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The Big 12 still does not need to expand, BUT IF IT DOES…

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Oh boy, here we go again with the Big 12 expansion conversations

Ever since the Big 12 lost Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, the talks about expansion for the conference have continued to drag on. With the satellite camp conversation now a thing of the past (well, for now I guess), our attention is once again locked in on the state of the Big 12 and what it will or will not do in the foreseeable future. It is the story that just will not die until the Big 12 does expand.

The topic was already going to be on the agenda this offseason from the beginning, but the talk has started to heat up this week. For starters, the Big 12 put together a study that suggests having a conference championship game would enhance the Big 12’s odds of being involved in the College Football Playoff. Or, if you prefer to look at it from another point of view, analytics firm Navigate Research fleeced the Big 12 of whatever sum of money to tell them the chances of being in the playoff with a conference title game is only marginally better. Navigate Research made some easy money there, because the sample size with the College Football Playoff is so small (two seasons) there really is no realistic way to come to a conclusion one way or the other how a conference title game would impact the Big 12’s playoff representation.

That the Big 12 wasted any money on this research is not at all surprising, but amusing. The Big 12 did not miss out on the College Football Playoff in 2014 because of a lack of conference championship game. It missed out because neither Baylor or TCU were considered one of the top four teams at the end of the regular season. Remember the landscape at the time. Alabama was clearly in, as was Oregon. Florida State was undefeated and Ohio State was on a rampage and obliterated Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.

But Kevin, didn’t Ohio State make the College Football Playoff in 2014 on the strength of having a Big Ten championship game?

That is a very fair counterpoint, but I have always believed Baylor and TCU were passed over for Ohio State (and Florida State) due to a lack of strength of schedule. Baylor’s non-conference competition was a joke, and TCU’s was only marginally better and padded by having Minnesota on the schedule. I even argue that an 11-1 Ohio State without a conference championship would have been every bit as worthy of a playoff spot, if not more worthy, than 11-1 Baylor or 11-1 TCU.

When the Big 12 was left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, the outcry was heard loud and clear. The Big 12 needs a championship game! The Big 12 needs to expand! I have been advising against rushing to any judgments as a conference based solely on one year of a brand new postseason structure, and I continue to advise proceeding with extreme caution if you are being influenced by the results of two years of the College Football Playoff.

Expansion for the sake of a conference championship game is (mostly) dumb

In college football, keeping up with the Joneses is a real thing. Case in point, it is amazing just how many coaches from the ACC and SEC are getting in on the satellite camp fun now the NCAA overturned its ban and those conferences opened the doors for their coaches to participate. The fear over satellite camps was seeing coaches from the north or other regions come down to Dixie and start stealing recruits, not that this was likely to happen often enough to make a huge difference in recruiting. ACC and SEC coaches wanted a wall built around the southeast and they wanted the Big Ten to pay for it. Or something like that.

As far as expansion is concerned, it is always about the bottom dollar first, second, third, and fourth. This is why Rutgers and Maryland — Rutgers and Maryland! — were considered candidates for Big Ten expansion a few years back. Sure, having Oklahoma or Notre Dame would have been sexy, but Rutgers scored a high TV rating that one Thursday night against Louisville in New York and the conference has TV sets to get the Big Ten Network on, dang it! The SEC adding Missouri was a way to get to the St. Louis TV market, and Texas A&M opened the doors to the state of Texas. The Pac-10 got caught trying to keep up and added Utah and Colorado. Sure, that Denver and Salt Lake City access is nice for the fledging (and floundering) Pac-12 Network, but it lacked the overall impact the addition of Texas would have generated (remember the threat of a Pac-16?). Instead, the Pac-12 made safer moves that fit with the existing geography of the conference based mostly on being able to keep up with the rest of the pack. Adding Colorado and Utah led to the creation of the Pac-12 championship game. Ask the Pac-12 how valuable having a conference title game was to that conference’s playoff chances last year, Big 12.

Expansion for the sake of expansion is dumb, and the Big 12 could very well be heading in that direction. Are there benefits to expansion? Absolutely. The revenue alone from a conference title game is not to be overlooked, but when you have to force Texas and Oklahoma to share a same size slice of the revenue pie as schools like Cincinnati or UCF or — gulp — UConn, are you really making the masses happy? That comes off looking more like college football socialism. Try selling that to the folks in the southwest.

Oklahoma just proved you don’t need a conference championship game

What makes all of the talk about the need for a conference championship game in 2014 even more silly is the fact the Big 12 just placed a team in the playoff (with an 11-1 record, mind you) one year later. Oklahoma is said to have benefitted from being able to end the season with the outright Big 12 championship, where Baylor and TCU were infamously crowned co-champions in the conference that advertised one true champion all fall. I never really bought that, because we have a selection committee in place to supposedly carefully review all of the pertinent data.

The question that should be asked is whether 2015 Oklahoma would have edged out Ohio State for the final spot in the 2014 College Football Playoff. If you believe brand names matter, seeing an 11-1 Oklahoma make the College Football Playoff while an 11-1 Baylor or TCU were left out seems to strengthen your anger, but keep in mind what was happening elsewhere. The Pac-12 beat itself up so much it took itself out of contention, leaving the door open for a one-loss Big 12 champion. I choose to believe this just further demonstrates each year is a unique case and there is no quantitative way to properly and fairly compare what happens in one season to the next.

You don’t need a conference championship game as long as you have a playoff contender prove worthy enough of consideration and inclusion over the course of 12 regular season games. Go 12-0, you’ll be in. Go 11-1, you still have a very good chance just about every year.

What happens when the College Football Playoff expands?

I have said all along, the College Football Playoff will one day expand. Even though the company line is the playoff will not expand until the end of its current contract, I still think there is a chance it will happen sooner. Regardless, it is just a matter of “when,” not “if.” With that said, if the focus is getting in the College Football Playoff, there is absolutely no reason to expand as long as the playoff is expanded to more than four teams. Does anybody really think a one or even a two-loss Big 12 champion would be left out of a six or eight-team College Football Playoff?

Not a chance.

The playoff format I have proposed in the past would expand to eight teams and guarantee one spot to each power conference champion, as determined by whatever method by each individual conference. That right there eliminates the need for a Big 12 title game and expansion. So why expand for the sake of expanding if getting in the playoff is what matters most (if it indeed does matter most, which it likely does not).

But what happens if the Big 12 does expand?

OK, I’ll bite.

For starters, let us assume the Big 12 expansion plan will be to increase membership by two to bring the total membership back up to 12. This will allow the Big 12 to once again split to a two-division format with six teams each, be they the old North-South or perhaps a new East-West line-up if not some outside the box alignment. We’ll stick with North vs South (although I think an East-West split would be fun to explore.

If taking two schools, who do you take? For starters, forget about any school already in a power conference already. I have come to learn to never say “never,” but it seems pretty unlikely the Big 12 would lure away Florida State and Clemson from the ACC or bring back any former members like Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M or Colorado (although I think getting Nebraska back would be fun). Instead, we will consider the usual list of potential candidates; BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis…. you know what, just list everyone in the American Athletic Conference except for Temple, Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina. Yes, there are those who actually believe Connecticut stands a puncher’s chance of being invited to the Big 12. I am not one of them.

I also think there is no way the Big 12 would invite Houston (or SMU) just because it is highly unlikely Texas would allow it to happen. And remember, we’re talking about increasing Tv visibility and earning more TV money. The Big 12 has absolutely no need to add Houston to get the Houston market or SMU to get the Dallas-area market. It has that with its current line-up. Adding Cincinnati makes sense more from giving West Virginia a closer regional rival than much else, although bringing programs like Oklahoma and Texas to the Buckeye state every so often is intriguing.

So, who would the Big 12 choose? For the sake of keeping things simple (as if anything in the Big 12 is ever simple), I’ll throw BYU and Navy in to the Big 12. Bet you didn’t see Navy coming, right? Nobody ever talks about Navy in the Big 12 mix, but considering they just recently abandoned their independence and arranged to be placed in the division in the AAC that included a Texas emphasis, maybe it makes more sense than we tend to think? We can discuss that later, but the bottom line is the American Athletic Conference is very likely to have a hole to plug whenever the Big 12 does choose to expand, if not more.

Where would the AAC turn? Conference USA is the most likely destination just as it previously served as the life preserver for the origins of the conference dating back to the days of the Big East. So who would the AAC add? Another Texas school like Rice or UTSA? A more established football program like Marshall or Middle Tennessee? The odds of adding another Florida program like FAU or FIU is probably out of the question with UCF and USF still around. Maybe look toward the independents. Replace Navy with Army? Only if you could convince Army to join a conference, which may be difficult. UMass? Maybe if the school opts not to take the lead of Idaho and drop back to the FCS (which they totally should if the AAC still has no interest).

Is this really going to happen?

Part of me still thinks the Big 12 will eventually decide that sticking with 10 members will still be the best all-around solution, or at least find a middle ground enough of the conference can get on board with. Would expansion to 12 surprise me? Not at all.

Sixteen? Not a chance, unless we’re talking about a complete breakdown of the Pac-12 similar to the merger between the Big 8 and a handful of Southwest Conference members to bring us the original Big 12. And that’s not likely to happen either.

Hopefully.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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