Expansion in the Big 12 Conference is likely after Oklahoma and Texas announced their intentions to depart the league after the grant of rights expires following the 2024 football season. The departure of the Sooners and Longhorns to the SEC means the Big 12 is down to just eight teams – Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia – in the future. While the Big 12 could consider a merger or an alliance with the ACC or Pac-12, adding teams to the conference - assuming the league doesn't suffer any additional departures - should be a priority. While no program moves the needle in a significant way, Cincinnati, UCF, Boise State, BYU and Houston are all viable teams for the conference to add.
Which programs should the Big 12 consider for expansion to replace Oklahoma and Texas? Athlon Sports profiles 11 teams to watch:
Big 12 Expansion Candidates to Replace Texas and Oklahoma
Rumors about a move by Boise State to the American Athletic Conference floated around in 2020, but ended with no move by the program, perhaps due in large part to the inability to find a place to land its sports outside of football. But membership in the Big 12 could solve that problem, and the Broncos are capable of winning at a high level in the conference. Boise isn’t a huge television market but was considered the fastest-growing city in the United States from 2017-18.
The Bearcats should be near the top of the list for the Big 12. While 2021 outlook and projections don’t mean a ton to long-term realignment, Cincinnati has won consistently with 15 winning seasons since 2000 and appeared in 12 bowl games over the last 15 years. Also, the state of Ohio would be a new market and is fertile recruiting territory. Nippert Stadium underwent an $86 million renovation in 2014, and the program plans to bolster its facilities in the coming years. With a well-rounded athletic department and a football program capable of competing at a high level, Cincinnati wouldn’t require a transition period to a Power 5 conference.
The Rams haven’t finished in the top 25 since 2000, but the program has a relatively new stadium (opened in 2017), a solid athletic budget, and would provide a different market to the Big 12. Upside and the ability to grow should be two selling points for Colorado State to the Big 12.
BYU left the Mountain West for FBS Independence in 2011, but a spot in the Big 12 should be an appealing opportunity. The Cougars have a national fan base and can certainly add to the amount of eyeballs conference games would get on television. Competing right away wouldn’t be an issue for BYU, as this program has just four losing seasons since 1980. Would the Cougars also move their basketball program (currently in the West Coast Conference) to the Big 12? And if not, would that be a sticking point in discussions to join the league? The logistical challenges of not playing games on Sunday would be an issue for an all-sports arrangement, but not if BYU joins as a football-only member.
If the Big 12 wants to fortify its geographic reach, then Houston is a no-brainer pick. The Cougars don’t add a new market but would bring another winning program to the Big 12 from the state of Texas. Facilities are improving at Houston, as TDECU Stadium opened in 2014 and an indoor practice facility followed in ’17. The city of Houston is the fourth largest in the United States, which also presents an opportunity to tap into a huge television market or overall interest. Adding the Cougars could help create some entertaining in-state rivalries with TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor in conference play.
The Tigers have significantly improved their football program in recent years and would add a new market (Tennessee) to the Big 12. While the state of Tennessee doesn’t produce as much elite high school talent as Georgia, Texas, Louisiana or Florida, the cities of Memphis and Nashville could be new recruiting territory for the Big 12 to tap into. The Tigers recently opened a new indoor practice facility, but the team’s home stadium (Liberty Bowl) needs to be renovated. In 2016, corporate support from FedEx was pitched as a selling point for Memphis to join the Big 12. Could that be a factor once again in ’21?
San Diego State
The Aztecs are located in a great city and can pitch a fertile and new recruiting territory to the Big 12. Also, with the Chargers bolting to Los Angeles, the profile of San Diego State's football team should see its interest level on the rise in the city. And it certainly doesn't hurt the program will open a new stadium in 2022.
Similar to Houston, the Big 12 could fortify its territory in Texas by adding another member from the state. Under coach Sonny Dykes, SMU has launched a new effort to grow its brand and make inroads in the city of Dallas. Also, the program has been successful on the field with 17 victories over the last two years and is on the rise entering 2021.
The chance to add a new market (Louisiana) and a destination city (New Orleans) has to be appealing to the Big 12. Additionally, the state of Louisiana brings new (and very fertile) recruiting territory. Tulane is an excellent academic school and has improved its on-field product in recent years. However, the program has only seven winning seasons since 1982.
UCF checks off a couple of important boxes – new markets, fertile recruiting territory, and a successful football program. The Knights have won 10 or more games five times since 2012 and completed a perfect 13-0 mark in ’17. Also, UCF has a massive enrollment and a good media market (Orlando) to pitch to the Big 12. Capturing attention in Florida won’t be easy with Florida State, Miami and Florida as entrenched powers. However, UCF has to be one of – if not the No. 1 – most appealing expansion candidates.
Largely due to on-field success in recent years, UCF ranks ahead of USF in the pecking order for Big 12 expansion candidates. However, the Bulls also bring many of the same strengths to the table, including Florida recruiting, Tampa media market, and a program with upside. Since joining the FBS level in 2000, USF has played in 10 bowl games but only finished in the top 25 two times. The lack of an on-campus stadium is a drawback, but the program is building an indoor practice facility.
Podcast: Breaking Down CFB Realignment and Expansion + What's to Come