Could a 14-team Big 12 actually work?

As the Big 12 meanders its way toward an expansion that may or may not be inevitable (per “sources”), fans of the affected institutions continue to wait for some measure of resolution.  The good news for the eager applicants is a move to 14 is apparently still on the table.

I still think 12 makes more sense.  And if you read this, you’ll find out why.  But 14 has its advantages, including the more money thing, but more importantly (to me anyway), the opportunity to rebrand away from the toxic Big 12 name.  Yes!

If 14 is still a realistic scenario, let’s look at how it can actually work.

Once again, I don’t have any particular insider knowledge on any of this, which is pretty much useless right now anyway. The amount of misinformation out there at present is significant.  For that reason, trying to predict how expansion unfolds is equally pointless.  What’s perhaps more useful is attempting to apply logic to the situation to offer a recommendation or two.

Below I’ve put together a few maps outlining various 14-team scenarios, picking four options in particular for their rationality and likelihood.  Sorry to all fans of SMU and Rice, but I don’t consider either school to be all that likely an option right now (each was probably included in this process as a professional courtesy and/or so that the Big 12 presidents could grease the skids a little for future employment … I don’t remember who first made that point, but it was a sound one).  Likewise, Air Force is excluded because no service academy is in a Power 5, and that’s the case for a reason … the cadets wouldn’t hold up in a Power 5 grind.  They just wouldn’t.  I love Air Force, but a marriage would be bad for both parties.

My only real rules in doing this were to include only the narrowed down pool that has been widely reported at this point to be the actual finalists for consideration (sorry Memphis, etc.), and to try to make a sensible league in terms of geography … meaning no new islands if possible (but rules are made to be broken, as you’ll see).

That’s it.  So let’s get to the meat.  Here are four proposals for a 14-team Big 12 that actually make some measure of sense.

The Conventional Plan

big12_conventional

Additions: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Connecticut
See, I broke one of my rules right away.  But I did it for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, these four schools – BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and Connecticut — are widely considered to be the Big 12’s top four options, and I wanted a plan that had all four.  And secondly, I don’t actually think the presidents care a whole heck of a lot if BYU is on an island (BYU included).  It might actually help in terms of accepting their general oddity (church affiliation, honor code, no playing on Sundays, academics, etc.).

Here you’ve got four good brands added to the conference, two of them (BYU and Houston) being the consensus best football brands available.  The other two are good schools with great basketball traditions, solid (though not spectacular) fan bases, and some measure of football success (conference titles + BCS bowl appearances).

It checks most boxes, except for the aforementioned geography issue, and while it looks pretty decent on paper, it might also piss the TV partners off something fierce (that could be said for most 14-team options; we just don’t honestly know).  The geography messes up one’s flexibility in dividing divisions too (you pretty much have to go E/W to avoid ridiculous travel burdens on one side of the league).  So there are negatives.  But I do think it’s at least workable with the good news being it’s the safest 14-team option available … if or when OU and Texas decide to ever leave, this leaves the remaining teams on the firmest ground.

But I get bored with “safe.”  Let’s move on, shall we?

Go North

big12_north

Additions: BYU, Colorado State, Cincinnati, Connecticut
Given the candidates still in the mix, the Big 12, if it goes to 14, can take basically two sensible approaches to expanding regionally: It can go north, or it can go south.  Going west exclusively is out of the equation, with only 3 remaining candidates there (and this is probably a good thing given demographics and TV ratings).  Going east has been complicated by the removal of teams in the middle part of the country such as Memphis, ECU and Temple.  So that creates a natural shift northward or southward.

The northern option is kinda cool because it shows an aggressive posture on two fronts, against the Big Ten/ACC on one side and the Pac 12 on the other.  It would give the conference exposure to new eyeballs (and recruits!) in the Northeast (where there are more eyeballs than anywhere) and to existing fans in the West (many Big 12 alums live in the Mountain states already).  Would it make the Big 12 more attractive to the Arizona schools or other possible Pac 12 defectors later on?  I don’t consider that a likely scenario at all, but it keeps the door cracked open I suppose.

The main benefit of this plan is it helps the conference feel “whole” again, what with the most losses for the league coming from the old North (Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado).  Then again, no one is going to confuse CSU for CU anytime soon … and that might be the biggest reason of all for the state of Colorado to get excluded as an option this go around.

It’s not a very “regional” league either.  This sucker is pretty much national, and is that the best way to keep Texas and Oklahoma happy?  Probably not if it involves regular trips to UConn/BYU for either/both.

So instead of chasing current demographics in the North, what about planning for the future?

Go South

big12_south

Additions: Houston, Tulane, South Florida, UCF
Tulane has little athletic appeal.  USF has trouble drawing fans and no real tradition. UCF is slightly better, but it’s still a concern.  And Houston traditionally has drawn poorly as well, with its Texas location a major negative for many.

But the benefit of going south is the long-term thinking of the thing.  In general, the U.S. population is migrating south.  And in general, the South is the most rabid area in the country for football fans.  This is also a direct shot across the bow of the SEC, which took two of your members last go around.

It’s not hard to envision Tulane evolving into a Vanderbilt, an academic powerhouse with a small, rabid fan base situated in the center of fertile recruiting ground.  The Big 12 already heavily recruits Louisiana and could probably do more.  Houston is located in a HUGE metropolitan area, so the growth potential is obvious there in terms of TV viewers, recruiting battles, and in expanding the Houston fan base itself.  South Florida is a gigantic market as well.  And UCF is in a very large market with little competition from pro teams for eyeballs.  Potential, potential, potential, potential.

This is a risky play, but it probably keeps the southern schools happier than the northward expansion, and it evokes a long-term plan of attack.  The downside is that these programs haven’t proven their worth in the modern era.  It also keeps West Virginia, a big proponent of expansion to date, on an island.  This is meant to grow the league in the fertile south. It could work, or it could fail, making it the riskiest option the Big 12 might choose.

I don’t think the presidents are all that risky by nature…

Develop a Cohesive Plan

big12_cohesive

Additions: Cincinnati, Houston, Tulane, UCF
Instead of trying to go in one direction or go in every direction, a strategic expansion to close the gap to current member West Virginia coupled with a push in the South might honestly make the most sense.

Cincinnati checks so many boxes it’s hard to exclude them.  Yeah, BYU has a better football brand, and yeah, UConn has some other advantages in terms of market/fan base/other sports, but in terms of overall strength coupled with geography, the Bearcats make too much sense.  Closing the geographic gap with WVU while also establishing a conference presence in the heart of fertile recruiting ground while also adding a significant amount of eyeballs = all good things.  That they’re strong academically is just the cherry on top.

So now what do you do with your other 3 additions?  Well, Houston may well be a given, thanks to Texas politics.  If that’s the case, the rest of the effort should be meant to basically extend an arm along the Gulf of Mexico to maximize exposure there.  Houston plus Tulane collectively make a ton of sense geographically.  Each has warts and strengths, but the bet here is pretty good in terms of boosting the league’s regional rivalries, exposure, academics and recruiting.

But the main advantage to adding both is it provides a bridge to perhaps the candidate with the best potential of anyone.  UCF has had its share of successes, including a recent Fiesta Bowl win.  It has an on-campus stadium.  It draws reasonably well compared to the other candidates.  It’s located in fertile recruiting ground and churns out tons of alumni every year.  It’s basically the ideal candidate save geography, which is a tremendous pain.  But if you add Houston and Tulane, that problem gets lessoned (some).   USF gets the boot here, but Tampa is more highly saturated than Orlando with pro teams, making UCF a little better bet.

Again, I think 12 is the best choice for many reasons, and if you’re going 12, I like Cincinnati and BYU – the best overall candidate and best football brand, respectively.  But if 14 is the goal (either because of greed or an inability to compromise and pick two candidates), it makes sense to start betting on futures rather than presents, as it affords an opportunity for growth.  12 is essentially the Big 12 trying to become whole again and fortify itself.  14 is about growing … so centering on growth potential becomes more important.

These four plans look like the sanest options out there, with my preference probably being the last one because it’s a good compromise between safe and risky.  Get aggressive, expand, grow and plan on being stronger in 20 years. Fortify yourself in Texas (your most important base), while expanding into desirable markets for viewers and recruits in Ohio, Louisiana and Florida. That’s the kind of bold thinking the Big 12 is known for on the field and joked about being deficient for off the field.  Maybe the league can finally get as aggressive off the field as it is on it?

Nah, probably not.

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