As the Big 12’s leadership contemplates what the future of the league will look like, fans have offered a range of opinions from blow it up to raid the Pac-12 and the Big 10 to go full super conference with the best available. Of these differing opinions, only the latter is both realistic and ambitious enough for my taste.
Love is for Children
“Love is for children,” Black Widow tells Loki in The Avengers (2012). Some Big 12 fans love their teams so much that they’d rather see the Big 12 dissolve than see their favorite team in a conference with current Group of Five schools or BYU. These fans also tend to nurse a belief that the Angel of Merit and Fairness is coming with an invitation for their favorite teams to join the ACC, Big Ten, or Pac-12.
Such rebellious idealism and Peter Pan faith is understandable but counterproductive.
Yes, the situation is frustrating, and a perceived drop in national prestige for Irate 8 teams is hard pill to swallow. And of course, the teams in the Irate 8 certainly deserve to be a part of a Power Five (or Four) conference. You’ll find no disagreement from me on either of those points. I just don’t believe that merit and fairness have anything to do with conference realignment.
The only problems blowing up the Big 12 would solve are those nagging ESPN, the SEC, Oklahoma, and Texas. If you’d rather take a flamethrower to the Big 12 than see it survive by adding BYU and Group of Five teams, you’re not seeing the big picture. That would only help those who conspired to gut the league and send the Irate 8 off to join the AAC and Mountain West because there is no indication whatsoever that the ACC, Big 10, and Pac-12 intend to absorb the remaining teams in the league or even a select few.
Moreover, while a drop in TV money and prestige is unavoidable in an expanded Big 12, at least temporarily, the dip isn’t not going to be as bad as many imagine, particularly in prestige.
Big Is Better
While K-State running back Deuce Vaughn is living, breathing proof that bigger isn’t always better, in this case, bigger is definitely better. In fact, if the Big 12 had expanded years ago, the situation wouldn’t be so dire now.
Had the Big 12 attempted to add teams from the Pac-12 while Oklahoma and Texas were still in the league, they may have been able to pull it off. And if the Big 12 were sitting at 12 teams that included Arizona and Arizona State, Oklahoma and Texas might not be so ready to trade tradition and a clearer path to the playoffs for SEC money. Even if Texas and Oklahoma departed anyway, a Big 12 with ten remaining teams instead of eight would be in better position today.
But the past is gone, and any argument about what could’ve happened based on what the Big 12 should’ve done is moot. The time is now, and now is the time to expand beyond ten.
Many Big 12 fans who are onboard with keeping the league together want to keep it small: exclusive. They believe staying at ten or possibly getting to twelve is a good idea but anything bigger would be a mistake.
Some argue that the Big 12 should simply add a couple of teams from the current Power Five. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Nebraska are the teams most often mentioned as likely candidates for the Big 12 to steal.
This idea, however, is completely unrealistic. No school currently snug in the safety of one of the other P5 leagues is going to leave their comfortable digs to move into the war-torn adventure-land of the most unstable of the power conferences. It’s like asking an upper-middleclass couple long settled in a suburban neighborhood with good schools and posh shopping centers to move to an edgy inner-city art district built on native burial grounds in a food desert across the cemetery from a notoriously rough neighborhood where the Mexican Cartel is the unofficial government. You can ask, but it’s not happening.
More realistic exclusionist fans, those who realize that Nebraska isn’t leaving the Big Ten, argue that adding more than a maximum of two Group of Five teams will “water the brand down.” These fans are fine with adding BYU and a top G5 team, but they cringe at the idea of adding multiple G5 teams.
The days of the Big 12 getting away with just ten teams are gone, however. The Big 12 was able to get away with only having ten teams when Oklahoma and Texas were a part of the conference because they’re both enormous brands: the Big 12 could have big viewership numbers without being big. Now, the only option is big numbers.
How big? In my opinion, getting to twelve teams isn’t enough.
First and foremost, the Big 12 can and will remain a power conference by adding BYU and G5 teams. Power is relative; power is the existence of a gulf between conferences.
The Big 12 plus the best of the G5 will not be far behind the Pac-12 and may not behind at all. Moreover, by taking the best of the G5, those conferences will be far behind the Big 12 and the rest of the Power Five.
That’s the first reason for expanding to 16, or at least 14: hobble the other conferences by taking the best they have to offer.
From the AAC, I’m in favor of adding Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, and UCF. That would leave the AAC with ECU, Navy (in football), SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa, USF, and Wichita State (in basketball). The AAC would probably add teams from CUSA and/or the Sun Belt, but with its four top football brands gone, it would be a shell of what it once was.
From the Mountain West, I’m in favor of adding Boise State, Colorado State, and San Diego State. This would knock the Mountain West down even further, leaving it with Air Force, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, San Jose State, UNLV, Utah State, and Wyoming.
Here’s how my 16-team Big 12, in four pods, would look:
San Diego State
First, going to 16 by adding the eight teams outlined above, would make the Big 12 the only conference that spans all four time zones. Second, it would make the Big 12 the only conference with flags in four of nation’s biggest recruiting hotbeds: California, Florida, Ohio, and Texas. Third, 16 teams allows for convenient geographic pods, which will make the travel situation for non-revenue sports much more manageable.
Those are three big advantages for the schools in what would likely be the fourth-best football conference in the nation. Moreover, such an alignment has perhaps even bigger advantages when comes to inking telecast contracts.
What the conference will lack in blue blood brands, it can make up for with sheer inventory in major markets coast to coast. This version of the Big 12 would offer telecast partners games in every time zone that could be spread-out over an entire Saturday with inventory leftover for a weeknight featured game as well.
The TV money will obviously have to be spread more ways, and that will cause the drop in revenue for the Irate 8 to be greater at first, but with stability, playoff appearances, and an exciting brand of football with fans from coast to coast, telecast contracts will quickly balloon. This is a long-term strategy to create a conference built for the new era of college football.
All four pods would feature teams with strong national brands with histories of high-level success. I believe a normal season would have at least one team from each pod ranked in the Top 25 or at least in the “receiving votes” category every week.
If the Big 12 had this configuration today, it would begin the season with two teams in the AP Top 10, another in the AP Top 25, and SIX in the “receiving votes” category. That blows the Pac-12 out of the water and would be a conference that could not be ignored, a conference that is clearly a power.