On Tuesday, the Big 12 authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to start exploring expansion candidates.
Bowlsby and Oklahoma president and Big 12 board chairman David Boren said the factors the league would consider would include strength of football program, fan base, media market, reputation and academic standing.
Through that prism, here's how potential expansion candidates stack up:
NOTE: In each section, teams are listed in order of likeliness of being invited to join the league.
BYU: With the strongest football program of any "available" non-Power 5 program, the Cougars have been at the top of the list from the very beginning. Along with Houston, BYU topped an ESPN poll of the league's football coaches, presumably for that very reason. BYU has defeated Big 12 flagships Texas and Oklahoma in the past seven years, and dating back to 1980, only Nebraska, Florida State, Ohio State, Miami, Florida and the Sooners have won more games than BYU. Through the Mormon Church, the Cougars have a national following, with an average home attendance (58,000) that would've ranked fourth in the Big 12 last year. Though the campus is roughly 2,000 miles away from Big 12 member West Virginia, BYU would give the conference a presence in the Mountain Time Zone, creating interesting TV opportunities for the league, while, perhaps, bolstering the Big 12's revenue distribution potential down the line. BYU not playing on Sundays would create issues in Olympic sports scheduling, notably baseball, softball and women's soccer; that obstacle and the school's proximity to the rest of the league is why a football-only option could be on the table for the Cougars. That, however, is not preferable for the Big 12.
Cincinnati: For the reason BYU's geography's might work against it, Cincinnati's location is one of the school's biggest assets in Big 12 expansion. Whether the Big 12 chose to expand by two or four, Cincinnati could be logically paired with virtually any expansion candidate. West Virginia's leadership has been a proponent of Big 12 expansion, provided that through expansion the Mountaineers wind up with a travel partner, like Cincinnati, that makes sense. School president Santa Ono has been working furiously behind the scenes to get the school into the Big 12, though he'll be leaving for the University of British Columbia in August. Cincinnati recently renovated Nippert Stadium, plays in a top-40 TV market and has big businesses, notably Cincinnati-based Kroger and Macy's, behind its candidacy.
The other hopefuls
Houston: UH is all-in on Big 12 expansion, with both president Renu Khator and athletic director Hunter Yurachek issuing statements Wednesday touting the university. "I am thrilled to have this opportunity," Khator said, "to showcase the University of Houston." Billionaire and UH regents chairman Tilman Fertitta told ESPN Wednesday that, "We feel like we have a lot to offer." The Cougars have enjoyed a football resurgence at an opportune time, with Tom Herman delivering a 13-1 record last year. UH also has a massive enrollment and plays in the fourth-biggest city in the country. UH will be making the case that the SEC has begun to take over the city of Houston, and that only the Cougars can deliver it back to the Big 12.
Connecticut: The Huskies are situated among several major markets in the Northeast and could help the Big 12 find footing in the region, the way Rutgers opened up New York City to the Big Ten, which might help in future TV negotiations. The question is whether that, along with UConn's solid academics and terrific basketball programs, would outweigh the proximity problem and UConn's mediocre football.
UCF: Central Florida boasts the largest undergraduate enrollment in the country and operates out of the 19th-largest TV market. Those are both major positives. "There ought to be a home for us in the Big 12," UCF president John Hitt said Wednesday. There's a sense among some that UCF has tremendous upside and would thrive playing in a major conference, especially with so much in-state high school talent and an up-and-coming coach in Scott Frost. On the other hand, UCF has virtually no football tradition, going 0-12 last year. It's also difficult to envision the fans in Norman and Austin getting fired up to go watch the Sooners and Longhorns take on the Knights.
Memphis: FedEx has been dangling millions of advertising dollars in front of the Big 12 in exchange for a Memphis invite to the Big 12. On top of that, in a letter to West Virginia president Gordon Gee, Memphis president David Rudd said that the school's "partnership with FedEx would uniquely position [Memphis] to request only a portion of new revenue for several years until renegotiation of the conference media [rights] agreement occurs." In other words, Memphis, conceivably, would be willing to accept partial distribution of conference revenue all the way until 2024-25. That would be worth millions to current Big 12 members and should, at the least, command the league's attention.
Colorado State: If the Big 12 focuses west in expansion with BYU, Colorado State would make sense as a second (or fourth) school. CSU claims the Denver market and could re-expand (after Colorado's departure in 2011) the Big 12 footprint into Colorado in a way that doesn't create a logistical nightmare. Rams athletic director Joe Parker has close ties to the conference, having worked at Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Texas, which, as one Big 12 administrator pointed out, is a real advantage for CSU. The Rams are also building a $200 million on-campus stadium that would be ready by the time CSU would join the Big 12.
The long shots
Tulane: Conference chairman Boren noted that academic standing would be a component in expansion exploration. That makes Tulane, with its terrific academic profile, a true dark horse. The city of New Orleans could also entice the Big 12 from a market and recruiting point. If the Big 12 expanded by two, Tulane would probably have no chance, but if the league expanded by four, Tulane just might become a factor.
Boise State: Boise State has won 10 or more games 13 times since 1999, and the football appeal of the Broncos to the Big 12 fan bases would be stronger than most candidates out there. But would that alone capture the Big 12's attention? Boise doesn't have much else to offer.
USF: The Bulls picked an awfully bad time to have an academic fraud scandal. USF was already a long-shot candidate. This latest development could be a dagger to their candidacy.
UCLA: Former UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel caused a stir Wednesday when he said on Sirius XM College Sports that he wouldn't be surprised if the Bruins gave a move to the Big 12 serious thought. Before you ask why UCLA would consider leaving the comforts of the Pac-12 for the Big 12, remember this: Kansas State generated three times more Tier 3 revenue through K-StateHD.TV than UCLA received from the struggling Pac-12 Network. The Pac-12 grant of rights is up before the Big 12's, and as one industry insider put it, if Pac-12 commish Larry Scott can flirt with Texas and Oklahoma, what's stopping Bob Bowlsby from doing the same with the Bruins? Who knows -- UCLA could be tempted to make a brand-defining break from USC in the same vein of Texas A&M's SEC move away from Texas.