Big 12 expansion continues to loom as huge issue for conference

May 4, 2016

PHOENIX -- On Wednesday in a conference room at the Arizona Biltmore, Big 12 ADs and coaches sat through a detailed presentation from Navigate Research that may ultimately sway a few votes toward forthcoming expansion. It involved 10 seasons worth of data and 40,000 computer simulations.

All to answer one question: What gives the conference its best chance of reaching the College Football Playoff.

As Baylor coach Art Briles said afterward, had his fifth-ranked team finished one spot higher in 2014, "I don't think we'd be talking about this."

Six years after Nebraska left the Big 12 and the conference nearly imploded, the league appears poised for another round of expansion. It's not like two no-brainer candidates have magically emerged. We're still talking about mostly underwhelming programs such as Cincinnati, Connecticut and Memphis. (And BYU.)


And this is arguably the worst time in recent memory to be asking ESPN and/or FOX to pony up more money for a reconfigured conference. That gravy train's evaporated. Heard of cord cutting?

If the Big 12 expands, it's going to be disproportionally due to the league's lingering anxiety that it's disadvantaged in college football's postseason system.

Mind you, that system has been around for two years. Oklahoma made it last year. Baylor finished one spot out the year before.

The Big 12 is currently batting the same percentage as the Pac-12.

And yet it sounds more and more like it's going to happen. The Big 12 is putting a whole lot of time, energy and money into consultant studies and subcommittee meetings in advance of their presidents' annual meeting later this month.

Are they really going to come out of all this and say --€“ we're doing nothing?

"It's an option," Joe Castiglione said. "Is it a good option? I don't know if I can answer that question."

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is more blunt. Citing the growing revenue gulf between his league and the financial behemoths that are the Big Ten and SEC, Bowlsby has said more than once recently: "If we do nothing, we'll be substantially behind a decade from now."

But in the league's interminable exploration and deliberative process that should conclude sometime between now and 2019, they haven't gotten to that facet yet. So far it's all about the playoff.

Here's what we know: An expensive study by a reputable research firm concluded the conference would improve its playoff chances by 10 to 15 percent if it expands to 12 teams, drops from nine conference games to eight and adds a championship game.

In short, the only Power 5 conference that determines its champion conclusively, with a true round-robin, would behoove itself to adopt the imbalanced schedules and uneven divisions that help determine the champ in other leagues.

If so, it's an unfortunate byproduct of a system that ostensibly rewards tough schedules but in actuality rewards winning your conference by any means. If Iowa had held off Michigan State for another 30 seconds in last year's Big Ten title game it would have reached the playoff due in large part to the good fortune of being in the West, not the East division.

Oklahoma, by contrast, played everyone in its conference, including three straight top 15 foes to end the season. But apparently it would have had an even better shot if it could have replaced TCU with UConn.

Ultimately, the Big 12's future is in the hands of its presidents, who to this point are believed to be split down the middle on this issue. While they'd surely like to see their teams reach the playoff frequently, they're also going to be concerned about broader conference health, academic fit and, of course, $$$.

When the consultants weigh in, they're likely going to find out there's no great windfall in the offing. So expansion is a bet that whatever programs they adopt will pull a TCU and upgrade their profile so considerably as to put the conference in better position the next time contracts get doled out.

"The playoff is the topic du jour," Bowlsby said, "but it's far from the only factor."

Mercifully, Bowlsby is pushing for the league to make a decision one way or the other by summer. Which is good. If not, they may well be right back here after next year's playoff, crunching a whole new set of data.