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Forde-Yard Dash: Big 12 Is Expanding But Is It Improving?

The winners and the losers if the league stops the expansion at 12 teams and how it impacts the schools beyond football.
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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (place kicking tutorials available at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets followed up last year’s 3-for-8 field goal follies with an 0-for-3 start to this year in an upset loss to Northern Illinois): 

MORE DASH: Milton's Triumph | Transfer Winners | Rivals?

SECOND QUARTER: THE BIG 12 IS GETTING BIGGER, BUT HOW MUCH BETTER?

As Sports Illustrated reported on Friday, the plundered Big 12 is expected to regroup and add four schools this week. They don’t make up for the loss of cornerstone brands Oklahoma and Texas, but they add strength in numbers and keep the conference clearly ahead of the Group of 5 leagues in terms of football competitiveness. In terms of recent on-field performance, the reconstituted Big 12 is at least as strong—probably stronger—than the Pac-12. The difference is that the longer historical trends suggest a market correction back to prominence from the Pac-12’s top programs, whereas the new Big 12 newcomers are coming in at or near their all-time peak. That won’t be easy to sustain.

A quick Dash through the pros and cons of the news schools:

BYU (11). What the Cougars bring to the table: Football tradition, renewed football relevance and a big fan base. The 1984 national champions didn’t have a losing season between 1974 and 2002, and the last four coaches all have had at least one season with double-digit victories. Bronco Mendenhall went 60–18 between 2006 and 2011. Successor Kalani Sitake went 11–1 last year as BYU cobbled together a patchwork pandemic schedule. BYU was No. 22 nationally in attendance in 2019, averaging nearly 60,000 fans per home game. BYU’s main campus is in Provo, but the Salt Lake City TV market is the 30th largest in the U.S. The school’s fan base is nationwide. 

The cons: Utah is a long way from everyone else in the league, and a really long way from West Virginia, Ohio and Florida. (A three-time-zone league adds only complications.) Power conferences have been historically leery of BYU as a “high maintenance” member, in part owing to its religious affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU will not compete on Sundays, which really shouldn’t affect football but could be an issue in other sports (if indeed BYU comes aboard as an all-sports member). BYU shares its TV market with Utah.

Beyond football: BYU is an excellent all-sports program, finishing 17th in the 2020–21 Learfield Cup standings. Under Mark Pope, the men’s basketball program has established itself as an annual NCAA tournament contender.

Central Florida (12). What the Knights bring to the table: UCF is one of the largest universities in the nation, which means an increasing alumni base that could produce increasing TV audiences and increasing athletic donations. Three different coaches have won 10 or more games in the last decade, and the hiring of Gus Malzahn could well produce a fourth. UCF’s undefeated 2017 team finished 6th in the AP poll. Other Big 12 members will be happy to have an increased recruiting visibility in Florida, Orlando is the No. 17 TV market in the U.S., and a consistent growth area.

The cons: Orlando is a long way from the heartland, where the majority of the conference resides; UCF will be nearly 1,000 miles from its closest league neighbors. UCF can’t claim much ownership of the Orlando audience, with Florida, Florida State and Miami all represented in the area and NFL presences in both Tampa and Jacksonville.

Beyond football: UCF was a very respectable 57th in the 2020–21 all-sports standings, ahead of many Power 5 programs, including some in the Big 12. But men’s basketball success has been sporadic.

BYU and UCF football players on the field

Cincinnati (13). What the Bearcats bring to the table: a top 10 ranking right now, coming off a New Year's Six bowl berth last season, and a 32–6 record over their last 38 games. It helps that Cincinnati has retained coach Luke Fickell despite interest from multiple Power 5 programs. But it goes beyond the current coach—Big 12 sources noted that recent success with multiple coaches was an attractive component for all expansion candidates, indicating both institutional commitment and infrastructure. Cincy won 10 or more games five times in a six-year span from 2007–12. Cincinnati sits on fertile recruiting soil and is the No. 36 TV market nationally. It also gives far-flung West Virginia a relatively close conference colleague and potential travel/scheduling partner in other sports.

The cons: The Bearcats’ stadium seats only 40,000 and average attendance was less than 36,000 in 2019, which would place them 10th in the new Big 12 in attendance that season. (There is no use looking at '20 attendance.) Cincinnati’s share of its own market is diluted by the presence of Ohio State and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Beyond football: Cincinnati was No. 143 in the Learfield Cup all-sports standings in 2020–21, which would be last in the new 12-team league. However, the school has a deep tradition of success in men’s basketball.

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Houston (14). What the Cougars bring to the table: A massive TV market (No. 8 in the nation) and a massive recruiting backyard. East Texas is the one significant area of the Lone Star State where the Big 12 didn’t have a member until now. Houston megabooster Tilman Fertitta can be a bit much, but he’s the kind of highly involved rainmaker who has upgraded facilities and salaries with the stroke of a pen. The more recruits the hometown school can keep away from current and future SEC rivals, the better the league can be.

The cons: Houston’s ownership of its TV market is as dubious as UCF’s, with fans of Texas and Texas A&M making up a significant percentage of the city’s college football fans. And then there are the fans that gravitate more to the NFL Texans in town, not to mention the Dallas Cowboys. Houston’s home attendance in 2019 was a paltry 25,518.

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Beyond football: The Cougars’ men’s basketball team is fresh off a Final Four appearance and has become a perennial heavyweight under Kelvin Sampson. Houston was 76th in the 2020–21 Learfield Cup standings and has a proud track and field heritage.

Who loses with the Big 12 stopping at 12 (for the time being):

Memphis (15). With Cincinnati, UCF and Houston departing, the Tigers would be the best football program left behind in the American Athletic Conference. Seven straight winning seasons is a great accomplishment, but media market size (No. 51) leaves Memphis well behind the four schools that got in ahead of them. And that’s a market populated with a lot of SEC fans (Tennessee, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Alabama).

South Florida (16). The Bulls have had their football moments but haven’t been able to sustain them like their rivals in Orlando. The current product is bottoming out, going 5–27 in its last 32 games. There are some in the Big 12 who would still like to see South Florida get serious consideration alongside UCF, giving league schools more opportunities to play (and recruit) in Florida. But for now, that constituency isn’t large or persuasive enough.

Boise State (17). The 21st-century success story that is the Broncos still has a ceiling, and it’s attached to market size (101st) and the lack of a recruiting footprint that helps the rest of the Big 12.

SMU (18). Sonny Dykes has elevated the football program, and the location in Dallas certainly is prime real estate in terms of recruiting and TV market. Nobody makes more sense geographically. But the Mustangs also are just a bit player in that TV market and at the turnstiles. They drew fewer than 25,000 fans per home game in 2019.

Mike Aresco (19). The American Athletic Conference commissioner has fought a vigorous PR campaign to have his league considered part of a “Power 6” but now is losing its three strongest football members. Does his constituency stay behind Aresco for the long haul, or start getting antsy?

Who wins:

Mountain West Conference (20). That league stays intact. There has been some Big 12 curiosity about Boise, Colorado State and San Diego State, but for now commissioner Craig Thompson has avoided any trickle-down poaching.

MORE DASH: Milton's Triumph | Transfer Winners | Rivals?

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