You've probably heard the news by this point. Yesterday afternoon, the Big 12 got the compromise they were hoping for, winning a vote that will allow them to hold a conference championship game without expanding or dividing into divisions. Since many had speculated that the Big 12 would expand if they couldn't secure permission to hold a title game under those, many BYU fans were hoping for a different result.
So, what happens now? Does BYU not have a shot at a Power 5 invite now? Why would other conferences agree to this? Let's take a closer look.
So, the Big 12 has a championship game now, right?
Not yet. The Big 12 only sought permission to hold one. They'll still need to discuss whether to actually do it as a conference. There are plenty of competitive reasons not to hold one, since any championship game will be a rematch from the regular season, and historically, having a championship game has hurt the Big 12 quite a bit, as far as premier postseason spots are concerned.
Of course, some may feel that not having that "13th data point" hurts the conference in terms of seeding or playoff availability. Plus, having a championship game will probably make the league a whole bunch of money. Like, as much as $30 million dollars, kind of money. Because of that, I'd bet on the Big 12 holding a title game in the next season or two, but it's hardly a 100% sure thing at this point.
Why the heck would the other conferences allow the Big 12 to do this?
There are a couple of reasons.
First, multiple conference officials told me that the idea of conference autonomy was important to them. In the past, conferences have fought hard for autonomy to make up their own decisions on lots of things, from disciplinary policies, to transfers, to benefits. Everybody has different competitive, financial, logistical and political concerns, and the idea of letting a conference's leaders determine how to set up their own championship game made sense to a lot of people. After all, they wouldn't want the Big 12 trying to specifically legislate how their conferences handle things later on.
Second, while many fans seem to think that the Big 12's setup is a competitive advantage, other leaders don't see it that way. If the Big 12 had a round-robin title game last season, Oklahoma would have had to beat Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State, and then Oklahoma State again a week later. Compare that with the hypothetical conference championship path for Iowa (who missed Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in the regular season) or North Carolina (who skipped Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in the regular season). Sure seems like Oklahoma actually had the harder task.
For what it's worth, while the Big Ten originally filed the proposal to require divisional play for a championship game, and then later amended it to make round robin play acceptable, they only did so after consultation with other conference representatives. They didn't do it alone.
So, is Big 12 expansion officially dead then?
Here we depart the hard sourced reporting and tread more into educated guess/speculation waters. In the short term (say, before the start of the 2019 season), I'd say it's pretty dead. There isn't a reason for immediate urgency on the Big 12's part, since they don't risk any of their potential targets going anywhere, and they can easily get more data on how their current 10 team setup works for the playoff. It's highly unlikely that another major conference will try to poach a Big 12 team in the immediate future as well, so some sense of stability appears to be the safest bet.
You said short term. Is Big 12 expansion off the table in the long term, too?
I personally don't think it's 100% off the table.
First, the president at the second most important university in the conference, the University of Oklahoma, repeated his calls for expansion, even after the Big 12 secured rights to a title game. Here's his full quote:
"The Big 12 is disadvantaged when compared to the other conferences in three ways. We do not have at least twelve members, we do not have a conference network, and we do not have a championship game. I think that all three of these disadvantages need to be addressed at the same time. Addressing only one without addressing all three will not be adequate to improve the strength of the conference,"
Starting a conference network in the near future seems like a very tall order. The Longhorn Network is likely a massive barrier (Texas would not be willing to take a TV paycut for the good of the league), and with changes in the TV landscape, it's not even certain if starting one now would be a good idea for the league. The Big 12's current membership and demographics could make a TV network, at least one as a peer to the Big Ten Network or SEC Network, difficult as well. Still, the fact that such a powerful voice in the conference is saying, in public, is not for nothing. It isn't clear if other Presidents think a network would need to be addressed at the same time as potential expansion.
The other issue is that West Virginia still needs a travel partner, and they've expressed a desire for another program a little closer to Morgantown to be added. WVU is the only school in the Eastern time zone in the Big 12, and is would be shocking if the conference expanded and didn't add at least one program in that neighborhood. It's one of the reasons why many, including myself, think Cincinnati is the clubhouse leader for a spot, should one ever open up. But that doesn't mean that both spots would need to be in the East.
The final potential reason for expansion, would be for the sake of stability. As the major TV deals come to a close in the next decade, the Big 12 could try to be proactive, adding other programs if they think it would make it less likely for Oklahoma, Texas, or even Kansas, to bolt. That's a ways away though. For what it's worth, the Big 12's current TV deal runs though 2024-2025. The ACC's is until 2026-2027.
So BYU probably isn't getting a P5 invite in the near future. How big a deal is this?
In my personal opinion, I think the status quo is probably fine for the duration of BYU's ESPN contract. The lack of defined playoff access in the near future is, in my opinion, academic, since BYU won't be in competition for a playoff spot anyway. If we're being honest, they probably won't seriously compete for a New Year's Six bowl game over the next few seasons either. But they do have very good schedules through 2019, including home games with multiple big name programs.
If the team is able to improve their recruiting and remain a bowl program as they transition into a new coaching staff, I think they'll be "fine". They'll get exposure, they'll compete with, and potentially beat good teams, they'll be on TV, and they can challenge for Top 25 spots.
The ESPN deal runs through the end of the 2018 season (or 2019 season, if ESPN picks up their option). After that, who knows what happens? ESPN could offer BYU another, more lucrative deal, to buy them more time. Another bidder could jump in and offer more money. The TV sports bubble could pop, driving revenues down everywhere. The playoff could change. Who knows?
I do believe that long term, if BYU wants to compete at a high level, they'll need to get into a P5 conference before the financial gap becomes just too vast for them to recruit players or coaches at a quality clip. But I think they can probably still compete for big wins and Top 25 bids for the next three-ish years. After that, it's just too hard to say.