Yesterday, I broke down why I felt the Big 12 should probably expand soon, even if said expansion wouldn't vault them into financial parity with the Big Ten or SEC. In fact, it's possible that such expansion could theoretically even cost a few programs in the short term.
But the Big 12's ability to profit from expansion depends quite a bit on which teams they actually invite. After breaking everything down, I think there are two programs that stand out....Cincinnati and BYU. Here's why, including why the other candidates aren't the best fits.
The case for Cincinnati:
Cincinnati could be a boon for recruiting
There's been a lot of attention given to the Big 12's financial gap compared to the Big Ten or SEC, but perhaps an even more important one, at least as far as on the field performance is concerned, is with recruiting. Thanks to Texas struggling over the last few years, and with Texas A&M and other SEC programs finding more success recruiting in the state of Texas, While the bleeding was stemmed a little last year, it wasn't that long ago that some openly wondered if the conference was in the middle of a recruiting crisis.
At any rate, as competition for Texas players becomes more competitive, it would certainly benefit the league to find other possible talent pipelines. And one of the best, and perhaps most untapped, is in Cincinnati.
While it lags a bit behind the powerhouse states of Florida, Texas and California, Ohio is still an outstanding state for producing D1 football talent. While Ohio State, Notre Dame and the Michigan programs typically keep the very best players from going too far from home, there are dozens and dozens of Power-Five caliber athletes in the state every season. And many of the very best programs in the state are near Cincinnati.
Right now, the Big 12 hasn't been able to take advantage of that too much. Big 12 schools signed four players in Ohio's top 50 in 2016 (West Virginia got three, Iowa State added one). Kentucky signed eight, while other Big Ten and out of state programs picked up others.
In 2015, the Big 12 signed three players in Ohio's top 50, all by West Virginia. Kentucky signed five. Cincinnati added two. While it's still early in 2017, there isn't a Big 12 commit from Ohio yet. Kentucky has seven, including multiple in the top twenty.
Grabbing the most elite players out of Ohio, even if they're from Cincinnati, is going to be a tall order for most Big 12 programs, but there are dozens and dozens of very good players in the Buckeye state, players that could play Big 12 football, that won't go to those top programs. Many of these recruits would be some of the most well regarded recruits at places like Kansas, Iowa State, or Texas Tech. Right now, a lot of them are going to Kentucky.
Sure, Kentucky is close to Ohio, especially southern Ohio, and sure, Kentucky's staff has a lot of Ohio ties. But given the opportunity to tell recruits that they could get a few games closer to home, play in the Big 12, and have a stronger chance at competing for a better bowl game, why couldn't some of those kids end up in the Big 12?
By adding Cincinnati, and by Big 12 programs reconfiguring their staff to find those with ties to Ohio, there's no reason why Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia or Iowa State can't use Cincinnati as a toehold into important recruiting territory. Improving the overall talent level and depth of the other half of the conference helps everybody, and there's no reason Big 12 programs can't ship away from the kids that Kentucky or other out of state programs are grabbing in that 15-50 prospect range.
Cincinnati adds a travel partner for West Virginia
If the Big 12 could have a do-over, maybe they don't add West Virginia again, but the Mountaineers are part of the conference now, and the league should make an effort to help them become more successful. Right now, WVU is the only institution in the eastern time zone, and sits a good 860 miles away from their nearest neighbor. By adding Cincinnati, they can tell recruits that at least one of their conference opponents is only a day's drive away, and will make travel for all sports much easier. And West Virginia's administration would certainly like a travel partner.
Plus, these two programs have a history, as members of the Big East. The two teams played regularly in the 2000s and throughout the 1980s, and it isn't hard to see how this would become an important conference game in the future. WVU owns a 16-3-1 record in the series though, so Cincinnati would have a ways to catch up.
Cincinnati is good at the important sports
If you can't make hundreds of millions of dollars just based on TV rights, you can still make money by being a consistently good athletic department. The Bearcats have made a bowl game in nine out of the last ten years, most famously earning a BCS Sugar Bowl bid in the 2009 season. They've finished the season in the AP Top 25 four times in the last decade, which is more than Texas Tech or Kansas State, and only one less time than West Virginia. Sure, that was all against a lower quality of competition, but it speaks to a baseline level of competence that is still impressive, given the number of coaching changes Cincinnati has had to make.
The Bearcats also have a quality basketball history, They've made six NCAA Tournaments in a row, They've cracked the AP Top 25 five times in the last six years, finishing there once. After their long run of success under current WVU head coach Bob Huggins, they established themselves as a basketball school, with strong fan support. Based on historical trends, the Bearcats should easily be able to draw at least 9,000 fans a night with a Big 12 schedule, if not more, which would be comparable to other conference opponents.
Oh yeah, there's that whole TV and money thing
If this is something that is important to you, hypothetical Big 12 administrator, Cincinnati is currently the 34th largest US TV market. That's larger than Oklahoma City, Austin, San Antonio, and sits juuuuust behind Kansas City. Cincinnati is also an urban campus that is *actually in* Cincinnati. Also, after UConn, it has the largest athletic department in the G5, with over $52M in revenue.
The case for BYU:
BYU is good at sports
BYU's men's basketball program has made the NCAA's eight out of the last ten years. They've finished in the AP Top 25 three times, had a National Player of the Year, and has been a regular in the upper half of the RPI for the last two decades. They might not have made many deep March runs, but by every other metric, this has been a consistently good program.
BYU football has made bowl games 11 years in a row. They've cracked the AP Top 25 seven times during that stretch, finishing there four times, and have knocked off power programs like Texas, Oklahoma and UCLA. The Cougars have regularly been around the top 40 of F/+, and have recruited among the best of any non P5 program. While an adjustment period would likely be needed, just like with most schools jumping up a weight class in realignment, there isn't a reason to think the Cougars couldn't be successful against programs like Texas Tech, or Kansas State, on a regular basis.
But BYU isn't just good at those sports. They're good at a lot of sports! Last year, BYU finished 48th in the Director's Cup, which tracks athletic success across all sports. That's better than Kansas State (92nd), Kansas (71), West Virginia (62) and just behind Iowa State (45). In 2013-2014, BYU finished (42), again besting Kansas (55), Texas Tech (59), West Virginia (69), TCU (77) and Kansas State (99). Almost across the board, BYU should, at very least, be competitive within the Big 12's average program.
BYU's fanbase is large, active, and will absolutely go to games
I've been a bit of a skeptic on the concept of BYU as a truly "national" brand, as far as TV is concerned (I think very, very few of those actually exist). But when it comes to attendance, BYU's national draw is beyond dispute. No matter where you play, Cougar fans are going to show up from near and far to go to the game. In an era where many programs, even high profile ones, are struggling to sell tickets, this is not a small thing.
This is helped because unlike many other Big 12 schools, BYU's appeal extends beyond their immediate state borders.BYU alumni live all over the current Big 12 footprint, much more so than any other possible candidate. The school's connection to the LDS church also makes it easy to grab fans from all over the country. For SBNation.com, we've already written about BYU's ability to take over visiting stadiums (even very far from Utah), and boost attendance.
So many of the other programs listed as possible Big 12 expansion candidates are more about fanbase potential, newer programs that hope to eventually grow into their media markets. BYU's fanbase is already there.
Possible objections to this plan
Well, what about UConn?
The other school that is commonly referenced in hypothetical Big 12 expansion plans is UConn. The Huskies boast championship caliber mens and women's basketball programs, and sit near the biggest TV market in the country, the coveted New York market. When you add in the fact that they're also an eastern time zone program with shared history with WVU, it's easy to see the appeal. After all, the Big Ten was able to add Rutgers, and it helped them become even more massively profitable.
The problem is, the Big Ten and the Big 12's situations aren't that comparable. Prior to adding Rutgers, the Big Ten already had somewhat of a presence in New York, by virtue of its massive alumni and national brand presence. Thousands of Big Ten grads and midwestern transplants have already set up shop in New York. Without the start of that footprint, adding an uncompetitive football program in the market wouldn't have been nearly as profitable. The Big Ten already had a foundation, and a successful TV network. They needed a push.
The Big 12 doesn't have that. According to LinkedIn data, Penn State has more alumni in the New York metro area than the entire Big 12 does combined (Penn State's 25,109 to the Big 12's 21,894). Most of the Big 12 schools are regional in composition. When you add in the fact that UConn's campus isn't even in the New York TV Market, and that the Big 12 doesn't even have a dang network, the idea that UConn would be able to deliver similar windfall profits falters.
Then you're just looking at UConn on the athletic merits alone. The Huskies boast excellent basketball, but football, outside of one fluke Big East year when they backed into the Fiesta Bowl, has been mediocre-to-bad since rejoining FBS. Considering their geography and infrastructure, even with additional Big 12 money, it's hard to see how they'd be competitive with even the middle part of the conference in the near future. Plus, if you care about distance, Storrs to Lubbock is 1,947 miles. That's even farther than Morgantown to Provo.
What about UCF, USF, Tulane, etc
A similar argument can be made about virtually every other candidate. The other programs are either commuter colleges in major markets that haven't had their football infrastructure or fan support catch up, they're either bad at football, basketball, or both. The only real appeal is on potential, and the hope that a hypothetical TV network could ride their population market to financial success. Given the makeup of the Big 12 (and the fact that a network at all is unlikely)...that's not a smart bet.
BYU is too far away from West Virginia
Provo is very far from Morgantown, that's true (1,928 miles). That's a heck of a trip! But virtually every other major conference has massive distances between the two points. Boston College to Miami (FL) is 1,587 miles. Washington to Arizona is about 1,600 miles. Rutgers to Nebraska is around 1,300. So the Big 12 would have the biggest trip, but it isn't necessarily leaps and bounds larger than others. It's not ideal, but folks at WVU or Cincinnati are going to be flying a lot anyway. An extra hour shouldn't be a deal breaker. Plus, UConn to Lubbock is farther.
BYU is too hard to deal with/Sunday Play, etc
Yes, BYU's refusal to play on Sundays does complicate matters. But Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman took a closer look at this, and showed that this certainly wouldn't be impossible. It's not like the Big 12 plays a ton of huge games on Sundays anyway. It's hard to see a conference turning down a possible candidate over baseball and tennis scheduling concerns, after all.
I have never been able to nail down exactly why or how the "BYU is hard to deal with" narrative started, but I've heard it from enough other journalists and administrators to think there's some smoke to it. My best guess is that BYU was less flexible during previous discussions with the Big 12, but the college football playoff, experience as an independent, a new administration and a sense of urgency has humbled the program a bit. If they weren't prepared to make sacrifices to get into a conference, I don't think Bronco Mendenhall or Tom Holmoe would have been so public about their goal to get into a conference.
I don't know IF the Big 12 will actually expand. I don't know if the conference really had a great, 100% foolproof option right now either, as the failure to take proactive steps over the last several years has put the league in a more difficult spot. But I do believe that the best option, for everybody, would be to secure BYU and Cincinnati. Over the run of this TV deal, it will improve the conference's depth, stability, competitiveness, and move headlines back to the on the field product.
After that, who knows? But for now, let's finally close the book on this storyline, add the Bearcats and the Cougars, and move on.
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