The college football landscape has been quiet for nearly a decade, but if you’re reading between the lines in recent weeks, it sure feels like we could be on the verge of another major shift in the sport in the coming years.
We’ve got the likely expansion of the College Football Playoff on the table, plus TV networks like ESPN and FOX about to start re-negotiating some of their contracts with conferences. Put those items together and you have the start of a seismic shift in college athletics.
The Big 12 Conference has to learn from last time around that you don’t want to be the last person at the party. Naivety doesn’t do any good. To use one more cliche, you are either the hunter or the hunted. The Big 12 was the hunted last time around and it almost led to the conference’s demise.
So as the Big 12 looks into the future, there are a couple of plays that can be made here.
There’s westward expansion which could include some combination of the Pac-12 Conference. While that may be something the Pac-12 has interest in moving forward, as I’ve noted before, there isn’t much of an advantage for the Big 12 Conference to go this route.
Then, there’s trying to own the state of Texas by looking at teams like Houston and SMU. It’s also not the worst idea, as the state of Texas remains one of the fastest growing in the country, has multiple top media markets, along with a plethora of high school football talent. However, the current Big 12 schools may not want more competition around the state, which was a concern for some teams when the TCU Horned Frogs came on board.
So what about looking east? Does invading another growing state with with several larger media markets, plus a ton of high school football talent make sense?
It just might. And for starters, I’m specifically thinking about the UCF Knights.
Why the UCF Knights?
247Sports had a story recently about how well Gus Malzahn has been recruiting in just a few months on the job as the head coach of the Knights. The article notes that just last weekend, UCF had 15 official visitors and nearly a dozen unofficial visitors, with the list including one 247Sports Composite five-star recruit and over a dozen more four-stars.
That would be an impressive haul for a Big 12 school not named Oklahoma or Texas to be welcoming in a five-star prospect and over a dozen four-star players.
And obviously this is not just a Gus Malzahn thing. He was a top recruiter at Auburn, who arguably got unfairly fired for being constantly compared to Nick Saban. Now, he takes over from Josh Heupel, who succeeded Scott Frost, and will try to take the Knights to new levels.
The likely expansion of the College Football Playoff already will help UCF, but if they were to get into a Power 5 Conference, they would be adding at least $30 million more in revenues compared to their AAC contract, which paid out about $7 million per school, compared to the nearly $40 million per school for the Big 12.
For the Big 12, they get to infiltrate the I-4 corridor of Orlando and Tampa, a rapidly growing part of the state, grow the Big 12 footprint to the southeast, and in many ways do in reverse to the SEC what the SEC did to the Big 12 ten years ago when it poached Texas A&M and then the entire conference was competing for recruits in Texas, most notably the Houston area. Granted, UCF is not Texas A&M, but it at least puts the Big 12 into SEC territory.
Most importantly though, instead of playing defense, the Big 12 would theoretically be playing offense. For all the offense the conference is known for on the field, it hasn’t done a good job offensively off the field. This is a chance to do that.
As much as I’ve always been someone who prefers the regional aspect of college football, the ability to drive and make a long weekend out of any road football game, I admit that that priority may be long gone. So while the Big 12’s regional aspect has always been tied to the Heartland, exploring the sunshine of Central Florida may be the best play for the Big 12 to stay ahead of the game and avoid the near-disaster of a decade ago.