After downplaying the issue at the Big 12 spring meetings, league presidents made expansion a hot topic during Tuesday’s final day of the league’s football media days in Dallas.
League administrators said commissioner Bob Bowlsby will sound out expansion candidates ASAP and suggested the league could have a 12- or 14-member configuration by the time the Big 12 resumes its football championship game in the 2017 season. A huge driving force is the lure of additional TV revenues from the Big 12’s existing media partners (ESPN, Fox) that require carriers to pay the league on a pro rata basis if the Big 12 adds additional members while newcomers could join the league without receiving full financial shares (similar to phase-in deals given to TCU and West Virginia when they joined the league for the 2012-13 school year).
That means an expansion windfall for the league’s 10 existing members, coupled with a boost in revenues for teams currently in non-Power 5 leagues that seek to join the Big 12.
Oklahoma president David Boren, chairman of the league’s board of directors, outlined a set of criteria that will be used in vetting candidates that includes: athletics success, fan base, TV following, academic standards, integrity and shared values with existing Big 12 members. In practical terms, that gives us this top-10 ranking of candidates from the likely “free agents” interested in becoming Big 12 members:
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Brigham Young: Among teams from non-Power 5 leagues, only BYU can point to a semi-recent national championship in football (1984). The school also has the largest fan base in its state (Utah) and draws well in the primary revenue sports. The primary drawback is a historic unwillingness to play Sunday games, which could be a deal-killer.
Cincinnati: The school has a huge enrollment, is located in a recruiting hotbed other than Texas (Ohio) and posted a 12-0 record in 2009 while narrowly missing a spot in the BCS national title game that season. The Bearcats, like BYU, have been nationally relevant in both football and men’s basketball in recent seasons.
Houston: The Cougars’ program is on an uptick after last year’s 13-1 finish under first-year coach Tom Herman. The same is true for the men’s basketball program under Kelvin Sampson. The primary question is whether Big 12 television partners view a need for another member in Texas with four other schools from the Lone Star State already in the fold.
Memphis: The football program is on the rise and the men’s basketball program has a long history of success. But the football program lacks top-notch facilities and has no recent history of sustained success.
Central Florida: An emerging force in college football circles despite last year’s disastrous 0-12 season. UCF defeated Baylor, the Big 12 champion, in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl behind NFL-bound quarterback Blake Bortles. The school has a huge enrollment and is located in Orlando, providing other members an “in” to Florida recruits.
South Florida: Based in Tampa, the school offers similar enticements to Central Florida from a recruiting standpoint. And the Bulls’ football program is on the rise after last year’s 8-5 finish.
Connecticut: A perpetual power in men’s and women’s basketball but typically a struggler in football. The campus also is a long way from the heart of Big 12 country but it is not that far from West Virginia, which could use a travel partner for scheduling purposes.
Colorado State: Another football program on the uptick, with a notable fan base. The Rams also could be a travel partner for Brigham Young if there is a Rocky Mountain double play.
SMU: The Mustangs, under second-year football coach Chad Morris, are making strides toward rebuilding a football program that cratered in 2014 under former coach June Jones. But there is a long way to go, the men’s basketball program spent last season on NCAA probation and it’s hard to see more than one newcomer from Texas being part of the equation. Houston offers more as an expansion candidate if a school from the Lone Star State is added.
Boise State: A football power in recent seasons and another option to pair with BYU if westward expansion occurs.