Possible Big 12 expansion members

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

In three previous stories, I’ve offered my opinion on where Texas is, athletically, and what the future could be, ranked the Power 5 football members into tiers based on size, strength and history/tradition, and taken an in-depth look at the five major conferences. Now:

How can the Big 12 expand?

The map and current conference alignments say it cannot. The Gulf of Mexico. The nation of Mexico. The unpopulated desert and grasslands of West Texas and beyond. Louisiana and the cash cow SEC to the east. And, north of Kansas, north of Nebraska, the Dakotas.

Expansion of the Big 12 hinges on what kind of package the organizers (re-organizers) of the conference can offer to possible expansion targets. This means the league commissioner, the relevant TV interests, and key school athletic administrators, must come up with the kind of package (largely financial) that would be attractive to new members. A major reason expansion will be difficult is that the Big Ten and SEC have huge television monies rolling in. The other three conferences aren’t far behind . . . but the TV packages of the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 are not expected to be as lucrative once new contracts are hammered out in two to four years.

And you can’t get told no – and have no chance of hearing yes – if you don’t reach out and try to find new league members. This is where I’d hope our athletics administrator are pro-active.

**If I’m calling the shots, I start with Arkansas and Missouri. The geography works. Mizzou’s major rivals – none showing up on recent Tigers schedules – are mostly Big 12 teams. Arkansas’ history with Texas schools in the old SWC varied from okay to we’re out of here. That was then. Arkansas and Missouri both made solid starts, competitively, with their SEC football chances. The Razorbacks reached the league’s title game twice in the early 2000s; the Tigers were SEC East winners in back to back seasons (2013-14); neither has won an SEC title. Neither has been close to a division championship since 2014. Current trends say that won’t change. Mizzou, in particular, is geographically separated.

Due to several internal/in-state issues, Missouri has not competed well in football and basketball in recent seasons. Arkansas remains a national player in hoops and was ranked No. 1 in baseball when the 2021 regular season ended. But conference realignment is 90 percent football driven. At this point, those schools’ football programs are in the bottom five or the SEC.

The issue officials at Arkansas and Missouri might wrestle with is whether big paychecks are enough to offset what have been, and figure to be in the near future, football seasons with between three and seven victories. Or, whether aligning with more regional schools opens the door for nine- and 10-win possibilities. To make this happen, the Big 12 must find a way to boost its revenue picture to prospective members.

**Now, over the mountain. Another pair: Colorado and Utah. These are the PAC’s newest members; neither has much history with the mostly West Coast conference. Neither has prospered in football, even playing in a division with the weak/rebuilding/confused trio of UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona.

Recall that Colorado’s exit from the 12-team Big 12 opened the door to talk about most of the Big 12 South joining the PAC as a Pac-16 East. That fell apart. Texas A&M’s jump to the SEC is seen by many as the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. That surely was part of it, but entrenched interests in California and especially in the Pacific Northwest might not have wanted a league of that size or that required so much travel. Utah was the evener, the school that put membership at 12 instead of 11. That state surely has more in common with the Arizona schools (even Nevada, whose schools are Group of 5) than it would with Texas and Kansas members.

But the PAC has not been fertile football ground for nearly a decade. The league’s monies have not kept up, the league’s conference TV package has been a disappointment and the PAC just hired a new commissioner. He’s California- and entertainment-based, and has said he plans to use that entertainment background in his plan to change the conference’s income stream. That may work fine for the four California schools; it might not play so well for those in the Mountain time zone or in Washington and Oregon.

**Over the desert – If the Arizona schools did not totally nix the concept of an eight-team Pac-16 East a decade ago. would they be open to that concept now? You wouldn’t think so. But if Colorado or Utah was open to talking with Big 12 interests, might Arizona and Arizona State also listen? Never know until you try.

**The other direction – None of the western schools would dramatically change the financial footprint of the Big 12. They surely would grow the footprint, and any two (or all four) would have a positive economic impact. What about schools to the East? Memphis. Cincinnati. Two directionals in Florida.

None is exciting, but Ohio, Tennessee and the Sunshine State (Central Florida, South Florida) are definitely new terrain. Memphis would bring in an attractive market. Cincinnati is not Ohio State – but it’s probably an upgrade over West Virginia or Iowa State, and it’s a big enough city to have pro football and baseball franchises.

Orlando and Tampa/St. Petersburg is two major markets in the nation’s fastest-growing large state. UCF has one of the largest students bodies among U.S. colleges. Cincinnati and both Florida entries have produced Top 20 teams in recent seasons, and two of those programs have reached New Year’s Six bowls.

**And what about Brigham Young? Air Force? Army or Navy?

The now-entrenched mid-December showdown rivalry game between the latter two could be an obstacle to joining a conference. It’s likely none of the service academies would want Big 12 membership in any sport except football. Well, BYU is already in that position. The Cougars are a football independent, while the rest of the university’s athletic programs compete in the West Coast Conference. Navy is already in that position. The Midshipmen play football in the America Athletic, while the rest of the programs compete in the Patriot League. Army is a hybrid – football indy, Patriot for other sports.

BYU has a well-regarded TV network (Cougar sports is part of a much larger presentation). BYU and all three service academies have significant national followings, especially with military retirees residing largely in the Sun Belt.

A reach? Sure. From a Texas/OU perspective, though, are any of these possible expansion targets weaker/less relevant on a football level than the schools in Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia? More, or less, attractive than the league’s private members, TCU and Baylor? Something to think about.

TOMORROW: Going out on a limb...

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