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The 8 Best Candidates For Big 12 Expansion

After an initial report that Big 12 expansion had been tabled, it appears that the league will, in fact, begin looking at schools to add.

">July 19, 2016

While poaching a member school from one of the other four 'Power Five' leagues is unlikely, there are plenty of other 'Group of Five' programs that would probably leap at the chance to join up with Texas, Oklahoma, and the rest of the conference. However, there is no obvious choice. Every candidate school that is normally discussed for the Big 12 has serious cons to go with the pros, whether they deal with geography, football competitiveness, or market size.

Even so, it sounds like Big 12 expansion is probably inevitable at this point, which means we'll hear a ton about the schools as they start to lobby for those spots. Here are the eight schools that would be the best choices for the Big 12.

Next: No. 8 ??? >>>

8. Boise State

The case for the Broncos:

No team on this list has the football resume of Boise State. The Broncos have survived coaching changes and lower level realignment, and have been consistently great, and at times, outright dominant. While we don't expect Boise to win 10 games a year in the Big 12, all indications are that the team would be competitive. Football success has spread to other sports as well. Boise State men's basketball has improved in recent years, making the NCAA Tournament in 2013 and 2015. With the blue turf, and exciting BCS/New Year's Six bowl wins under its belt, Boise State has built a really strong college football brand. The Broncos would certainly make a splash, if they were one of the choices.

The case against the Broncos:

The biggest problem for Boise State is Boise. The Idaho capital has a population of just over 200,000, and is only the 112th-ranked television market in the country. While the Big 12 is largely comprised of smaller college towns, the conference has dragged its feat in expansion after being poached by the Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC, and would likely want a bit more of a value add if it increases membership. Idaho is not exactly a huge recruiting hotbed either. The Big 12 has shown that location is not the be-all and end-all with the addition of West Virginia, which is far removed from the rest of the conference, but adding Boise State adds another school on an island, and one that does nothing to bridge the gap between WVU and the rest of the league.

On the field, adding Boise State is a winner, and if that's the main focus here the Big 12 could conceivably buck conference realignment trends. Virtually everything else is working against BSU, however, and that makes it hard to envision a scenario where it is one of the choices.

Next: No. 7 ??? >>>

7. Connecticut

The case for the Huskies:

While Boise State and UConn are about as different as two schools and athletic departments can be, their candidacies for Big 12 expansion actually mirror one another in a way. Both athletic departments have fantastic individual programs. Boise State has the definite edge in football, though UConn has previously been a power conference team, and once made a BCS bowl. If the result of that game is a factor, the Huskies may have Oklahoma's vote. UConn's calling card, of course, is basketball. The men's program has been one of the most successful of the last 20 years, with four national titles since 1999. The women's team is unmatched in the sport, and single-handedly moves the needle for the sport on a national level. The Big 12 is a football-focused conference, but it also plays some very good hoops, and any league would be improved by adding the Huskies. UConn has a few advantages over Boise State as well. While the Huskies aren't exactly driving distance from Texas, they do serve as a passable travel partner for West Virginia, their former Big East league mate, and UConn is somewhat close to Boston and New York City, for whatever that's worth. The Hartford-New Haven market is also solid, ranking 30th nationally.

The case against the Huskies:

A football school, UConn is not. Randy Edsall did a great job of building the Huskies into a competitive squad in the Big East, but the year they went to the Fiesta Bowl, they emerged from a three-way tie at the top of the middling league at 8-5, with a 5-2 record in conference play. The difference between the top of the Big 12 and the 2010 Big East showed in that game, a 48-20 Oklahoma win that wasn't even as close as that 28-point margin. UConn is also not as useful in solving the West Virginia issues as some of the other schools coming up. While the two schools are only a few hundred miles apart, UConn is 1,383 miles from the next closest Big 12 member, Kansas. UConn's fan base is also not all that enthused about football. While football appears to be on the rise again under Bob Diaco after bottoming out during the Paul Pasqualoni years, the program isn't exactly packing Rentschler Field on a weekly basis.

If basketball is a bigger factor than we anticipate, or the Big 12 wants to jump in on the race to lay claim to New York City against the ACC and Big Ten, UConn has an edge on everyone else. If it is about football and expanding the league's footprint in proven college football areas, UConn is seriously lacking.

Next: No. 6 ??? >>>

6. Memphis

The case for the Tigers:

Memphis' 2015 season could not have gone much better for a school looking to make the jump up from the AAC to the Big 12. The Tigers, a historically weak program, went 9-4, including a shocking 37-24 beat down of SEC West power Ole Miss, one of the country's most talented teams. This came off of a great 10-3 2014 campaign, and led to Justin Fuente getting the head coaching job at Virginia Tech and quarterback Paxton Lynch being drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos. Memphis football has never been as hot as it is right now. The basketball program, while an underachiever in recent seasons under Josh Pastner, has a history of success, and made a nice hire, bringing in Tubby Smith, after Pastner jumped shipped to Georgia Tech. The Tigers are in a decent media market, ranked No. 48 in the country, and would help the league spread the footprint East a bit, without making too huge a jump. Memphis is under 500 miles from the two Oklahoma schools. The Tigers are also never shy when it comes to realignment. When this process starts to really heat up, Memphis will be out there marketing itself as much as any other school.

The case against the Tigers:

Memphis runs the risk of being a serious flash in the pan program, especially with Fuente gone. While the hiring of Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell is a nice one on paper, there is no guarantee that he will keep the momentum going, and the Big 12 doesn't need to add a program that can't be competitive on a regular basis. Expansion into the Southeast is nice, but Tennessee is one of the weaker states in the area at producing football talent. Per 247Sports, the state currently has seven total blue chip recruits in the 2017 recruiting class. Georgia has 33. It is also very doubtful that Memphis eats into the state's college football consciousness much, with Tennessee gradually improving under Butch Jones. 

If Memphis could guarantee that it continues to play at its 2014-15 level, the Tigers would be a very strong addition. Unfortunately, it is pretty impossible to predict based on Memphis' program to this point.

Next: No. 5 ??? >>>

5. South Florida

The case for the Bulls:

Florida already has three power conference programs, but the state is one of the most talent-rich in the nation, and is picked over by so many other programs that there's a decent chance it can support a fourth. USF is one of two options connected to the Big 12, and it has some history as a power conference program. The former Big East member got off to a pretty hot start early in its tenure as an FBS program. After moving up from the FCS in 2002, USF joined the Big East in 2005, and from 2006-2010, it won eight or nine games every year. In 2007, USF topped out, reaching the No. 2 ranking in the country at mid-season. Adding a Florida program that can potentially be competitive, opening that area up for further Big 12 recruiting, has to be extremely attractive.

The case against the Bulls:

How much value does the Big 12 put on Florida, and which Florida school does the league prefer? Spoiler alert: UCF is coming up in this article, and while USF has a bit more of a power conference pedigree, and isn't coming off of a disastrous season, overall they may have less forward momentum as a school and athletic department than the Knights. While USF's 8-5 2015 season is definitely an important step forward, it followed four losing seasons, including a 6-18 start to the Willie Taggart era that had him��on a very hot seat. Regression in 2016 could return him there. USF also plays in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raymond-James Stadium, which holds 66,000 fans, and maxed out at just over 30,000 fans for the opener against Florida A&M. Average home attendance for the Bulls was under 27,000 per game, despite a bounce back season for the program.

If Florida is the move for the Big 12, USF has a good shot. We're too far out to really know what the conference's preferences are yet, and USF hasn't been a very hot name based on what has been floated out there so far.

Next: No. 4 ??? >>>

4. Houston

The case for the Cougars:

The hope here is that the Cougs would bring the city of Houston, one of the biggest in the nation and the No. 10 media market, into the Big 12 in a meaningful way. Obviously, with Texas and the rest of the state's schools, the league has a presence there, but Texas A&M's departure definitely hurts in that area. Houston is peaking at the perfect time for expansion as well. Tom Herman stepped in and immediately made an impact on a national level, keeping blue chip recruits from the city home, and going 13-1 in 2015, with a decisive Peach Bowl win over ACC power Florida State. Houston looked every bit like one of the 10 best programs in all of college football last season, and should only get better, as long as the team can hold on to Herman, who immediately became coaching's hottest commodity. A Big 12 invite would make leaving far more difficult for him.

The case against the Cougars:

Really, the only knock here is the fact that Houston would give the Big 12 a fifth Texas school. Football-wise, there's a chance that Herman leaves soon, with the situations at Texas and Texas A&M looking a bit precarious at the moment, and Houston could slip back to the pack, though the Cougars will probably be better off than where he found them.

For short term football benefits, this addition would be pretty seamless. It doesn't do a ton to expand the conference to new areas, and Houston probably wouldn't bring the same hype as a Boise State, but few could argue against this as a rock solid addition.

Next: No. 3 ??? >>>

3. Cincinnati

The case for the Bearcats:

Cincinnati moved up to the Big East from Conference USA ahead of the 2005 season, and all the program has done since is win, and make great coaching moves. The team's last four coaches: Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly, Butch Jones, and now Tommy Tuberville, all men who have coached or went on to coach some of the best programs in college football. If there is a true "cradle of coaches," it may be Cincinnati. The wins have come as well. Since 2005, Cincy has averaged over 8.5 wins, with just two losing seasons. The team peaked under Kelly, averaging 11 wins a year from 2007-2009 before he jumped to Notre Dame. Cincinnati isn't the flashiest brand, but it plays a fun style of football, and is a consistent program. Cincinnati is also a good pair for West Virginia. The school is just over 300 miles from Morgantown, and a manageable 630 from Kansas. Ohio is dominated by the Buckeyes, but it is the most fertile recruiting ground in the Midwest. The Bearcats basketball program has been similarly consistent under Mick Cronin, making six straight NCAA Tournaments in the Big East and AAC. 

The case against the Bearcats:

Ultimately, how much of a splash does the Big 12 aim to make? Cincinnati makes a ton of sense, but grabbing Boise State or Houston, which has had a monster season more recently, may be a bit more flashy. The school is investing in football, and renovating Nippert Stadium, but at 40,000 seats, it would be among the smallest in the conference. 

The Bearcats are also in a pro town, with the Bengals and Reds the major sports focuses, which could mitigate the impact of adding the 34th major media market.

Cincinnati is not our favorite fit for the Big 12, but it may be the safest one available. Expect the Bearcats to be very strong contenders here.

Next: No. 2 ??? >>>

2. Central Florida

The case for the Knights:

If you're going to have a winless season, do it the way UCF did. The Knights went 9-4 in 2014, a solid showing after an excellent 2013 campaign which ended in a monumental Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. 2015 was a disaster, but George O'Leary stepped down midway through the campaign, allowing UCF to hire Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who has gotten off to a hot recruiting start. If Frost can successfully implement the Ducks' offense in Florida, it could be something special, and people will forget all about 2015. Frost's decision to take the UCF job helps drive home the school's status as a sleeping giant. Not only is it in a recruiting hotbed with almost limitless talent to draw from, but the school itself is one of the biggest in the nation, giving it a huge natural fan base. UCF and USF have many of the same advantages, and both are located in top 20 media markets. The Knights just seem to have a bit more upside.

The case against the Knights:

Like USF, this is all for naught if the Big 12 doesn't care about adding Florida to its conference footprint. The 0-12 season is also a concern, especially if Frost can't turn the program around quickly enough, though these decisions obviously aren't made based one on year of results. Also like USF, getting fans out has been a bit of a struggle in down seasons, though UCF did a decent job of coming close to filling 45,000 seat Bright House Networks Stadium in better years. 

UCF is an incredibly high-upside buy, and gets the Big 12 involved in Florida, even if it is running third in the state behind the SEC and ACC. Without knowing the conference members' preferences, it is hard to know how likely this is, but to us it makes a lot of sense.

Next: No. 1 ??? >>>

1. BYU

The case for the Cougars:

BYU is one of the most unique programs in the country. The team has been competitive with a power conference-like schedule as an independent for a few seasons now, including games against Big 12 competition. Just ask Texas about the Cougars. The program hasn't had a losing season since 2004, and went 43-22 as an independent under Bronco Mendenhall from 2011-2015. BYU is fairly close to the rest of the Big 12, and add an underrated market in Salt Lake City (33rd). More importantly, BYU has a national following thanks to its association with the Mormon church. BYU played in the Mountain West for over a decade, and the WAC for years before that, so with the right fit, the Cougars probably wouldn't oppose conference affiliation, especially with the scheduling difficulties that independent status brings. As conferences expand, filling out a full schedule may continue to get more difficult for the Cougars.

The case against the Cougars:

Like some of the other teams on this list, BYU is also going through a coaching change, which brings some hesitation. Unlike many of these other teams, Kalani Sitake is taking over a program that has been consistently competitive for virtually its entire existence. However, things can change drastically for a college football program, and bigger teams than BYU have seen their fortunes change overnight. BYU, like Texas, has its own TV Network, which could cause issues with the rest of the league. The Longhorn Network has become a major issue for the rest of the Big 12, and BYUtv likely wouldn't be much more popular, though the school may be less resistant to changing its situation than the Longhorns. 

BYU is an established program, the geography makes sense, and the Cougars have been connected to the Big 12 more than any other program as a possible candidate in recent years. No fit is perfect, but the Cougars seem to check off just about every box. Plus, if you bring in Memphis along with them, instant rivalry!

Next: Wild Cards >>>

Wild Card Candidates:

Colorado State:

The league lost Colorado to the Pac-12. It could get back into the state by adding the Buffaloes arch-rival, Colorado State. The program has invested in its program recently, and has started to put together some solid seasons. Under Jim McElwain, the team topped out at 10-3 in 2014, and now has former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo at the helm. The team only drew over 30,000 fans one time at home in 2015, and ultimately, it just isn't as good an option on or off the field as many of these others.

East Carolina: 

ECU has somewhat quietly become a consistently strong G5 program, to the point where it fired very successful head coach Ruffin McNeill after one down season. Under McNeill and Skip Holtz, ECU won between eight and 10 games six times between 2007-2014. The addition would add a team fairly close to West Virginia, and get the Big 12 into the Carolinas. The team also has a pretty strong fan base for a small school, averaging over 43,000 fans in a down season last fall.