The conventional wisdom around Big 12 expansion, at least for the past several months, is that it comes down to money. League leaders were willing to roll the dice on whatever implications came from having a 10-team league, as expansion was unlikely to produce additional television revenue, and schools didn't want to further dilute their share. That's not an unreasonable opinion, to be honest.
But the general discussion surrounding the most recent Big 12 meetings seems to indicate a change in thinking. Data from the research firm the Big 12 contracted indicates that the conference would be 10-15% more likely to earn a playoff bid if they expand to 12 teams (and drop to eight conference games). Based on tweets from reporters, it would appear that competitive viability has been more of the driving force, rather than pure economics, over the last few days.
We can debate the validity of that thinking more later -- I'm pretty skeptical, personally -- but if the Big 12's thinking they should expand for the sake of playoff viability, then it stands to reason they should want to add the best football program possible. Luckily, there's some data to help us figure this out.
One method for evaluating a team is the Sagarin Rankings, which used to be a part of the old BCS computer rankings. These certainly aren't a perfect measurement, but they're perhaps the only one that calculates combined strength of both FBS and FCS competition in the same table. Based on the last four seasons, here are the Sagarin ratings for the teams commonly considered to be Big 12 expansion candidates:
|School Name||2015 Sagarin||2014 Sagarin||2013 Sagarin||2012 Sagarin||Average|
Obviously, there are some important caveats here. BYU, UCF, and Memphis will have new coaches next season. Every other program changes coaches during this time period. The Sagarin ratings aren't gospel either, but if they tell us anything, it's that BYU has been the most stable program over that window.
But that's just one tool, and a somewhat controversial one at that. Perhaps a more popular analytics tool would be the F/+ rankings. F/+ tracks and evaluates programs on a per-play basis, and is one of the most popular advanced analytics tools used today. It's something you've probably seen mentioned on other SB Nation blogs. Do the F/+ rankings differentiate wildly from the Sagarin ones? Not really. Here are the rankings:
|School Name||2015 F/+||2014 F/+||2013 F/+||2012 F/+||Average|
F/+ doesn't rank FCS programs, so it's not possible for a team to get a ranking worse than 128. So congrats, 2015 UCF, for recording the worst score possible. Not winning a single game will help you get there.
From a pure talent perspective, we can also take a closer look at the caliber of players each program is bringing in. An upgrade in league affiliation would almost certainly provide a bump in recruiting, but they're generally not enormous ones, and if programs don't improve, they don't stay forever. Here's a look at each program's last four recruiting classes, via the 247Sports Composite rankings.
|School Name||2016 Composite||2015 Composite||2014 Composite||2013 Composite||Average|
So by the mouth of two or three witnesses, the fact is confirmed: When it comes to football, BYU has been the most stable program over the last four years. By either metric, BYU has never fielded a below-average football program (ranking below 64). BYU hasn't just been able to avoid the pitfalls that come at the Group of 5 level with some bad luck.
Three of the top five single-season F/+ rankings came from BYU football teams as well. Plus, even with all of its challenges as a program, BYU is out-recruiting just about everybody on this list. With a new staff in place that many expect to place an even greater emphasis on recruiting, that isn't likely to change in the near future.
But let's look at this even more closely:
Why only four years? Why not five, or ten, or some other number?
It's a bit of an arbitrary number, sure. But with so many schools changing coaches, going too much into the past felt a little less useful. Going farther back wouldn't be likely to change the trend much, since most of the other programs had just as many terrible seasons as excellent ones over the last five years. Would the Larry Porter era at Memphis change your mind one way or the other?
Wait, Houston beat Florida State in a New Year's Six bowl last season. Why are they ranked so low?
Because, and I say this not to take anything away from Houston's awesome season last year, they got a bit lucky. Houston had better than expected luck with injuries, with turnovers, with end of game situations, and was closer to losing three or four games than just one. That's why the advanced stats were more skeptical of them. This season should tell us a little bit more about whether last year was an aberration, or more of a baseline, for a program that has not regularly been near that level.
If anything, the more historical marks should give a proponent of Houston a little bit of pause. Even if Tom Herman elevates the floor of this program due to exceptional coaching, what happens after he leaves? Does anybody expect him to stay more than three more years? This question should be asked of any possible candidate with a hot name coach.
What about Boise State?
I didn't include Boise State because there isn't any reason to believe they're actually being considered by the Big 12. Their metrics would compare very favorably to BYU's over this stretch though, if they actually were.
In your opinion, what do these stats actually tell us?
If your roster isn't loaded with blue chip athletes, and your athletic department isn't pulling in 80 million bucks a year, your margin for error is going to be lower. If you get unlucky with a few injuries, you're rolling out depth players that wouldn't play for most of your opponents. You get unlucky with a coaching hire, you plummet for a few seasons. If you're going to make a long-term commitment to a program, you'd want to see some stability.
There have been a few programs that have produced single seasons better than anything BYU has done in recent memory. The Cougars never made a BCS bowl, after all, and haven't been a regular fixture in the AP Top 25 for several years. But they haven't truly bottomed out either. Everybody else on this list has alternated between being potentially very good, and very bad.
And then there is UConn, which has basically been bad the entire time. Sorry, Huskies. You'll dunk on everybody in women's basketball, at least.
BYU, of course, is breaking in a new football coach. They're changing styles. They're facing difficult schedules. Past performance does not guarantee future results, etc.
These decisions are never just about football. Geography, academics, market size, and good ol' fashioned politics will all play a role, as they do in most decisions. But if the leaders of the Big 12 are signaling that the actual quality of the football program matters, then it's pretty clear. It's hard to think of a football metric that doesn't have BYU as one of the top, if not the top candidate.