Big 12 Expansion Talk Could Signal More Major Conference Realignment
University of Oklahoma President David Boren - AP/Nick Oxford

In modern college football, talk of conference realignment never ceases. As has been the case since 2011, the Big 12 Conference is at the center of the discussion. The conference currently has 10 members, but fans, media members and administrators alike have had conversations about expanding the league back to 12 teams. Recent rhetoric by Oklahoma President David Boren indicates that there could be a shakeup in the near future for the Big 12, however it may not come in the form of standard expansion.

In February, VAVEL took a look at a potential conference realignment scenario which would have been spurred on by the dissolution of the Big 12 Conference. Today, the topic being widely discussed is expansion instead of dissolution, but that does not mean that the latter is not an option. Oklahoma’s stance on conference expansion may be less about expanding the Big 12 as we know it, and more about forcing the hand of other schools in the conference.

There is a lot of animosity between the schools in the Big 12, with a great deal of it directed at Texas. As the most valuable and powerful team in the conference, UT’s actions in the next couple of years will determine what happens with the Big 12, for better or for worse. It can be inferred that Big 12 expansion is an overall negative for Texas; they lose a bit of revenue (at least immediately) when more teams are added to the shared revenue pot, so to speak, and the conference will lose prestige, as the pool of candidates to add is weak as a whole. Oklahoma, like the rest of the conference, harbors negative feelings towards Texas due to their debatably undeserved position as de facto king of the conference, and is likely attempting to force Texas into making a move or deciding to stay loyal to the conference. If this all ends up sounding very petty, that’s because it likely is.  

In February, VAVEL’s article about conference realignment was purely speculation based on a hypothetical situation, however as time goes on it seems more and more likely that another shoe is going to drop. One thing is for certain: the Big 12 Conference will not survive in the long term in its current format. The 10-team format, while creating highly competitive round-robin football, is just simply not a way to induce major national success in the current climate of college football. If Texas, or Oklahoma, decides to leave the conference, then the league will likely cease to exist. If Texas leaves the league will become too unstable (and frankly too weak) to survive, and if Oklahoma leaves it will simply make the choice to leave or stay for Texas become academic, which will still create the aforementioned unstable conference.

What will happen if the league does, in fact, end up expanding? On the positive side of things, it is the simplest way to set up a conference championship game in football, something that many analysts, talking heads and fans believe is a necessity to reach the College Football Playoff, or at least to be respected by the CFP committee. Also, the addition of two teams will not have the same effect on the Big 12 as many would think; the Big 12 TV contract features pro rata increases. This means that for each additional member to the conference, revenue increases so that member schools do not end up losing out on revenue (reddit user and verified media member /u/Fifth_Down breaks down the meaning behind this in this reddit post, which overall presents a viewpoint that does not foresee Big 12 expansion). Also, recruiting territory is a commodity which cannot be ignored; new schools in new markets equate to new places to recruit, which is incredibly valuable.

Negative side effects of conference expansion includes decreasing the Big 12’s prestige. It is almost certain that no teams currently in a different P5 conference would leave their situation for the still-unstable Big 12. Thus, the conference would have to look to G5 conference teams to expand. While some G5 programs are competitive and feature strong rosters and history, it is certainly a step down for the entire conference to add schools which, traditionally, are not as strong on the gridiron. It is likely that potential dissolution of the conference post-expansion won’t be a negative effect of adding teams, because the league is clearly going to stay afloat if it is willing to add two more teams to the conference.

Who could be added to the Big 12 should it expand? As has been noted, the pool is not as deep as it was in 2011/2012 when major conferences were falling apart and major programs needed new homes. Instead, the Big 12 would have to look to G5 conferences for new teams. One of the top candidates, possibly the top candidate, would be Cincinnati. The Bearcats are currently in the American Athletic Conference, and they bring the most to the table for the Big 12. They can serve as a travel partner for the geographically isolated West Virginia, and they also can establish a Big 12 recruiting presence in talent-rich Ohio. UC is a decent football program today with a rich history; they are easily the best choice for the 11th Big 12 team.

Beyond the Bearcats, it’s hard to say who could be the final additional member of the Big 12 conference. There are many viable options, many of whom exist in the western US. Schools such as Colorado State, Boise State and, possibly the school with the biggest fan push for addition to the Big 12, BYU are all good teams who would add new territory for recruiting, TV, etc. However, the conference has said in the past that if it is to expand, it will be moving east, not west. Cincinnati fits this bill, but they would likely look to add two teams in the eastern half of the country. Memphis could be an interesting choice for the Big 12. It adds more recruiting territory, in traditional SEC country no less, and also adds a good basketball team to the league. The question that would need to be answered, however, is whether or not the football team, which is improving, will be a consistently decent team and can compete with the rest of the Big 12 teams. This could be the biggest roadblock for adding Memphis.

As is the case with all expansion and realignment talk, this is purely based on speculation. There is nothing imminent when it comes to changes in the Big 12. That being said, the recent talk of expansion clearly indicates that it is still at the forefront of the minds of Big 12 administrators. If this was not a serious topic and the source of inner animosity in the conference, David Boren would not have made any comments to the press. The talks of expansion in the media and amongst fans will only increase in the coming days, weeks and months, and this is a sign that conference realignment is far from over.