To the surprise of no one, expansion is once again a front-burner topic in the perpetually shifting landscape of the Big 12, which has only 10 members because its original configuration has been tweaked on multiple occasions since the league began playing for conference championships in the 1996-97 school year.
For five-plus years, the topic has been a recurring theme for the league that is home to TCU, Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. It will not go away until the Big 12 bows to pressure from administrators in other Power 5 leagues, as well as some within its own ranks, who seek two things: an equitable path for all league champions in pursuit of College Football Playoff berths and the addition of at least two other schools into the realm of Power 5 leagues for public relations purposes on the national level.
So, pick your favorite daily double combination for Big 12 expansion and place your bets among friends. Do you like the Cincinnati-Brigham Young combo platter? The Houston-Connecticut quinella? A Memphis-Central Florida addition? Or something else?
Based exclusively on reasons pertaining to football, geography and national cachet (key expansion drivers), the Brigham Young and Cincinnati combo makes the most sense. That does not make it the internal favorite, however, if Big 12 presidents opt to go down that path. But the first trip back to Lubbock for Cincinnati football coach Tommy Tubeville, who left Texas Tech to accept his current post, would be worth the price of admission to gauge crowd reaction.
It’s obvious that league administrators need to do something, and soon, to quiet the public suggestions of Oklahoma president David Boren that the Big 12 is “psychologically disadvantaged” as a 10-member league and suffers in national prestige because of it. The strongest step would be expansion, a topic that will be broached at the league’s spring meetings, May 31-June 3 in Irving. If not expansion, the league needs to issue a unified statement that all members are sold on a long-term future as a 10-member conference, damn the CFP and television revenue consequences in future seasons.
I don’t see the second option surfacing. That is why it is important to track the latest expansion chatter stemming from data provided by an independent research firm that concluded the Big 12’s best chance to consistently place a team in the CFP would occur if the league expands to 12 teams, cuts back to eight conference games and holds a league championship game in football on an annual basis.
Taking such steps, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told reporters after a Monday meeting in Phoenix, would boost the league’s chances of producing a playoff team by 4 to 5 percent, based on data provided by Chicago-based firm Navigate Research. In other words, Big 12 officials spent thousands of dollars to learn they should follow the blueprint of the SEC and Big Ten, the leagues that have produced the first two national champions of the CFP era and did so with once-beaten league champions winning the four-team playoff bracket (Ohio State in 2014, Alabama in 2015).
Lots of college football observers, including fans and media members, have offered the same conclusion for free for the past 18 months. But now the Big 12 has empirical evidence, which will be useful for league presidents as a CYA tactic if the next round of plans to enhance the league for future generations blow up in their face like past policy decisions that led to the departures of Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri.
In a recent interview with the Star-Telegram, Bowlsby acknowledged he does not anticipate definitive action on expansion or other league-defining issues at the spring meetings in Irving. But he indicated that information shared in those meetings could lead to tangible steps later in the summer.