by Bruce Marshall. Goldsheet.com Editor

More conference realignment? Just when we thought the “conference shuffle” in college sports was about to take a rest!

The recent snub of Big 12 co-football champs Baylor and TCU by the College Football Playoff selection committee has triggered a new round of debate regarding conference re-alignment. Unlike the past few years when several leagues were involved in the shuffle, however, it looks like the lone league that could make a move (or moves) in the near future will be the Big 12...with resultant dominoes perhaps falling elsewhere across the college conference map.

So the thinking goes, at least, around many of the support bases in the Big 12 and many other college sports locales. Among most of those is the belief that the lack of a conference championship football game was the deciding factor in keeping the Big 12 out of the initial “final four” in football. Therefore, to remedy that situation, the league will expand back to its old membership of twelve and reinstitute a conference championship game (twelve is the number of schools needed in a league for the NCAA to certify a conference title game).

Only it’s not quite so simple. Indeed, there are a lot of college sports insiders who found it a sort of poetic justice that the Big 12 was frozen out of the first gridiron “final four.”

The reason? The league did not unconsciously decide to stick at ten teams a few years ago when several members (Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M, Colorado) fled the loop for other locales, and only TCU and West Virginia were added in their places. Rather, the conference members (Texas in particular with its own Longhorn Network in partnership with ESPN) were so satisfied with the new TV deals in place, including a major contract with Fox Sports, that they would figure to earn less loot per school (estimated at roughly $23 million per school last year, with newer members TCU an West Virginia at $14 mill apiece until they become fully vested in a couple of more years) by adding a couple of members to get to twelve. Though TV contracts can be re-negotiated when a league’s membership ranks grow, the Big 12’s commensurate bump in revenue would then be split in twelve, not ten, ways and would result in slight net revenue loss per school on the TV deals.

That’s why the Big 12 decided to stick at a membership level of ten teams. But with that decision very likely having cost the league a spot in the initial version of the huge-money playoff, some believe the league will re-examine its bottom line and could easily decide that expansion to 12 members would be warranted.

Meanwhile, any Big 12 public pronouncements to the contrary regarding expansion should be taken about as seriously as Hillary Clinton’s non-committal about making another run at the White House in 2016. While admitting that the league was penalized by the CFP selection committee for not having a championship game, like the other “Big 5" power conference loops, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby added that conducting a football title game was not the league’s priority. “Adding two schools for the purpose of getting to 12 would be among the poorest reasons to do it,” said Bowlsby earlier this week.

(All of the commotion surrounding the Big 12 strikes some college sports insiders as fascinating, however, especially considering how close the loop was to unraveling a few years ago, when the then-called Pac-10, SEC, ACC, and even Big Ten were prepared to poach away much of the old Big 12 configuration. The Big 12 did lose one-third of its 1996-2010 constituency, but at least managed to survive, and the fact it sits in a position of relative strength today suggests that college sports storylines can have many twists and turns).

As always, money will determine the course of action for the Big 12. Thus the decisive question regarding expansion: Is adding two members, increasing overall renegotiated TV revenue, but likely decreasing each school’s slice of the pie, worth the risk of putting the league in better position to qualify a team for the final four and its resultant riches?

If the league responds in the affirmative to the above, rest assured the search for two new members starts pronto. And if it does, the following schools are already getting mentioned as possible members eleven and twelve.

BYU...The Cougars and the Big 12 have talked before. Nothing came of the discussions a few years ago, but sources in the Mountain Time Zone believe the school might soon be in the market to rejoin a league. Among other issues, football scheduling has turned into an adventure for AD Tom Holmoe. The school is also more than halfway through an eight-year deal with ESPN to televise its home football games (though some of those are often shuttled to midweek or late-night slots on some of the lesser ESPN channels). Long-range, without a league affiliation, can that deal renew into the next decade? Of course, BYU also has its own network, but that is unlikely to be a major revenue-generator. What does fuel the BYU engine, however, is its nationwide LDS fan base, which could appeal to the Big 12. The school has a 65,000-seat football stadium and a 23,00-seat basketball arena, and rich gridiron and hoop histories. The LDS connection, however, also means the Cougs will not compete on Sundays, which becomes more of an issue for non-football or basketball sports. Because of their national following, BYU has a lot more potential wallop than the variety of other regional candidates for expansion. The specifics of the LDS connection, however, could keep a wedge between the Cougs and the Big 12.

Cincinnati...When the Big 12 has hinted about adding schools in the past couple of years, the chance to secure a “travel partner” (mostly for hoops) and another regional rival for West Virginia has often been discussed. If so, Cincinnati has been mentioned as a likely fit if looking to strengthen the “eastern flank” of the conference, as well as giving the Mountaineers a regional rival. The Bearcats were hoping to get a call from the Big Ten or ACC in the last rounds of expansion after the Big East breakup in football, and many regional observers believe Cincy and UConn (more on the Huskies in a moment) have always viewed their current American affiliation as short term. Cincy would expand the Big 12 footprint into new territory (though how much clout the Bearcats have in their region is open to some debate). Cincy also adds basketball prestige to the league, and the football program has been no slouch over the past decade. Recent expansion and upgrades at Nippert Stadium will bring its capacity north of 40,000, but that would still be small by Big 12 standards. After spending all of that money improving the on-campus stadium, how interested would Cincy be if condition of membership would be to play more games at the NFL Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium?

UCF...It was no secret a few years ago that the Big 12 was looking to get into the Sunshine State and was openly courting Florida State, as well as Miami. The Seminoles and Canes would eventually sign over their broadcast rights to the ACC, so neither is about to move, but there are other potential candidates in Florida. Such as UCF, which delivers the exciting and expanding Orlando market and allows the Big 12 to plant its flag in the center of the state. The Knights have become a football entity in recent years, and have recently built a 50,000-seat on-campus stadium, but UCF does not bring a lot of clout in other sports (basketball in particular). Still, many believe the Knights are the most likely Florida entry to be targeted by the Big 12.

Memphis...There could be a lot for the Big 12 to like about Memphis, with the possibility of a significant new TV market for the league. Or maybe not, as the “Bluff City” is right in the middle of SEC country, and the Tigers’ appeal has rarely spread too far in the region beyond its hoops teams, due to inconsistencies on the gridiron. At the moment, however, Memphis football does happen to be stirring, ready for its first bowl since 2008. But keeping promising young HC Justin Fuente in the fold will be important to Memphis becoming a viable football presence. The 63,500-seat Liberty Bowl and the FedEx Forum, adjacent to colorful Beale Street, are big-league venues for Tiger sports and would make for one of the more popular travel destinations for Big 12 fans. And while Memphis football does not have a storied past, Tiger hoops does have plenty of impressive history. We’re not sure Memphis would be the Big 12’s first choice, but it could be a viable default option if the league really is hellbent to add two teams and decides any headaches involved with other candidates (such as BYU’s LDS connection) wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

UConn...Eastern sources have told us for the past couple of years that much like Cincinnati, UConn views its current affiliation with the American as a temporary parking spot. The Huskies’ first choice, according to many insiders, remains the ACC, but the Big 12 would be embraced in Storrs, too. Of course, UConn would bring a lot of basketball clout to the Big 12, though the Huskies’ football program has not been able to sustain some of the momentum it generated under Randy Edsall within the past decade. The Big 12 footprint could expand into the northeast by adding the Huskies, but it’s unclear if UConn’s following extends throughout much of the tri-state (the Huskies are not as linked with New York City as much as Syracuse). Also, Storrs/Hartford would be a very far-flung destination for the rest of the Big 12 schools. If the Big 12 wants the Eastern Time Zone as part of its expansion, would it rather go into the declining northeast, or establish a beachhead in Florida with a school such as UCF? Or might the league want to add both?

Boise State...The Broncos were itchy for a move a few years ago, when along with San Diego State had plans to make a football-only jump to the Big East before that gridiron alliance crumbled and Boise stayed instead with the Mountain West...where it had moved not long earlier after becoming too big for the old WAC. Football-wise, Boise brings lots of panache, and the Broncos have qualified this season for a “New Year’s Six” bowl (vs. Arizona in the Fiesta) in a couple of weeks. There are also plans for further expansion of Bronco (now Albertsons) Stadium, which would currently be the smallest stadium in the Big 12 at only 36,387 capacity. In other sports, however, Boise does not bring a lot to the league, and would not be a convenient trip for current league members. While something of a national brand these days in football, Boise does not add a significant TV market to the league, either.

Colorado State...Looking for a longshot to enter the Big 12 expansion mix? Perhaps CSU, which has made a couple of bold moves recently with its football program, opening a new state-of-the-art gridiron facility two years ago and recently giving the go-ahead for construction of a new, 42,500-seat on-campus stadium. It’s definitely a program on the move, and some in the Rockies have noted that the Rams are dreaming big these days. While a bit farther removed north from the Denver area than Boulder, home of CU, there is Big 8/Big 12 history in the region with Colorado a longtime member of the league, and CSU could perhaps fill that Denver gap in the Big 12. Most insiders still consider it remote that the Rams get involved in the mix, but given where CSU was sitting a few years ago, the fact that it is now in the conversation suggests that its potential candidacy should be taken seriously.

A couple of schools from the Lone Star State with ties to the old Southwest Conference, SMU and Houston, might get cursory glances, but the Big 12 already believes it owns the Metroplex and Houston TV markets. Sources believe the only way the Mustangs and/or Cougs get involved is if the league decides, come hell or high water, that it needs twelve teams, and the fits don’t work with other more far-flung schools. Speaking of far-flung, we doubt East Carolina could become a serious candidate, either, even though the Pirates have approval to expand their Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to over 58,000 capacity. Besides, if the Big 12 wants to raid the American, either Cincinnati, UConn, or Memphis promise bigger new TV markets. Air Force, due in part to geography and economics, was considered for membership in past realignment discussions, but the Falcs did not consider the Big 12 the proper fit for recruiting reasons, and will be unlikely to have changed their minds just a couple of years later.

So, does the Big 12 expand back to twelve teams, to make its name numerically-accurate once again? At some point down the road, we expect it will expand to twelve, and many of our contacts will not be surprised if expansion gets a “go” not long after New Year’s. And when the decision is made, expect the dominoes to fall quickly. We’d say the chances are a bit less than 50-50 that anything happens on the expansion front within the next year. But we also think expansion becomes very likely if the Big 12 misses out on the 2015 version of the College Football Playoff as it did this season.

As always, stay tuned.

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