A Radical (and Unrealistic) Plan for A 16-Team Big 12 Conference

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Let’s be perfectly clear up front to avoid any confusion: In no way is the following speculation of any backdoor dealings that could expand the Big 12 Conference from 10 teams to 16. Nor is the following a prediction; were Las Vegas sports books to accept wagers on future conference realignment, this six-team parlay might pay five figures on a single dollar.

Moreover, the Big 12 doesn’t necessarily need to expand. The television deal it brokered with ESPN and Fox, which extends through 2024-’25, pays the conference’s 10 members roughly $20 million each per year. Expansion doesn’t guarantee the existing members higher payouts from television revenue as the contract is currently designed.

Still, the decline to 10 teams after losing Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas A&M eliminated the Big 12’s once popular and lucrative conference championship game. Reinstating the title tilt may prove to be vital for the conference’s College Football Playoff portfolio, as every other Power 5 conference champion will enter the postseason with 13 games on their dockets. The Big 12 champion has just 12.

And by expanding to both large markets and adding nationally recognized programs, Big 12 brass could have added leverage for a restructured television package.

A return to 12 teams makes sense, particularly if it means giving West Virginia an Eastern counterpart. But what if the Big 12 could beat the Big Ten and SEC to 16 members, and do so in a manner that:

– Expands the Big 12 influence to several large markets

– Plants the Big 12 flag in Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC country

– Brings quality via a combined six BCS bowl appearances?

It’s an out-there plan that may never come to fruition, but the concept has potential.

BYU COUGARS

BYU Football
We start with the most apparent Big 12 expansion option, the presently independent BYU. Prominent figures at BYU made the university’s interest in the Big 12 known shortly after the ACC and SEC shunned the Cougars as power conference equals for the purpose of scheduling.

Per BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall in a June interview with the Austin American Statesman:

“Our attendance is high enough. And our winning percentage is high enough. We have the entire Salt Lake City and Utah market as well as a worldwide following because of the church. There’d be a ton to offer the Big 12 because it’s a money-generated world right now. You’re talking about an amazing kind of brand.”

The Salt Lake City market ranks No. 33, and the Cougars’ fanbase extends beyond its local sphere of influence, the result of the university’s affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. BYU football is also a well-established brand, boasting a national championship in the last 30 years; a Heisman Trophy winner in the last 24; and five 10-plus-win seasons since 2006.

Whereas BYUtv might be a roadblock for BYU’s affiliation with another football conference, the network rather neatly fits the Tier 3 separation of broadcasting structure already in place in the Big 12.

BOISE STATE BRONCOS

Boise State Football
Boise State football is the picture of consistency in the past decade-and-a-half. Since 1999, the Broncos won fewer than 10 games just three times in a run that spanned three coaching regimes. Bryan Harsin is well-positioned to keep that run going through a fourth staff.

Boise State hasn’t just beaten up on inferior competition in that run, either. The Broncos boast wins over power conference champions from the ACC (Virginia Tech in 2010), Pac-12 (Oregon in 2009) and Big 12 (Oklahoma in 2006), and an SEC Championship Game participant (Georgia in 2011).

The Boise television market lacks the numbers offered from the other five programs mentioned in this plan, but there’s a certain quality to Broncos football that transcends the regional fanbase. Boise State’s rise coincided with the emergence of nearby Gonzaga basketball. In the same fashion that the Zags built a following from fans who love the underdog, the Broncos have their own, similar niche.

The move to an established league that pits Boise State against longtime powers like Texas and former Fiesta Bowl opponents Oklahoma and TCU might provide the stepping stone the Broncos need to reach the next level.

CINCINNATI BEARCATS

Cincinnati Football
Another two-time BCS bowl participant and consistently competitive program, Cincinnati is the most logical Big 12 expansion target. The Bearcats inhabit the No. 34-ranked television market, expand the conference’s regional footprint further east and gives West Virginia a nearby counterpart.

Just as important is that Cincinnati grew into a consistent winner since its move to the former Big East in 2005, winning at least a share of its conference’s championships four years from 2008 through 2012.

Ohio also offers a deep recruiting pipeline. A conference presence there could help establish the Big 12 there in competition with Big Ten powers like Michigan and Ohio State.

NORTHERN ILLINOIS HUSKIES

Northern Illinois Football
Suggesting Mid-American Conference member Northern Illinois for inclusion in a Power 5 league is not all that outlandish–nor is it a new idea. In 1993, Ed Sherman of the Chicago Tribune wrote a surprisingly prescient feature on Northern Illinois. The Huskies moved to the Big West that season, but Sherman floated the dream of Northern Illinois one day playing for major bowl bids as a member of the then-Big 8:

Nebraska and Northern Illinois playing for a trip to the Orange Bowl? Snicker if you will. So what if the required jump rivals anything achieved by Superman.

Considering the Huskies played in the 2013 Orange Bowl, 11 years after Nebraska made its last BCS game, the idea of Northern Illinois football fitting into a major-conference landscape no longer seems so far-fetched.

And Northern Illinois is hardly a one-hit wonder. The Huskies won nine-plus games in six seasons since 2003, including 11 or more each of the last four years. Quarterback Jordan Lynch launched into the national spotlight while leading NIU to 24 victories the last two seasons, earning an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Lynch is gone, but the Huskies are again built to compete for 10-plus wins and another MAC championship, much in the same way they thrived after the departure of star quarterback Chandler Harnish in 2011.

Northern Illinois’ proximity to Chicago–it’s only a 60-minute drive–could raise a Big 12 flag in the epicenter of Big Ten Country, and station the conference in the nation’s third-largest television market.

UCF KNIGHTS

UCF Football
A sleeping giant in the Sunshine State is awaken. UCF’s run to hoisting the 2014 Fiesta Bowl trophy was no fluke, but rather the next logical step in the continued growth of a high-potential program.

One of the deepest recruiting talent pools surrounds UCF and its Orlando campus. Despite competing with in-state power programs Miami, Florida and Florida–and really, all of college football east and north of Texas–George O’Leary has tapped the local pipeline successfully enough to build a winner. And with an enrollment of just under 60,000, UCF has the student body and future alumni base to build a rabid fanbase.

Add the Big 12 brand, and UCF’s promise is sky-high. Conversely, an outpost in Florida benefits the recruiting presence of the existing Big 12 in the vital battleground state.

USF BULLS

USF Football
In the late 2000s, USF had the look of a program ready to break into the upper echelon of college football. The Bulls featured such recognizable names as George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul, and were ranked as high as second in the polls.

USF has fallen on hard times recently, but proven program builder Willie Taggart should see major strides in his second year. More importantly for the long-term outlook, USF has the necessary foundation to build a perennially strong program.

Like UCF, USF’s location in the heart of Florida recruiting country offers an almost limitless pipeline on which to sustain a winning program.

THE DIVISIONS

When the Big 8 welcomed four newcomers from the dissolved Southwest Conference to become the Big 12, it split into divisions of North and South.

Certainly the same split could work for this hypothetical Big 12 (or Big 16), but an East/West divide is more logical for trimming travel expenses–at least, as much as possible in a league that stretches from Idaho to West Virginia, down to south Florida and over to West Texas.

Maintaining its current nine-game league schedule makes scheduling simple: seven divisional contests per season, with crossovers over the course of the subsequent four years. It’s not necessarily ideal to see a conference counterpart just once per presidential election cycle, but it is a harsh reality of the modern landscape.

At the very least, this split doesn’t comprise any rivalries–and it makes a whole helluva lot more sense than what the SEC is doing.

West: Baylor, Boise State, BYU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech

East: Cincinnati, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Northern Illinois, UCF, USF, West Virginia

  • where will UConn end up?

  • Sendero593

    From the West:

    BYU, definitely — Ignore the tacky catcalls (forgive the pun), and do it now.  Forget the semantical nonsense, they’re everything you want in a major program in terms of facilities, TV market, fan support, etc.  Shovel ready, as the Prez might say, except they really are.  Forget about the distance, people.  It’s 45 minutes further by jet than Denver/Boulder used to be for the CU trip — and we’re in the 21st century, this ain’t by wagon train any more.  🙂

    The second team, if you can get them to accept, should be Air Force.  AF:  Prestigious university, plays all the sports, superb academics, good size fan base, gate revenue, and TV draw, big draw in the Denver / Boulder / Colorado Springs markets — probably a better TV draw locally than CU.  Not that strong on the field, but they bring everything else to the party.

    If Air Force won’t come (and they may not), the next best western choice is UNLV.  UNLV hasn’t done anything on the football field, but the potential is huge with a great Las Vegas market, a big growth state in NV, decent school, decent facilities, and a super B-Ball program that has been strong for years with a huge fan base.   Everything is there for a major football program, and a Power-5 invite could and should make the program explode — and relatively quickly.  Fans there would get behind this in a hurry …

    Excluded are San Diego State (in some ways similar to UNLV, but they labor under the “Cal State X” syndrome — always will be a second class citizen versus the PAC-12 University of California schools, and private schools USC and Stanford), and Boise State (the university is only a relatively few years removed from JUCO status, its athletic programs outside of football aren’t ready for prime time, and its TV market is tiny and will remain so for the foreseeable future).

    From the East:

    First choice is UConn, hands down — for many of the same reasons the Big 10 invited Rutgers, except UConn is a better choice than Rutgers was.  Connecticut brings a piece of the New York market, a super strong basketball program, a big fan base, and the potential for a very strong football program in a relatively short time period.  ESPN’s home market, to boot.  LOTS of potential here, with instant major market appeal.  This is the first choice out of the East, and could be matched up with WVU, even though they’re not exactly next door neighbors.  If you were only to invite only two teams, your two best choices are BYU and UConn, NOT Cincinnati and UConn, or BYU and Cincinnati. 

    Second eastern choice is Cincinnati, for all the reasons in the article. 

    Third choice is UCF and fourth choice is USF, for the reasons listed in the article, but even as Big-12 members both schools would play second fiddle to FSU, and Florida, Georgia / the rest of the SEC — much like SDSU would be a perennial second fiddle to USC and UCLA in California.  I’ve excluded Northern Illinois because it lacks the fan base, tradition, market, and facilities to make the cut, and I don’t see it getting there any time soon.

    BEST CHOICES:

    1.  Expand by 4 teams, not by 6.  BYU, Air Force (or UNLV), UConn, Cincinnati.

    2.  Expand by 2 teams.  BYU, UConn.

    3.  If you absolutely insist on going to 16 (14’s enough):  BYU, Air Force (or UNLV), UConn, Cincinnati, UCF, USF.

    Last comment:  The Big-12 DOES need to expand now.  If it fails to be proactive and waits until the next round of expansion starts, it’s most likely going to end up as the next dinner meal for one or more of the other major conferences, and its survival could once again be put at stake.  Now is the time to move, before that wolf is at the door.  Yes, they don’t want to risk diluting the 20+ million per school right now — but it might be better to take that risk, rather than perhaps risk oblivion by suddenly falling to 8 or 9 teams, and losing critical mass in a Big-10 / SEC / PAC-12 raid.  As the old expression goes … pigs get fat, but hogs get slaughtered — so it may be wise to expand now, and lock the future down, while it’s still possible to do so  🙂

  • kensing45

    Sendero593 Awesome breakdown. Selfishly I dig the idea of UNLV in the Big 12 simply for the thought of seeing Oklahoma or Texas play in Vegas.

  • kensing45

    cthusky Spit-balling? Either the Big Ten upon expansion to 16 teams (and continuing its eastern movement) or the ACC as it continues to try and fortify its Northeastern markets. Either would be just terrific for basketball.

  • gman0003

    Sendero593 NIU’s facilities (indoor practice field, and weight room/offices/locker room are considered one of the top 5 in the country and a stadium upgrade is in the works.  They are also the most successful team mentioned in your lists in the past 10 years.

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  • Scott19

    NIU has a culture of winning, and would greatly increase the B12 presence in America’s #3 market.  Our B12 advertising partners would love to see Chicago added to the mix I’m sure…