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Ranking the Top 10 hypothetical Big 12 expansion candidates

On Tuesday the Big 12 decided to go public with the decision to allow commissioner Bob Bowlsby to begin exploring and meeting with potential expansion candidates, the first definitive sign the Big 12 is ready to expand by at least two.

Based on information learned yesterday, we know the Big 12 is now looking to expand and it will consider expanding by two or four, with the possibility for football-only membership not being ruled out. That should come as wonderful news to programs like BYU and UConn, who could align themselves with the Big 12 in football without having to spend extra money on travel expenses for other sports. That assumes either is on the table for Big 12 expansion and based on reports over the past months and years, do not expect either school to be silent during this expansion period for the Big 12.

What we can probably assume is the Big 12 will not be able to lure any programs away from another power conference. Sure, it would be fun to see Nebraska back in the fold again, but the Huskers are still turning a profit in the Big Ten that will go unrivaled by the Big 12, and let’s not make the mistake of thinking money doesn’t drive alignment decisions. That is also why you can scratch Arkansas, Missouri and Texas A&M off as well. Nobody is leaving the SEC for the Big 12, including these three schools with previous ties to the conference or conference members. The ACC is setting up some promising plans for the future as well and may have been the reason the Big 12 is responding in this fashion, so it should be a safe bet to say nobody will be leaving the ACC for the Big 12.

The Pac-12 may appear to be the most vulnerable expansion target for Big 12 expansion, but even that may be far-fetched. Getting Arizona and Arizona State would be a nice pickup for the Big 12, and perhaps there is a chance Colorado would entertain a phone call from their former home, but it should still be considered highly unlikely a power conference program leaves its current place to join the Big 12, including Notre Dame. Notre Dame has a pretty sweet deal going for it as a football independent thanks to the ACC bending over backward to accommodate the wishes of the Irish. The only way Notre Dame will ever join a power conference is if we reach a point where the power conferences do break off from the NCAA model and do their own thing. Of course, Notre Dame would likely be given a free pass to join them in any plans, because they’re freaking Notre Dame and nobody dares to mess with them for whatever reason. So rule out Notre Dame as a Big 12 member, because that is not happening.

The usual names we hear regarding Big 12 expansion remain the same: BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, UCF and USF. We may hear some other names thrown in the mix, like Boise State, but these seem to be the top candidates for the possible open spots in the conference.

Ranking the Candidates

Taking out the wish list programs like Notre Dame and any other power conference program, here is how I would rank the Big 12 candidates if I were to choose the best options for the conference. When putting this ranking together, I tried to think like the Big 12 so there is a focus on overall program stability but also on potential TV numbers to be gained.

1 Cincinnati: Cincinnati makes sense on a number of issues. It becomes an easy travel partner for West Virginia, gets the Big 12 more in the rich state of Ohio and the program is situated well to make a move tomorrow to a power conference if needed. Ohio State dominates the state, but having Oklahoma and Texas making trips to the state certainly would not be overshadowed completely.

2 BYU: Speaking of programs ready to jump into a power conference at a moment’s notice, BYU fits the bill as an independent. The Cougars’ biggest drawback may come from politics. I get the sense if the Big 12 was ever going to invite BYU, it would have happened by now. BYU could easily make the jump in to the Big 12 today, but how does the leadership and mission of the university fit in with the rest of the political Big 12? How big of a problem is paying on Sundays? If BYU doesn’t get in this time, BYU may have to end up back in the Mountain West Conference (which may very well happen depending on how this all plays out).

3 UCF: Few schools have grown the way UCF has over the years. Sure, they are coming off a dreadful 0-12 season and the Big 12 already has a Kansas, but that may have been a blip on the radar. After all, UCF just took down Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl a few years back, so we know UCF is capable of football success. Plus, getting into the Orlando TV market would be a nice perk, as would going to Orlando more often.

4 USF: Odds are if the Big 12 adds UCF, it could bring USF with them. USF may not be quite as well situated as UCF in terms of facilities and growth from a casual point of view, but the Tampa market would still be a nice asset along with a footing in Orlando. Are they too close to each other though? Maybe, and that should be bad news for USF.

5 UConn: As much as I may not be all in on the idea of UConn joining the Big 12 as I know UConn fans are, it is difficult to completely ignore the Huskies as an expansion option in a world where the Big Ten felt Rutgers was a good addition. This is all about TV, and UConn’s big selling point will be the New York market. The thing is, the Big Ten had plenty of alumni to count on in the New York market with adding Rutgers. Can the Big 12 say the same? UConn will hope so. The best bet for UConn may be to get a football-only invite, but even that could potentially be a reach when all is said and done.

6 Memphis: A little closer to home, I guess, would be Memphis. The Tigers joining the Big 12 would give the conference access to an SEC state and the Memphis market has some potential to do some good things for the Big 12. Plus, FedEx is on board for sponsorship opportunities, and no other school can bring something like that to the table.

7 Houston: Let me be clear. If I were the Big 12, Houston is getting one of my very first phone calls. The problem here is there is little to be gained by the Big 12 by adding another Texas school, even as good as Houston was in 2015. The only real boost the Big 12 would potentially gain is winning back a fraction of the viewers lost to the SEC by Texas A&M’s departure in the Houston area. Adding Houston may not be a game changer for the conference, and that is a major shortcoming for Houston that is out of their control.

8. Navy: If you want to add a nationally respected program to your conference, you should probably at least discuss Navy. Navy may do things a little bit differently, but having Navy on your schedule guarantees a game your fans will be interested in anytime the Mids come to town. Better yet, Navy wants to embrace your region. When Navy joined The American, it requested to be placed in the West Division so it could play teams like Houston, Memphis, Tulane and Tulsa on the road. Navy making the jump to the Big 12 may be a reach, even as a football-only member, but with up to four spots left to be filled it makes sense to at least evaluate Navy.

9. Colorado State: How much of a void did Colorado’s departure leave for the Big 12? Losing out on the Denver market probably hurt some, but could a growing Colorado State University and football program help rebuild what was lost in the state? The Rams hope so and have jumped on the scene as a potential candidate in recent months. If any school leaves the Mountain West Conference for the Big 12, it just might be Colorado State…

10. Boise State: Unless, of course, Boise State as a football-only member is appealing enough for the Big 12. I’m not so sure I can see the Big 12 going this route. In fact, Air Force may actually have a more realistic shot at joining the Big 12 than the Broncos (Air Force and Colorado State in a package deal?), but few would argue there is a certain draw to playing on the blue field. This would be a dream scenario for Boise State, but the odds the Big 12 goes after the Boise market are as slim as can be given other options on the table.

But this is just how I would rank them if I were pretending to be the Big 12. I think Houston is the most obvious fit for the Big 12, but if we have learned anything from past expansion moves, the primary objective is to maximize television revenue. This is why schools like Cincinnati, UConn, UCF and USF will likely be considered more likely additions than Houston, in my opinion. Feel free to share your Big 12 expansion opinions in the comments below, and make your predictions if you feel so brave.

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About the Author

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