A Look at the Big 12 Expansion List

With recent news that the Big 12 has whittled down their expansion list to eleven schools, I felt now would be a good time to critically examine these schools to look at where they are in the realignment process as well as gauge the Big 12’s decision making process.

Is the Big 12 embarrassing themselves with the way they have gone about evaluating schools?

This has been by far the most frequently asked question regarding the unusually public process the Big 12 has gone about evaluating expansion targets. The process has been open to any school who have an interest in joining the conference, presentations by the schools have been made available to the public, and no one seems to be able to keep the list of schools involved as well as the schools eliminated confidential.

I have seen people blame both the candidates and the Big 12 for these problems, but the truth is neither deserve blame. The fundamental problem is that Boren publicized expansion talk regarding the Big 12 which brought the media spotlight on everyone. Then to make matters worse the Big 12 didn’t intend to expand until the eve of the expansion vote because of developments regarding the ACC network and grant of rights.

When we typically see “conference X is considering expansion” on ESPN the conference in question is on the tail end of their expansion process. To put it in football terms the Big 12 is currently in the NFL preseason whereas everyone else is starting the NFL postseason. Then the problem was enlarged with the Big 12 having no obvious G5 candidates to choose from giving them a much larger list of candidates they had to be in contact with. With more schools involved this exponentially increased the chances of a leak.

So for the Big 12 it is hopeless to think they could keep things confidential. Usually the conference membership and candidates would have only a handful of people “in the know” at any given institution. But with “Big 12 expansion” dominating the news that sets off a wave of politicians, donors, boosters, and alumni going to these schools and demanding to know what is going on. Then the institution is forced to comply because those people have leverage and the job security of said institution’s leadership depends on keeping these people happy.

But the Big 12 does deserve some amount of blame. The idea to allow schools like Arkansas State and other longshots into the conversation was stupid. It reflects poorly on the Big 12 leadership that they did not understand how any named candidate was going to be a lightning rod for media coverage. Secondly I am flabbergasted that the Big 12 appears to have had no contingency plans in place in the event that they suddenly had to seriously consider expansion. The ACC was able to replace a blindsided departure from Maryland in less than two weeks.

It is perfectly acceptable for the Big 12 to make this process relatively long. But the pace is slow even for realignment standards which usually takes months and the fact that the Big 12 appears to be conducting their process as if they had never even considered the possibility of expansion before (Arkansas State) reeks of incompetence.

Now let’s look at the eleven remaining candidates as well as those eliminated.

Why not Memphis?

There was a lot of shock to the news that the Big 12 had eliminated the Tigers, especially when it was learned that Rice and SMU advanced. If you were to make a points based system of all the attributes for a Big 12 target, (academics, football, basketball, geography, etc.) Memphis would probably place higher than a number of the other eleven schools. However those other eleven schools all came with very big pros offset by very big cons. Meanwhile for the Tigers all those attributes could best be described as “good but not great” relative to G5 standards.

I was not surprised by Memphis’s exclusion from the new list of candidates. In fact I was expecting schools such as New Mexico and Temple (if they could make progress on a new stadium) to last longer in the process. For Memphis this isn’t a sign that they are a bad candidate or inferior to the others. It came down to the Tigers not having that one quality attribute which would get their foot in the door. There is nothing to really highlight for Memphis and thus nothing for the Big 12 to point to and say “we need that.”

There are also a number of things we learned about the Big 12 based on the eleven schools selected.

Academics absolutely do matter.

With any other conference I would have pushed the value of academics. Academics matter a great deal in conference realignment, but I was skeptical as to whether the Big 12 could afford to give weight to academics given the recent instability of the conference. With Rice and Tulane advancing to the next round while stronger football schools such as ECU and Boise State were eliminated it set a clear message that the Big 12 considers academic profile to be a key asset for an institution’s resume. But the elimination of Boise State was intriguing for another reason. It suggests that geography and/or academics will be a complete nonstarter even if the school in question has been arguably the most football competitive G5 school of the 2000s.

We have a clear idea of the Big 12’s geographic preferences.

The elimination of San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State, and even New Mexico suggest the Big 12 is considering western expansion, but only if it relates to BYU either by adding just BYU or BYU and a travel partner. The first three schools only expand the Big 12 footprint away from BYU. New Mexico can kind of be argued as capable of being a travel partner, but only between BYU and the Texas schools. A Colorado school would be more ideal for connecting an outlier gap between BYU and the non-Texas schools. Odds are that BYU will not be in a division with the Texas schools so that is a critical detail. Plus BYU is closer to Colorado State and Air Force as well as having much stronger historical ties to those two institutions than New Mexico.

So the Big 12 appears to be considering BYU and a possible travel partner. That’s great news for Colorado State, but the inclusion of Air Force should be alarming to the Rams. Colorado State is one of the strongest G5 schools when you measure what they could bring to a P5 conference. However the Rams have a critical problem and that is the fact that they are overshadowed by the University of Colorado. The University of Colorado (CU) was one of the original Big 12 members, but as the lone western institution in the conference the Buffs struggled to fit in with the Big 12. For CU the institution felt like it had more in common with their future Pac-12 counterparts and recruited prospective students/football players largely from outside the Big 12 footprint. Colorado State like their sister state school has a very similar profile.

If the Big 12 were considering Colorado State they would have to ask themselves why they should add a school who has the exact profile (but weaker in overall strength) of a school that was already a member of the Big 12, didn’t really fit in, and left. In other words the Big 12 must ask themselves why would Colorado State succeed where CU couldn’t and do so in a conference that essentially traded the closest school to Colorado (Nebraska) for West Virginia after the CU left?

On top of that there is a second problem being the fact that no P5 administrator would ever take Colorado State (CSU) over CU as a conferencemate. You may think the idea that the Big 12 is stronger or equally as strong in 2016 as it was in 2009 prior to the loss of four major schools is ludicrous. But college administrators are often prone to living a lie rather than acknowledging the truth. (1) The Big 12 knows adding CSU would be viewed as swapping CU for the Rams and thus an open admission that the loss of CU hurt the Big 12 and the conference is now weaker for it. These two issues don’t kill CSU’s chances, but it is an issue they have to overcome.

This is why Air Force is such a threat to Colorado State. Air Force can be spun as “they are not a ‘little brother’ school” because they are a service academy and therefore different. Plus another cause of concern is that Air Force was a Big 12 target in the last round of expansion but no evidence has ever surfaced to suggest CSU was a target. So the Rams have lots to fear from the inclusion of Air Force especially when the chances of the Big 12 adding two Colorado schools are slim to none.

On the other side of the Big 12 footprint a number of eastern schools were eliminated. The only schools remaining are Cincinnati, UConn, UCF, USF, and Tulane.

Tulane has already been mentioned due to their academics. However they are also located in a major city, reside in a state with very fertile recruiting grounds, and would be a way to counter the recent SEC expansion into Big 12 territory. But these pale in comparison to my three favorite factors for Tulane. The first is that they border the Big 12 footprint making them an ideal geographical fit being not too close but not too far. The second factor is their brand new stadium. Building a brand new stadium is one of the best things a G5 school can do for their P5 chances. A new stadium does a lot for a G5 school and facilities are way undervalued in realignment discussion on forums and in the media. The third factor is their belonging to a state that is unsaturated in football. Louisiana has just one P5 school which is low considering their recruiting grounds and population. Tulane has a lot of positives with their lone downside being their football program. Unfortunately football is all that is keeping them from being a slam dunk candidate. It is possible to gain entry based on the overwhelming pros Tulane has to offer, but the football question will be working hard against them.

Both UConn and Cincinnati (UC) have a history of being considered the next man up for a P5 bid. This places them among the heavy weights of the G5 as only a quality and highly respected school would be in that position. Cincinnati has dominated the coverage but that doesn’t guarantee a bid. Cincinnati should remember a painful lesson learned by UConn who was long considered the next P5 school after West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse would be selected. Instead they watched two more Big East schools received a bid while they remained in the AAC.

The trivial amount of coverage UConn has received is surprising. People seem to forget UConn has by far the wealthiest athletic program in the G5, is the lone flagship of the eleven remaining schools, as well as the only one who is the sole FBS school in their state. UConn is one of the few G5 schools that is a national brand. People often associate them as more alike to P5 schools such as Syracuse and Boston College than your typical G5 school. The obstacles UConn has to overcome are subpar football and being a massive geographic outlier.

The last eastern schools are UCF and USF. Florida schools have proven to be an incredibly safe bet for future growth thanks to being in the state with the best recruiting grounds in the nation, large media markets, massive enrollment numbers, and a history of very rapid growth in their football programs. Miami, Florida, and Florida State are the best trio of football programs from one state you can find despite being much younger football programs compared to the rest of the P5. The programs of UCF, USF, FIU, and FAU have all seen rapid growth in the last few decades despite having very new programs themselves. While Houston and UConn have grown considerably in the last decade, many (including myself) would bet on a Florida G5 school to be a future G5 power.

Unlike the other eleven schools UCF and USF are essentially joined at the hip. If the Big 12 were to add only one of them they would become a problematic outlier. With a pair not only can the two support each other, the Big 12 programs in their division would be guaranteed one game in the state each year which is a big help in establishing a pipeline for recruiting.

All five schools are either a great builder addition and/or have a terrific name brand. In other words the only eastern schools the Big 12 is considering are those who can bring something of value rather than adding an eastern school just for the sake of adding an eastern school.

Being a Texas school is not a problem.

A lot of realignment commentary has worked under the assumption that another Texas school was either a complete nonstarter or a major longshot. This assumption was flawed because it highlighted the problems of adding a Texas school, while ignoring the reasons for adding one.

The former SWC members (Rice, Houston, and SMU) went three for three with every one being included in the expansion list. Rice (academics) and Houston (athletics) had obvious upsides. However SMU is neither an academic nor a football power and their inclusion highlights the fact that being a Texas/former SWC school is a huge advantage.

These Texas schools have a lot of political clout supporting them. Thanks to geography these are schools who most Big 12 institutions are familiar with and have worked with before. None of these three schools should be written off. However it is a longshot that more than one receive a bid and of these three schools Houston’s resume is well above the rest.

For more on this topic: Will the Big 12 add another Texas school.

In Conclusion…

The Big 12 has options and can go in a number of different ways which I discussed above. I didn’t intend to prop one possible direction up more than the others. It is still an incredibly open race and none of these possible moves the Big 12 could make would surprise me. With the ACC, Pac-12, and Big Ten we knew exactly what the direction those conferences wanted to go. The Big 12 hasn’t really figured out which direction they want to go. If forced to pick which schools are the biggest winners in all of this I would say BYU and Houston. However I would caution that “no expansion” is still a possibility.

Brigham Young’s positives regarding name brand, football, and facilities don’t need to be highlighted. The downside is the institution is a lightning rod for criticism regarding political issues. Time is not on BYU’s side. The longer this expansion process takes the more likely that some key Big 12 administrator after constantly hearing these criticisms repeated by a family member, friend, or by the media decides it has become too much of a liability for the conference.

Whether these criticisms are fair or not isn’t really relevant. They have been widely covered in the media and that is the problem in itself. People often look at problems regarding Big 12 candidates as thinking “well if another Big 12 school has this problem then it shouldn’t be a problem for us.” This assumption is flawed because we are discussing barriers to entry and the standards are much higher for the new members. The Big 12 is essentially endorsing everything BYU by inviting them and they do not want the narrative to become “they endorsed these controversial political issues.”

Houston also appears to be in a solid position. However I would note that Houston fans should be more fixated on the football season. Houston is quickly emerging as the next TCU or Utah and doing so at the best possible time. Having a strong football team this year will do more to help them than anything else. TCU and West Virginia were the safest bets for football and also had an administration that was well connected with the Big 12. Houston has both of these traits and that is a great sign for the Cougars.

(1) This line of thought is the foundation of modern college athletics as administrators are quick to promote basketball and football as regular students playing your typical NCAA match due to the love of the game. But we know full well that it has more to do with being a business and that these are “students” have academic transcripts and amateur status that can get pretty shady.

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© sportspolitico™ September 7, 2016

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