After months of head fakes and jabs in the other direction, the Big 12's leadership announced Tuesday it has authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to pursue expansion. Quickly. Bowlsby said it was possible a vote would be taken before a scheduled Board of Directors meeting in October with new members brought aboard in time for the 2017 season. In a way, the Big 12 expansion process has been ongoing for awhile now, as the contenders and pretenders have taken their chances to pitch themselves before the conference's presidents over the past few months.
"We are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow," Bowlsby told ESPN Tuesday. "That bring stability. That have a high top end."
It's at this point we must acknowledge if a perfect expansion candidate existed, they'd be in the Big 12 already. Each of these schools is standing in front of the mirror right now, plucking unruly hair and covering warts with concealer, in their attempt to be the belles of the ball.
Much like an NFL team picking at the top of the draft, there are so many areas the Big 12 needs help -- market share, recruiting footprint, on-field credibility -- that the conference is actually free to choose the best candidate available.
It's now our job to rank them.
- BYU: By far, the Cougars are the closest thing to a Power 5 program not currently in a Power 5 conference. They have four things none of their competitors can match -- a modern era national championship, a 60,000-seat stadium, a fully developed athletics department and a national fan base that won't dwindle at the sign of trouble. Sure, their geography and their quirks as a Mormon institution makes things more complicated than you like, but, again, there are no perfect candidates here.
- Cincinnati: The Bearcats offer a successful football program (not as good as Louisville's, though), a successful basketball program (not as good as Louisville's either, though), a nice market (not as college sports-focused as Louisville's, though), and, along with BYU, the only fully grown athletics department among the Big 12's available options. Still, through no fault of their own, Cincinnati's candidacy is a constant reminder of what the Big 12 could have had with a bit more vision and a little less short-term greed back in 2011. Still, Louisville Lite is a stronger candidacy than just about anyone else can make.
- Houston: There is zero question about what a Big 12 invitation would do for Houston. In fact, you could make the case no school stands more to gain from membership than Houston. In one year, the Cougars have successfully sketched a case as this generation's TCU and/or Louisville -- a just-add-water power program waiting for their dash of H2O. The question, though, is what Houston does for the Bir 12. Sure, they help secure a massively important Houston market that seemingly becomes more SEC-ified by the season.... but the massive Aggie contingent isn't going anywhere, and is anyone going to stop caring about LSU, Alabama in the rest just because Houston joins the Big 12? And, yes, one can definitely envision how Houston's recruiting takes off once a Big 12 emblem becomes emblazoned on their chest... but does that growth come at the expense of Baylor or Texas Tech?
- Memphis: The Tigers offer the rare ability to grow the Big 12's footprint without expanding it. There are no local NFL teams to fall in line behind. There's a long history of basketball success. Unfortunately for them, the timing may not be right. Justin Fuente did wonderful things in his time in stripes, but there's no history of success before him and Mike Norvell hasn't had the chance to prove it can continue. Memphis may be the one school cursing the Big 12 for choosing now of all times to expand.
- Central Florida: There's a case to be made here UCF is the college football version of what Google's stock was in 2004. The Knights offer young university that does a good job of getting its students involved, an enrollment that seemingly doubles the population of Orlando when school goes in session and access to an unending bounty of recruits that can outrun the horizon. UCF also has a Fiesta Bowl victory as proof their potential can be realized with the right ingredients in place. There's also a larger chance UCF's potential is never realized, and in that case they'd be significantly more difficult to unload than some underperforming tech stock.The theory of UCF's involvement with the Big 12 is that the conference would gain access to Florida's recruiting market and the college sports market. But consider the reverse scenario. Would Texas instantly become an ACC hotbed just because Houston joined that league? Why would the reverse be any different?
- Boise State: You can say geography isn't important, but do you really want your conference to stretch from West Virginia to Idaho? The football program stands on its own, but the rest of the Broncos' package doesn't keep up. Maybe the Broncos come aboard in a football-only scenario but, in your heart of hearts, can you really see Texas and Oklahoma volunteering to play on the blue turf on a biannual basis?
- Colorado State: The Rams offer next to nothing in recruiting but other than that there's a lot to like here. Colorado State has successfully pitched itself as an up-and-coming university with a lot of room for growth. A new stadium is coming, and there's more than enough past success to rely on to feel comfortable projecting future success. Colorado is a contiguous state to the Big 12, and there may be some peripheral value of adding a school that claims to represent an entire state as opposed to a city or region. But Colorado State suffers from the same affliction as Cincinnati, where through no fault of their own an admittance by the league would be a tacit acknowledgment of a past failure. "The Big 12 added Colorado State? Didn't Colorado used to be in there?"
- South Florida: All the drawbacks of Central Florida -- plus an NFL team to stand in line behind -- and no Fiesta Bowl trophy to plop on the negotiating table.
- Connecticut: Let's start with the positives -- UConn is the only flagship state school knocking on the Big 12's door. It's a school with a high academic standing, in a valuable media market, with one of the best brands in college basketball. Those are the positives. The negatives? It's in Connecticut. The geographic center of this conference is Oklahoma City. There are a few spurts of success at the FBS level here and there, but nothing to suggest a sustained level of success and interest.
Sure, UConn is located in the largest media market in America -- but how many doors would you have to knock in Queens to find one person genuinely interested in Huskies football? That's the idea of adding UConn, right? To take a bite out of the New York media market?
On the plus side, we know they'd waste no time instigating new rivalries. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.
And the enraged mud-slinging begins.... now.