February 3, 2013

Expansion could be on Big 12 horizon

More Big Ten, SEC growth could alter the landscape.

Food for thought: The first steps toward creation of today's Big 12 began with talk of a scheduling alliance between schools from the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight.

Discussions led to a few football games in the early 1990s and, by the fall of 1996, teams from both leagues were playing under the Big 12 umbrella.

No one is saying history will repeat itself if the Big 12 and ACC lock arms in some type of future scheduling agreement, as Big 12 athletic directors discussed, and unanimously endorsed, last week.

But it could. All it would take is another round of Big Ten or SEC expansion into ACC country that causes existing members or Louisville, an ACC pledge for 2014, to chart an alternate path and seek shelter in a more stable Big 12.

At that point, Big 12 administrators would have to consider altering the league's 10-member structure. And that could be a good thing.

Basketball in the Big 12 would benefit from an ACC infusion and the football could be enhanced, too, if Florida State headed west. A Florida State-Miami parlay would be a nice way to open up Big 12 recruiting opportunities in talent-rich Florida for all sports.

But the focus, for now, is nothing more than a series of nonconference games that could enhance the value of TV deals for both leagues.

"I'm not comfortable with raiding other conferences," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. "But if there are circumstances that indicate that institutions might be looking for an alternative to their circumstance, you have to listen. I don't think you can do otherwise ... There's a case to be made for getting larger."

Here's another possibility that could lead to league expansion: Suppose the Big 12 is convinced by rival leagues and television executives that it would be financially advantageous, or politically prudent, to revive its football championship game to coincide with the start of college football's playoff era in the 2014 season.

Under NCAA rules, a league needs 12 members to stage a championship game in football. That would require Big 12 expansion, a move the league is not ready to make voluntarily. But if administrators' hands are forced, league officials sound ready to pull the trigger.

If expansion occurs, Bowlsby said officials would prefer to target members that could generate the same $26 million per school in revenues that the Big 12 is projected to distribute in June from bowls, TV revenues and NCAA Tournament appearances. How many schools can do that?

"Not very many," Bowlsby said.

Florida State is one. Notre Dame, an independent in football with plans to have a future scheduling alliance with the ACC, is another. Among potential free agents on the college landscape, that's about it.

Bowlsby also expressed an interest, if schools are added, in identifying those with "a very high likelihood of sustained growth that would bring benefits to the league." Now, there's a description of multiple ACC or Big East schools, including Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati.

How unstable is the ground on the realignment front? Fresh tremors could start at any minute.

The Big Ten seems to be on a collision course with a 16-member future and is looking toward some ACC and Big East schools as candidates. If that happens, look for the SEC to match the 16-team model.

In addition, it seems unlikely that BCS commissioners shaping the parameters of college football's four-team playoff will accept two sets of rules for potential participants. I can't see power brokers from the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 letting the Big 12's best teams base their 2014 playoff hopes on 12-game, regular-season records while two teams from each of their leagues face off in a 13th game -- a championship game -- that could knock the loser out of a lucrative playoff berth.

Asked if he envisioned other commissioners lobbying to make a conference title game part of the playoff structure for participating leagues, Bowlsby said: "You'd have to ask them that. I don't know."

Actually, Alabama football coach Nick Saban has long stressed that, in a playoff era, all leagues should hold a conference championship game or none should do so. He's far from alone with that perspective.

Bottom line: Circumstances seem to be building toward expansion opportunities, and good ones, for the Big 12 in the near future. For now, Bowlsby said league officials favor a scheduling alliance that would offer some nonconference classics in basketball (Kansas-Louisville) as well as football (Texas-Florida State; Oklahoma-Miami).

Is there a maximum ceiling for such a scheduling alliance?

"I'm sure there is. I don't know what it would be," Bowlsby said. "We'd probably be wise to optimize it."

The last time many of these schools chose to optimize a scheduling alliance, a new conference emerged. That would be wise to remember in case history repeats itself.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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