The Big 12 wants to expand after all, so who will it be?

If the Big 12 played football games the same way its leaders conduct business, they’d never make it to kickoff. The captains would spend three hours changing their minds whether to call heads or tails.

If you haven’t heard by now, the Big 12 announced Tuesday it is EXPANDING (probably). Which is quite the reversal from just a month ago when it pumped the brakes on those discussions. Which was itself a different outcome than many expected a month before that.

On a conference call following a meeting of the league’s board of directors (the university presidents), Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Oklahoma president David Boren all but said to Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and all other interested candidates: go ahead. Make your best offer.

“The direction from the board to the commissioner,” Boren said, “was to re-contact schools that expressed interest in us and to find out exactly the nature of the interest, [and] evaluate what proposals they might make in accordance with their interests.”

“We’ve been contacted by a number of institutions,” Bowlsby said, “and I would imagine after this news breaks we’ll be contacted again."

Will the Big 12 be 12-deep again after all? (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

There are currently 63 FBS schools outside of the Power 5 conferences. By the time Bowlsby gets to his office Wednesday morning there may be 63 gift baskets outside the door. Memphis, backed by billionaire booster Fred Smith, may well overnight FedEx envelopes filled with $100 bills.

When it comes to zany conference realignment rumors, I’ve long conditioned myself to believe everything and nothing. But Tuesday’s turn of events truly came as a surprise. By all indications from those connected to the league, any interest in adding new schools all but died last month following presentations from a pair of consultants at the Big 12’s spring meetings. That’s when the conference announced it would bring back a championship game in 2017, most likely with two five-team divisions, and would not pursue a conference cable network.

“There’s no doubt that expansion gives some marginal gain,” Boren said June 3. “But how much marginal gain? …. But you have to weigh that against reputational impacts. In other words, our fans want to see our teams play against great teams. They don’t want to see them play mediocre teams.”

Six weeks later: “It was a unanimous vote to move forward by asking the commissioner to follow up [with candidates] … that had contacted us and expressed interest and to evaluate their expressions of interest and level of seriousness as well as the level of preparedness to go forward with us in a meaningful discussion.”

What … just … happened?

Bob Bowlsby (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

The most obvious theory is that the Big 12’s renewed interest in expanding to 12 or even 14 teams is directly correlated to reports of the ACC’s impending announcement of its own new network with ESPN, to launch in 2019. Boren said something to that effect Tuesday, noting that “We felt the need to receive an update from our consultants, including their best advice on what the impact of any ACC agreement with media partners might have on our conference.”

But the ACC and ESPN’s discussions have been ongoing for years. That an announcement was imminent would not likely have come as news to the Big 12’s aforementioned consultant, Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures. Also, the conference already has written into its existing contracts with ESPN and FOX that any new members will receive the same share as its existing schools, which is currently north of $20 million a year. Given that both companies have reportedly agreed to spend a combined $430 million a year on the new Big Ten contract, there’s not a lot of loose change lying around these days.

More likely, the presidents share much the same concern as Boren, who’s long contended the conference is at a continued “psychological disadvantage” playing with fewer teams than the other four big leagues. With the other major ACC news this week that its members have committed to extend their Grant of Rights agreement through 2036, a 10-team Big 12 remains most at risk of future poaching.

The problem, as it’s always been, is that there are no obvious schools out there guaranteed to strengthen the conference to the point where it’s seen on equal footing with the SEC or Big Ten. If there were, it would have ended this debate long before now.

As it is, the presidents have given Bowlsby their charge to start flirting away. Mind you, it’s not like they don’t know full well their suitors at this point. The underlying message Tuesday was, we’re finally ready to get serious with someone.

BYU, home of a top-notch facility with a first-class view, could be an attractive option. (Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports)

First on the list is Cincinnati, which has done nothing to hide its courtship. The Bearcats have strong revenue programs and would make a logical geographic partner to current outlier West Virginia.

Connecticut will get more serious consideration than some imagine both because of its proximity to the New York media market and the presence of its powerhouse men’s and women’s basketball program.

Houston may seem obvious to some, given its Southwest Conference roots and current football renaissance under coach Tom Herman, but Texas and likely TCU are believed to strongly object. As we’ve seen, though, things change.

UCF is a potential wild card. Tapping into Florida recruiting footholds and TV sets is tempting, but to this point there hasn’t been much buzz about the Knights.

And then there’s BYU, with its massive fan base, proud history and Power 5-caliber facilities. Many Cougars fans believe they should have been invited five years ago. But BYU, with its religious mission, is a much different institution than the others, one that brings with it scheduling difficulties (no games on Sunday).

Bowlsby indicated a potential vote could come sometime this fall, which means we can look forward to several months of wild speculation. It also gives Big 12 leaders plenty of time to change their minds again. And again.