Big 12 expansion could change power structure in college football


The Big 12 is likely to grow back to its original number of 12 members for the first time since 2010 as of Friday. That's when Big 12 presidents will "rubber stamp" league invites to BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.

The hope is that the addition of those four teams will somewhat counter the Big 12's losses of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.

Meanwhile, fallout from the addition of those teams will redefine what it means to be a "power" conference and possibly impact a significant portion of college athletics.

For the moment, it looks like the Big 12 will remain a Power Five league, though one with only eight of its original members. Those eight have stuck together long enough for a realignment lifesaver to come their way. Assisting matters is the Pac-12 publicly stating it won't expand and the alliance formed between it, the Big Ten and the ACC.

College athletics is waiting for the SEC to say out loud it won't expand beyond 16. The league has done enough damage to the Big 12. Regardless, the question becomes whether a league without Texas and Oklahoma to define it can remain big time.

"I'm confident the Big 12 is going to retain Power Five status," said Chuck Neinas, the league's commissioner from 1971-80 who served it again in an interim role from 2011-12. "Will [Greg] Sankey say no?"

Neinas was being facetious suggesting the SEC commissioner owes the Big 12 an alignment favor. But he is not far off the mark. A reconstituted Big 12 would be the lowest-resourced Power Five conference. It would have fewer brands and major metro markets than any of the other four.

Better to be on the right side of the line that defines haves vs. have nots in college athletics. The retention of the Big 12 in the Power Five model would give it 69 major-conference schools with 61 so-called Group of Five schools below that line.

It would be the first time since at least the beginning of the College Football Playoff in 2014 where there was a majority of teams at the top level.

Because of that, the Big 12's future could be a simple case of kill or be killed. The SEC targeted the two schools that essentially made it a desirable conference to the networks. Now, the Big 12 faces raiding the lower-resourced American Athletic Conference to get bigger. There is little choice to keep the Big 12 in the Power Five.

"[Commissioner] Bob Bowlsby has enough clout to make it stay as it is," one Power Five athletic director said. 

But why should the Big 12 be grandfathered into a Power Five designation? The answer to that tops the list of implications of the Big 12's expansion.

There will be a domino effect

An educated guess is that AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, having lost three schools, will act quickly to raid other conferences himself. Which programs might replace Cincinnati, Houston and UCF? Here's some possibilities.

Boise State: An aggressive pursuit of the Broncos cooled when COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Time to circle back around?

Louisiana: Billy Napier has proven you can win big in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Appalachian State: An isolated but a proven winner at this level.

UTSA: Replacement program from the Lone Star State. Jeff Traylor has quickly turned around the team surrounded by Texas schoolboy talent. Influential booster Tilman Fertitta is fully onboard.

North Texas: Another Texas candidate with a loyal fan base and impressive facilities.

Obviously, adding any or all those teams would impact the Mountain West, Conference USA and/or Sun Belt.

Aresco seemingly will have to do something. If commissioner Craig Thompson keeps Boise State, the Mountain West would become the most powerful Group of Five conference. It has rising programs in San Jose State, Fresno State, Nevada and San Diego State.

Aresco may want to try a coast-to-coast move like what he considered nine years ago. Back then, he attempted to expand Big East football by adding teams like San Diego State and Boise State to the UConns of his league. The move fell apart, the Big East became a basketball-only league, and Aresco formed the AAC.

A more extreme option

One line of thinking is to realign all Group of Five programs geographically. Rip up the leagues and start from scratch with an alignment that is more friendly to the travel budgets and bottom lines.

That would be difficult, but if the American has a league composition clause in its ESPN contract -- thereby reducing its payout if it loses too many teams -- bottom lines are going to become more important.

An even more extreme option

While the NCAA decentralizes and reconsiders its constitution giving more governance power to the conferences, there is an historic footnote. It's already been done. Almost 50 years ago, the power schools banded together to fight the NCAA over television rights. The College Football Association became its own governance entity.

Not only did it fight the NCAA, it helped pass rules on academic reform and scholarship limitations. It advocated for the NCAA subdividing into Division I, II, II, I-A and I-AA. Division I-A (now FBS) then divided further as a governance entities during the last decade into what we know today as the Power Five conferences and Group of Five conferences. Those labels defined not only football but sometimes the perception of their institutions.

When the CFA was formed in 1977, there were 153 Division I schools. The CFA was a precursor to the Power Five. It was made up of the top 63 schools and represented their television rights in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case.

That meant there were 90 Division I schools outside the CFA, what we would call the Group of Five today. That equated to 59% of Division I. If the Big 12 stays Power Five, that Group of Five number would shrink to 47%.

Of those 90 schools, 41 are no longer in FBS. Those programs either dropped the sport or stop funding football at the highest level. If the list of have nots continues to shrink. What, then, is their future?

To be determined is what playoff access those 61 schools will be given. Only five of them (Boise State, Hawaii, Memphis, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan) would have been to what is known as a current New Year's Six Bowl since 1970? A sixth, UConn, is an independent. What would the networks pay for that diminished group of schools?

The Power Five was defined in 2015 by the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC wanting the "autonomy" to set some of their own NCAA rules. They got their way. That moment is memorialized in the NCAA Manual. To this day, those conferences are granted those autonomous (weighted) voting rights.

Why end the ruthlessness now? This may be an opportunity for the 69 Power Five schools and their conferences to break away for good, restricting access to the playoff while forming their own governance entity. It may not happen this time around, but this edition of realignment is making it clear it's a helluva lot more likely than ever before.

But will the new Big 12 actually be a power league?

With the NCAA about to rewrite its constitution, there is the question whether the Big 12 retains that autonomy designation. More important is whether the league remains a "power" conference as it comes to playoff access.

That big-time status was enhanced in the CFP era when all five leagues entered into agreements with the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Going forward, the Power Five will be defined when the commissioners themselves get in a room and decide the structure and revenue associated with an expanded bracket.

"There's a qualitative fan viewpoint: Do they play adequate football?" said an advisor to the Big 12 expansion process. "Do they earn that? I think the answer is yes.

The second one is legalistic. The [Autonomy Five] designation is in the NCAA bylaws. I don't think that's going to change."

Big 12 sources agree. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said that his league retaining Power Five status is not a concern. A Big 12 AD who helped vet the four schools agreed.

The newly-formed "alliance" is on board with the Big 12. Commissioners of the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 went out of their way to compliment the Big 12 last month.

"The Power Five is still the Power Five," said Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren. "We feel this is a very strong, solid, powerful first step to say things will be OK. Things will be better. We're willing to be collaborative."

Those alliance commissioners also didn't invite the Big 12 to their exclusive club. The alliance was formed essentially as a way to address the SEC's perceived growing power over the sport.

When and how the CFP expands could take a while. As proposed, an expanded 12-team playoff would include the top six conference champions plus six at-large teams. That's a win for the Group of Five, which would have an automatic spot (or two) to compete for each year. But as recent events have proven, nothing is certain, including playoff expansion itself.

Those Group of Five conferences currently split $90 million per year from the CFP. That's 22% of the total revenue. The Power Five get $66 million each annually. In an expanded playoff, Power Five leagues are expected to net way north of $100 million each just for participating.

"That's the critical question," that Big 12 consultant said. "If there is significant expansion, it's going to mean significant money." 

Before that decision is made, it would have to be considered the Big 12 grabbed an independent and three of the most accomplished Group of Five schools: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. Their total number of what are now called New Year's Six bowls (Orange, Rose, Fiesta, Cotton, Sugar, Peach): 11.

Texas and Oklahoma's combined total: 73.

You can see the climb the Big 12 is facing to keep its relevance.

What has emerged as a sort of relegation process, similar to European soccer. Those clubs that don't perform over time go to a lower level and have to work their way back up. During the last round of realignment, only Utah and TCU came from non-BCS leagues to be awarded Power Five status in the Pac-12 and Big 12, respectively.

The Big 12's latest expansion would reward four schools currently outside the traditional power structure. UCF itself claimed a national championship after going 13-0 in 2017 but has sponsored football only since 1979. Cincinnati has been to three BCS/New Year's Six bowls, all since 2009. BYU won a national championship in 1984 as a member of the WAC. Houston was formerly the member of a major league in the old Southwest Conference. UCF and Cincinnati are tied for the highest final CFP ranking by a Group of Five program, No. 8.

Big 12 expansion notes

Geography doesn't matter: Only Houston would be in a Big 12 state. Like West Virginia, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU are multiple states away from the nearest Big 12 school.

Concerns about BYU have been addressed, sources confirmed. Because it is a faith-based institution it does not play Sunday. That will not be a problem in the Big 12. Also, its 2016 candidacy for the Big 12 may have been scuttled by a letter to Bowlsby raising concerns about LGBTQ equality. BYU has participated in an NCAA initiative called Common Ground.

No more blocking: Houston's biggest Big 12 enemy, Texas, is now in the SEC. It was widely presumed Texas blocked Houston's attempt to get into the league in 2016.

From large to small: Cincinnati and Houston bring the smallest stadiums to the Big 12. Both seat approximately 40,000.

All of this must come together in stages. First, the Big 12 will grow back to 12. Then it will begin to find its revenue worth. Industry sources have put the new per-team revenue at $20 million-$25 million per year. While that would be a huge boost for the AAC teams emigrating to the Big 12 -- those schools make only $7 million per year -- the existing Big 12 schools would have reduce their bottom lines by about a third, coming down from $37 million in annual media rights payouts.

Will an Iowa State be able to hold on to Matt Campbell? What would happen to expansive facilities upgrades? Will debt service obligations be met?

The new Big 12 will enter a world where the other power conferences have different philosophies on how best to reach the playoff. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are exploring playing one less conference game each season in order to add a notable nonconference alliance opponent.

The SEC is doing the exact opposite in seeking how to create more and better conference games. Sankey's league can do it because it has the best inventory of games perhaps than any conference in history. Consider that there can now be regular games featuring Texas or Oklahoma against Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, etc. That's without even mentioning the legacy SEC rivalries like Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Georgia, etc.

What's the best rivalry in the new Big 12? Twelve teams in five states from the Atlantic to the Wasatch Mountains?

That is one expansion question that is yet to be answered. 

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