Get ready, Big 12 fans: Expansion is coming. And if it doesn't, the conference may not survive.
Last week, Oklahoma president David Boren publicly proclaimed what most of us have known for some time. In the wake of losing Nebraska to the Big Ten and Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, the Big 12 has become, as Boren put it, “psychologically disadvantaged.”
Of course, Boren’s “OU’s not going to be a wallflower” remark four years ago, which prompted Mizzou to bail on the Big 12 salvage operation, contributed to said psychological disadvantage. But that’s another story.
The issue at hand is whether the Big 12 can survive in the long-term with 10. The tea leaves suggest it can’t (more on why later). But that doesn’t mean the conference needs to act rashly, either.
Sure, the Big 12 seems not only to be operating at a psychological disadvantage, but a tangible one, too. The playoff committee said as much when it noted in April that a 13th game and conference championship, neither of which the Big 12 has, carries weight in playoff deliberations. After this revelation (which shouldn’t have been a revelation at all) Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby used the phrase himself: “We're at a disadvantage.”
The Big 12 can survive in the interim, despite the disadvantage. After all, Baylor would’ve made the playoff last year had Ohio State’s Cardale Jones not morphed into the greatest third-string quarterback in college football history. TCU would’ve made it, too, if it weren't for Florida State's nine lives.
Ultimately, though, the Big 12’s chances of long-term survival are slim sans expansion. In 10 years, the Big 12’s so-called “ironclad” granting of TV rights agreements will be up -- about the same time the College Football Playoff contract will be up, too. The closer those granting of rights contracts come to ending (assuming they’re even as ironclad as some suggest) the easier they will be to negotiate out of. Such a climate will make the landscape ripe for another seismic conference realignment shift, at which point other commissioners will be circling Big 12 programs like a shiver of sharks, just waiting to pick schools off to form their inevitable superconferences.
To avoid being picked apart, the Big 12 will have to act pre-emptively. A novel concept for this league, yet a necessary one.
Boren revealed last week that the previously given deterrent to expansion is really not a deterrent at all. The Big 12's TV contract calls for pro-rata increases with expansion. In other words, the conference’s members won't be losing TV money, as they've stated before, with expansion.
The Big 12, however, has one luxury at its disposal: time. The granting of rights slowed the realignment wheel enough for the Big 12 to meticulously weigh its expansion options.
Ten years ago, TCU didn’t have the look of a viable Big 12 expansion candidate. It ranked 74th in attendance, well behind the likes of Memphis, Fresno State and East Carolina. But behind a visionary leadership from its chancellors, athletic directors and coach Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs forced Big 12 inclusion.
Today, the Big 12’s expansion options don’t look so hot. But five years from now, who knows?
Colorado State is building a $200 million stadium. Memphis will soon be adding new football and basketball facilities. Houston hired one of the budding stars in coaching in Tom Herman.
If the Big 12 expanded now, its options would be limited. By holding off, it can wait to see if another TCU develops. Or, in a home-run scenario, a rift could develop in another Power 5 conference. (It’s happened before; just ask Dan Beebe.)
Boren rightfully is frustrated with the trajectory of the league. But he holds the trump card to force the expansion issue. The Oklahoma brand will always have a home in another conference. Not everyone else in the league can claim the same.
Several Big 12 leaders have pushed back on expansion in the past. But the dissenters will come to realize what Boren already does: the Big 12's survival eventually will hinge on expansion. A 10-team conference isn’t just psychologically disadvantaged or competitively disadvantaged, it’s sustainably disadvantaged, too.
As Boren pointed out, Big 12 expansion should no longer be considered a matter of if but when.