Mailbag: How the Big 12 hurt itself in expansion

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Just for fun, I went back and counted. Since last spring, I’ve produced 20 articles or podcasts centered around Big 12 expansion. Twenty!

In hindsight, perhaps I should have stuck to 10.

Like the Big 12 itself, I will “never say never,” but now that expansion is “no longer an active agenda item,” there’s a strong possibility that this, the 21st article, will be the last one for a while.

Unless, of course, David Boren changes his mind again.

Stewart: I read many articles like yours that appropriately scolded Big 12 leaders for their ridiculous expansion carnival. But in the end, didn't the Big 12 actually make the right decision? No combination of the teams involved would have improved the conference in terms of stability, respect, or playoff potential.

— Mike, Colorado

It’s hard to declare whether something is a right or wrong decision when it’s in response to a non-existent problem the conference itself (primarily Boren) perpetuated.

The Big 12 could have responded to its 2014 playoff snub by concluding, well, one of us is going to get left out every year, I guess it was our turn first. Instead, it essentially launched an investigation into whether the system was stacked against the 10-team league, thus leading many to conclude that it needed to expand.

If Boren had never made his “psychologically disadvantaged” comment, and in doing so convinced some of his peers there was a crisis they needed to address, the conference likely never would have seriously considered expansion. Thus, there would be no decision to make.

And if in July, Boren and commissioner Bob Bowslby had done what most were expecting and announced then they did not plan to pursue expansion, you wouldn’t have nearly the same criticism because the league would have arrived at the same decision without putting 11 candidates through a three-month charade.

By the end of all of this, I felt the league might as well expand. I did not foresee the potential harm to the Big 12’s brand that others did, because the main schools they were considering had already demonstrated an ability to be good at football. Maybe it wouldn’t improve the league’s stability, respect or playoff potential, as you suggest, but nor would it hurt them. And of course, they’d make more money.

Staying at 10 is fine. Frankly, the conference would benefit far more from Texas fixing its program and returning to national relevance than by adding a couple of Group of 5 schools. But there’s no question that the way the Big 12 went about this over the past year-plus did harm its brand. The public views the league as more dysfunctional now than when it nearly imploded in 2010, and no amount of Boren quotes about unity and cohesion is going to suddenly erase that stigma.

Stewart: With the Big 12 deciding not to expand, it seems the league is poised to collapse in favor of four super conferences. The Big Ten and SEC can each take two to get to 16, the Pac 12 can take four, and the ACC can take one (or two depending on what ND does). Care to speculate where teams land?  

— Foster, Wilmington, North Carolina

Foster, did you not get the memo from Boren? He said Monday, “No one's looking to walk away from this conference. Any feelings to the contrary are just mistaken. They don't understand the strong commitment that we all have to it.” Why don’t you believe him?

IF the league comes apart in 2025, when its current TV deals and Grant of Rights expire, and IF the conference landscape looks generally similar to what it does now, the biggest question would be whether Texas and Oklahoma bind together or act on their own. If the latter, Texas goes to the Big Ten and Oklahoma the SEC. Those two leagues are the clear alpha dog conferences, and those two schools are the only ones with the leverage to essentially pick their spot.

As for the other schools, Oklahoma State would go wherever Oklahoma does. Texas Tech in the Big Ten seems like an odd fit, but if that’s what it takes to get Texas, Jim Delany’s successor would likely do it.

After that … I’m not sure any of the others would land in a current Power 5 conference. The ACC would be more likely to take Connecticut than West Virginia, and if the Pac-12 can’t get Texas or Oklahoma it either stays put or grabs a couple of closer schools like Boise State. So Baylor, TCU, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and West Virginia would be in much the same boat as the schools trying to get into the Big 12 now. Perhaps there would be some sort of marriage between the Big 12’s leftovers and the best of the Group of 5.

Everyone has written off Oklahoma, but do you see them still winning out and winning the Big 12? Every year we write them off and Bob Stoops somehow gets them rolling at the right time. If they do this, it will mean even bigger quality wins for Houston and Ohio State come playoff selection time.

— Jeff Hostetler Pensacola, Florida

I do believe Oklahoma will win the Big 12. Samaje Perine’s hamstring injury, expected to sideline him the next few weeks, is not exactly ideal, but fortunately for the Sooners they still have Joe Mixon. Winning out will be a tall order, though, as evidenced by the fact that no Big 12 team has made it through conference play undefeated since the league went to a nine-game round robin in 2011. There are just too many powerful offenses to make it through without at least one game where your own offense isn’t clicking and your defense can’t get a stop.

I believe West Virginia will be the Sooners’ toughest challenger, and the Mountaineers do have one edge in that the teams’ Nov. 19 meeting is in Morgantown. I’m not as keen on Baylor, which has gone 6-0 mostly against air, and even then needed a last-second field goal to survive 1-6 Iowa State. The Bears play four of their last six games outside of Waco, including a Nov. 12 visit to Norman. The conference is much more likely to come down to Oklahoma, West Virginia or, if it can beat the Mountaineers this week, TCU.

So why such faith in an Oklahoma team whose defense has struggled considerably and is now starting a true freshman at cornerback? Easy: Stoops. The guy’s won nine Big 12 titles. Many of those teams started slow before clicking right around the Texas game and taking off from there. If I’m choosing whether to lay a bet on Stoops or Dana Holgorsen, or Stoops or an interim-basis Jim Grobe, I’m going with Stoops. Let one of the other guys prove me wrong.

So is the Big 12 actually going to make it all the way to 2025, or will they disband a couple years early once everyone starts to shop around for new homes? I would set the over/under on 2022.

— Andrew from California

I hadn’t thought about that. I suppose that could happen if 10 people all decide to break up with each other before the others can dump them.

With some time and evidence that Lane Kiffin can manage an offense, do you think that both Raiders and USC fired Lane for issues beyond his control? Also, they fired him in the middle of a season so we never got to see if he could have produced teams. Do you see any schools that would take the risk of hiring him as head coach? I think he should stay at Alabama for a few more seasons.

— Jim Shilander, somewhere

Those organizations fired Lane because he was a bad head coach. Had he stayed at Tennessee I’m sure that marriage would have ended in similar fashion.

Kiffin in fact is the embodiment of something I’ve been espousing for some time, which is, there’s very little overlap at this point between the skill set necessary to be a good coordinator and the skill set necessary to be a good head coach. No question, he’s one of the absolute best in the business at devising an offensive game plan, calling plays and developing quarterbacks. But all of that takes place mostly behind the scenes. The head coach is a public ambassador for his program, and Kiffin has repeatedly demonstrated in public that he can’t get out of his own way.

But make no mistake, he’s going to get another head coaching job, likely after this season. Alabama keeps winning, and CBS keeps showing him on the sideline. His ability to get Jalen Hurts playing at such a high level as a true freshman becomes another line on his resume. It’s not going to be anywhere near as glamorous as Alabama, but I can think of one possibility for sure. Fresno State, his alma mater, is 1-6 and all but certain to fire Tim DeRuyter. It would be the perfect low-profile job at a program where he can win, further restore his image and possibly springboard back to the Pac-12 in a few more years.

Hey Stewart: What in the world is going on with your Top 10 rankings? Michigan goes from No. 7 to No. 3 on a bye week, jumping both Washington and Texas A&M who also had byes? Did the change of heart come from (a) Hate mail flowing in from the Michigan faithful, (b) Wisconsin looking pretty awesome despite losing to Ohio State or (c) A belief that A&M will get dismantled by the Tide and Washington will come down to earth eventually?

— Carter Bayne, St. Paul, Minnesota

It came from the fact I blew up the previous week’s rankings and started from scratch (which I should really do every week), and in doing that reevaluated every team’s resume based on what we know now. Given that, Michigan’s 45-28 win over Colorado back in Week 3 that I mostly dismissed at the time is now a 45-28 win over a 5-2, fringe Top 25 opponent. Penn State, who was 2-2 at the time Michigan smashed it 49-10, is now 4-2. And Wisconsin, whom the Wolverines beat 14-7, gave Ohio State an even tougher game.

So while Washington has been dominant, Michigan has the same record against a much tougher schedule. Texas A&M’s has been arguably tougher than the Wolverines’, but its big win over Tennessee a week earlier lost some value when the Vols turned around and lost 49-10 to Alabama. And UCLA, which was ranked when the Aggies beat them in overtime in Week 1, is now 3-4. Throw in Clemson’s struggles at home against NC State, and that’s how Michigan “jumped” four spots on a bye week.

Hi Stewart: Another week, another unexpected Michigan State beatdown, this time giving up 54 points at home to mediocre Northwestern. Is it too soon to infer a significant correlation between Jim Harbaugh's arrival in Ann Arbor and the sudden downturn in East Lansing?

— Jason B. Lassner, Iowa City, Iowa

I’m sure Wolverines fans would love to claim a connection, perhaps that Mark Dantonio is struggling to put together weekly game plans while spending so much time curled up in a fetal position. But no, at this point it’s purely coincidental. Harbaugh has recruited one full class since his arrival, most of whom aren’t playing significant roles. And even if they were, it’s not like he signed 25 guys that would have otherwise gone to Michigan State.

Oh and also, Dantonio to this point is undefeated against Harbaugh. Though that will likely change next week, provided everyone holds on to their punt snaps.

Stewart, most media outlets are now predicting that Boise State will claim the Group of 5 New Year’ Six bowl spot with Houston's loss to Navy a few weeks ago. Should Boise State fans be worried about Western Michigan potentially stealing that spot? Both teams have two wins against Power 5 foes and are undefeated, but Boise State currently has a big lead in the [meaningless] polls. Do the boat rowers have a legitimate shot?

— Brett, Salt Lake City, Utah

For now, I think that spot is Boise State’s to lose, though it could well lose it to Donnel Pumphrey and San Diego State if the teams meet in the Mountain West championship game.

The committee sent a pretty clear message that first year that, unlike the traditional polls, it does make a distinction between the respective strengths of those conferences. Boise State got the bid at 11-2 over 13-1 Marshall, which never cracked the rankings even when undefeated. Granted, the Herd that year played a particularly horrendous non-conference schedule, but the Mountain West is also pretty universally regarded as a stronger conference than Conference USA.

Same with the MWC and the MAC.

Western Michigan should be commended for playing and beating two Big Ten teams, Northwestern and Illinois, but those teams are currently 3-3 and 1-5, respectively. Boise beat a streaking Washington State team, now 4-2, and 2-3 Oregon State, and it meets a 4-3 BYU on Thursday. Advantage, Boise. In Sagarin’s ratings, there’s not much difference between Western’s division (the MAC West) and Boise’s (the MWC Mountain). It would certainly help Western if 5-1 Toledo keeps winning all the way up to the teams’ Nov. 25 meeting.

So Boise should be fine if it finishes 13-0. However, 13-0 Western vs. 12-1 Boise or 12-1 San Diego State would be interesting. And of course all of these teams need to cross their fingers and hope Houston doesn’t get back into first in its division.

Stewart: I'm trying to discern what has caused the cliff dive by the Oregon Ducks. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college programs, and Oregon is not the usual hotbed of FBS recruits, nor can it rely on tradition. Oregon uses its brand and Nike to help lure recruits. Was Chip Kelly more essential to that brand than realized? Can Oregon once again overcome its limitations to return to national contention?

— Cameron, Charleston, South Carolina

Over the years the Ducks have done arguably a better job than anyone of building a brand that differentiated them in ways that attracted players from other parts of the country. Note: That did not begin with Kelly. Oregon was a Top 10 team in 2000 and 2001 under Mike Bellotti. It finished 12th in 2005. It turned out NFL players like Joey Harrington, Haloti Ngata, Kellen Clemens and Jonathan Stewart. But Kelly, with his unique system, maximized Oregon’s talent to an unprecedented level.

So yes, Oregon can overcome its limitations again, because it’s done so many times before. But whether the school continues with Mark Helfrich or hands the reins to someone else, the program will never be immune from a downturn like the present one in large part because it’s not one of the bluebloods that replaces one crop of five-stars with another. One “lost” class can set it back significantly.

It’s interesting to look back now at Bellotti’s tenure and realize that in between an 11-1 season in 2001 and a 10-2 finish in ’05, Oregon went 7-6, 8-5 and 5-6. And I don’t remember his job ever being in jeopardy. Kelly reset the bar there so high that now one (likely) losing season is seen as a crisis. It may be that Helfrich is in over his head like so many people seem to think, and it may be that whoever’s the next guy comes in and wins big right off the bat. But I don’t think anyone is ever going to win 11 games a year consistently at Oregon. Who knows if even Kelly would have had he stayed longer than four years.

Given that the “Big 12” conference's 10 current members voted unanimously to remain as is and rejected adding two member institutions to restore themselves to 12, should not everyone in any way associated with collegiate sports be pressuring them to change the name of their conference?  

— Knox, Norcross, Georgia

I say they go for a total rebrand and call it the Big Boren.