not terribly impressive. But games with Houston are logistically beneficial to Texas, and will bolster’s Texas’ already strong presence in the fertile recruiting ground of greater Houston. Furthermore, Houston, like every other university in the state not named Texas A&M, bends easily to UT’s political pressure. The Coogs will be docile kittens forever ready to crawl into Texas’ lap.

Beyond BYU and Houston, matters are murkier. KSU boss Bill Snyder’s recent statement that he knows of two former Big 12 schools who would like to return is intriguing. Snyder is not a flame-throwing wild man like Mike Leach. He keeps his cards close to the vest and doesn’t speak out of turn unless he means it. Thus, when Snyder talks, people listen. 

Based upon Snyder’s remark, and the fact that the PAC 12 is turning out to be one of college sports’ low-rent districts where the TV money is sparse, and fan support is blasé, it is entirely possible that the Big 12, a comparatively robust conference, could pry the Colorado Buffaloes away. Colorado would benefit from reopened recruiting access to the state of Texas. Without Lone Star talent, Colorado’s already tepid football program, has taken a turn for the worse. Rejoining the Big 12 holds out the prospect of changing that. 

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From the conference’s perspective, CU is Colorado’s flagship university, brings a sizable share of the Denver TV market, and it sports a solid academic reputation. If Colorado was good enough for the Big 12 before, it is good enough today.

The fourth slot appears to be a contest between Memphis and Cincinnati. Both schools bear some resemblance to Houston, but neither has UT paving their way. 

In terms of football, neither school is particularly impressive. Memphis enjoyed a spot of recent success under Justin Fuente who replaced Frank Beemer at Virginia Tech, while Cincinnati made some hay under Brian Kelly, now Notre Dame’s head honcho. 

Of late, Memphis’ football attendance has been somewhat better than Cincinnati’s, but neither school would make the upper half of the Big 12 in that category. Both universities also boast excellent basketball traditions.  

The deciding factor, once again, will be cash-flow. Cincinatti’s metro population is 2.1 million while Memphis’ is 1.3 million. The state of Ohio dwarfs Tennessee by a count of 11.6 million to 6.6 million. 

Additionally, West Virginia, seeking a better logistical deal than it presently enjoys in the Big 12, has been agitating on Cincinnati’s behalf. The Mountaineers don’t have the same swat as the Longhorns, but any little bit helps. So Cincinnati it is.

There you have it. The Big 12 will expand to 14 teams and split into southwestern and northeastern divisions. Out west will be BYU, Colorado, Texas Tech, TCU, Texas, Baylor and Houston. The eastern outpost will feature Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Cincinnati and West Virginia.

My Sears brand crystal ball just commenced smoking and sparking. I hope it’s still under warranty…

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