Big 12 leaders held an emergency meeting Thursday, and the schools that didn’t attend said everything in their absence. The league is hanging by a pair of threads—one burnt orange, the other crimson—and the scissors are looming.
The conference’s reality has been an open secret for 10 years, since it last was shaken by realignment: Texas and Oklahoma are the premier athletic properties, and everyone else is along for the ride and hanging on for dear life. If the big dogs move on, the Big 12 suddenly resembles the American Athletic Conference. And now the big dogs are very serious about moving on.
Texas and Oklahoma have expressed interest in joining the Southeastern Conference. There also is conjecture that other leagues could be in play, or independent status. Staying put is also an option, of course, but certainly not the option at the top of the list. Schools don’t risk triggering upheaval on this scale on a whim.
Then again, Texas and Oklahoma also know they can toy with the Big 12’s emotions and probably be taken back. It would be a brazen display of disrespect—but ultimately, what other options are there for the Tagalong Eight? The Horns and Sooners are their ticket to the Power 5 Club. Lose them, and they lose the most powerful status in college sports.
The Power 5 conferences (potentially en route to being the Power 4) are where the big money is, and every competitive advantage that goes along with that money. Scheduling clout, recruiting clout, preferential treatment from pollsters and media. The system is geared to protect and enhance those with membership to The Club.
Ask Big 12 member Iowa State if it would like to trade places with AAC member Cincinnati, after seeing the way the College Football Playoff selection committee treated the two last fall. The two-loss Cyclones stayed ahead of the undefeated Bearcats heading into the final CFP rankings, and conference affiliation undoubtedly was a major reason why.
So if you remove the foundation of the Big 12’s Power 5 membership, what happens? There seem to be four options.
Poaching and hoping
The first instinct would be to raid the rest of the country to prop up the product and hope it remains marketable to media rights partners. The non-coast element of the Pac-12 could offer up some targets in Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado, although the Buffaloes have already been there and done that with the Big 12. That, in turn, would further destabilize the Pac-12, which is not the Big 12’s concern in the Hunger Games world of college athletics.
There are other options among schools the Big 12 haughtily invited to apply and then rejected several years ago when it toyed with expansion: BYU, Boise State, Colorado State, SMU, Houston, UCF, USF, Cincinnati and Memphis would be the top candidates.
None of the above presents a perfect fit. None of the above adequately replaces Texas and Oklahoma. But even as the SEC and Big Ten put further distance between themselves and everyone else, the goal is to be near the top of the Everyone Else list. Adding successful programs would give the Big 12 a chance to maintain some of its status.
The Tagalong Eight lunge for other power conference life rafts, going their separate ways and disbanding the Big 12. Their individual problem, as it has been for eternity, is a lack of stand-alone marketability. Those schools do not pass the three-pronged test of TV market, traditional success and massive fan base.
Texas annually puts nearly 100,000 fans in the seats for home football games, a top 10 program in terms of attendance. Oklahoma is mid-80,000s, a top 15 attendance program. After that, no Big 12 school has averaged 60,000 fans per home game from 2017-19. Iowa State, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State all have been in the mid-to-high 50,000s; Kansas State, Baylor and TCU are the next tier; and Kansas is its own mud flat of apathy.
Is the Big Ten going to add any of those programs just to keep pace with an SEC move to 16? Its last round of expansion already left bruises, with Rutgers and Maryland bringing little other than East Coast cable audiences to the table.
The only other blueblood revenue program in the conference is Kansas men’s basketball, and that comes with two problems attached: it is a compliance tire fire at the moment, deep into a major NCAA infractions case; as we learned very clearly a decade ago, basketball really doesn’t matter. Football matters, and Kansas is the worst Power 5 football program in the country—and has its own compliance issues.
It’s a hard reality for Iowa State, which has painstakingly built a very good football program. For Oklahoma State, which has become one of the better all-sports departments in the nation. For Baylor, which can win a men’s basketball national title and still not enjoy an overall status change. For West Virginia and it passionate fans, for Kansas State and its Bill Snyder Era miracle, for Texas Tech and its large enrollment isolated on the plains of West Texas.
The rest of the Power 5 isn’t likely to come running for them.
This is a more specific measure for the likes of Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, which used political pressure to attempt to ride the coattails of the Sooners and Longhorns out of the Big 12 in the last realignment spasm. In the end, that helped keep the league together. This time, it might be viewed more as a legitimate escape strategy.
But let’s be clear: Texas and Oklahoma aren’t at this point if they’re worried about being hemmed in politically. Whatever hurdles that presented in 2011 don’t seem to exist in 2021. This is a limited, long-shot strategy that, again, would only benefit a couple of schools.
Relegation and/or alliance
The eight remaining schools accept their lot, stick together and become an even smaller and less mathematically accurate Big 12, also known as the Heartland Survivor League or the Best Damn Non-P5 Conference in America.
Or Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and AAC commish Mike Aresco meet in the Metroplex—where both leagues have their offices—and hatch a plan to combine forces. A mashup of 19 schools isn’t going to work, which could lead to some bloodletting (sleep with one eye open, East Carolina, Tulsa, Temple, Tulane). But a combination of the best of what’s left might have some viability beyond an eight-team tweener league.
All options will be on the table. None of them are overly attractive. But when membership in the Power 5 Club has forever been dependent on a couple of bluebloods, this sort of disaster scenario is always possible.
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