Last year around this time there was talk surrounding conference expansion and conference realignment. The college football fan was forced to learn about things like market size, and learn about “not so secret academic societies” like the Association of American Universities (AAU). The fan was treated to a look into the overall arrogance of programs when it comes to conference affiliation and with whom they choose to align themselves. Finally the fan has had the veil of “we operate in the best interest of the student athlete” ripped from our collective eyes.
How is a trip to Providence on a Thursday night for the TCU women’s basketball team supposed to be in the best interest of those student athletes. It was an eye opening spring to say the least. The dust however, has not settled and with conferences looking to solidify their positions for the next round movement. With that said the Big X-I-I which is now down to ten programs is a conference that is keeping a watchful eye on some AQ programs that maybe a little dissatisfied with their place in the AQ universe and may be keeping another eye peeled for a non AQ program that could boost TV revenue.
One year later the Big 12 is still a conference that is on life support, many predicted that that it was the conference most likely to be raided, and all during the process there were programs sniping at other programs, as the conference was on the brink of fading into the sunset, but somehow the dysfunctional relationship between the Big X-I-I’s conference members was somehow repaired enough for the schools to coexist in a conference. The noise coming out the Big 12 commissioner’s office currently is one of solidarity, of programs that are happy with their current place in the Big-12 hierarchy, and of course it does not hurt that the conference just signed a multi-million dollar television contract that will put money in the pockets of conference members. The money is not SEC or Pac-12 money but for a conference that was on the brink of having its biggest game of the year being Kansas versus Baylor that is not bad.
To look around at the other conferences it is difficult to believe that the Big-12 is still a stable conference. The conference has ten programs and needs two good programs (possibly three because Missouri will almost certainly be leaving when the next round of expansion talks begins) so where does the Big-12 look to expand its brand? There are no really good programs lurking in the weeds for the Big 12 to round up but there are some potential pockets of coal that with some pressure could become diamonds. During this last round of expansion Utah and TCU left the Mountain West for Automatic Qualifying Conferences so with those programs leaving and being the most attractive, who are the next programs that are attractive to the Big-12, or a better question might be; which programs might want to work to upgrade their facilities and their regional profile to be palatable to the Big-12 “higher ups” i.e. Texas.
The first program the Big 12 may want is Arkansas. Let’s be clear, Arkansas is not going to leave the SEC for the Big 12 unless something really big happens to make that move attractive. Arkansas does not compete yearly for a conference championship and probably will never be in a BCS championship game but with that said Arkansas is comfortable with its place in the SEC. In fact the only thing that the Big-12 could offer is an easier path to a BCS bowl and a BCS championship game. Other than that there is nothing that the Big-12 could offer to Arkansas that makes it attractive. However it should be noted that Arkansas’ history has been to be in the same conference with Texas and maybe some of the alums of Arkansas, who in the past have been vocal about wanting to be in the same conference, with Texas may grease the wheels for this move.
The next program that the Big 12 may want to watch is Air Force. Air Force has a national following similar to Army or Navy, but unlike Navy or Army is able to compete at the AQ level. Though Air Force is not going win any championships it is a solid program and certainly could compete at a higher level than Colorado (who is now in the Pac-12), or Iowa St. Air Force also brings academic credibility to a conference, in the way that Vanderbilt balances the room during the SEC conference meetings, Air Force would serve the same purpose at the Big 12 meetings. Air Force has been somewhat successful over the years, which gives the invitation credibility. Air Force has the national following, attendance, facilities, and funding for the invitation to make sense.
The third program that may fit is New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico has a horrible football program, has no real football history, can’t beat its WAC member instate rival, is really a basketball school, but the reality is it is new market for the Big-12 to expand into. The television market is in the high forties which means it ranks higher than Oklahoma City, Lubbock and Waco. New Mexico has a nice rivalry with Texas Tech though Tech is the hammer to the Lobos nail. New Mexico does not necessarily need to compete with Texas, Oklahoma or Texas A&M, but should think about trying to compete with the likes of Iowa St, Kansas and Kansas St., all of which are “basketball schools” which means New Mexico should try to look at those school’s models and try to emulate what they are doing; including how they are spending their money on their football program. New Mexico’s issue is how relevant is their football program in the minds of their fans.
Another school that the Big-12 may want to kick the tires on is UNLV. Now I realize that Las Vegas is quite a hike from Columbia or Waco, but it is a fun destination, and is one of the fastest growing markets in the Pacific or Mountain Time zone (whatever time zone those Silver Staters want to consider themselves, there are no clocks there anyway so those are really only references to geography.) The Rebels are another school which is more of a basketball school but if the UNLV can become just an okay football program that draws 45,000 people a game it becomes a pretty attractive. Additionally, UNLV will get better if they can keep prep talent home. If UNLV were in an AQ conference and offered recruits the opportunity to play on the big stage, UNLV would immediately become a better program. The number of legitimate Division 1 caliber prep athletes that leave Sin City to play their college ball at Pac-10 schools or Big 12 schools is staggering. The curious case of UNLV is a chicken and egg argument, which cannot be controlled but fans of the Rebels need to support the program which is something that can be controlled.
Somewhere on the list of programs the Big 12 might want to covet is BYU. I know that the Big 12 may balk at the whole not playing conference games on Sunday, but that is really just BYU not playing on Sunday, and with money driving this; a midseason basketball game featuring BYU and Oklahoma being played on Saturday instead of Sunday would not cost the conference more than it would make from BYU being in the conference. BYU is a program that will bring some integrity to conference meetings; whether you agree or disagree. Of course the major issue would be does BYU want to leave the freedom of independence in football for the shackles of conference affiliation, which I think in the end might prevent that move from happening.
Air Force, BYU, UNLV and New Mexico only need to be break even producers for the conference, and be new markets where the Big-12 brand can flourish and expand its reach. The measuring stick for those programs are not wins and losses, but the amount of money that those schools will generate for the conference in terms of television revenue, ticket revenue, and whether or not those programs can afford the AQ lifestyle.