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Ranking the Big 12 Expansion Candidates

BYU Cougars

BYU Cougars

The Big 12 could be expanding by two or four teams in the near future, as the conference’s board of directors on Tuesday authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to evaluate and gather information on programs interested in joining the league. The timeline for expansion is expected to move fast, as the new programs could join the Big 12 in time for the 2017 season. While expansion isn’t guaranteed, all signs point to the Big 12 growing in the next year or two.

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As with any league looking to expand, wins and overall success aren't necessarily the only things that matter when conferences evaluate perspective candidates. During Tuesday’s meeting with the media, Oklahoma president David Boren outlined the factors that the Big 12 would consider when evaluating potential expansion candidates: strength of the overall athletic department, fan base, media markets, academic and research standards, and reputation of the program.

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

Which teams should be at the top of the Big 12’s expansion list? BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and UConn are just a few of the front-runners, with Memphis and Boise State also in the mix. Athlon Sports ranks the top 10 candidates for Big 12 expansion:

Ranking the Big 12 Expansion Candidates

1. Cincinnati

Pros: Solid all-around athletic department and the potential to tap into a fertile recruiting area in Ohio. Cincinnati also is willing to invest in its facilities, as the program recently renovated Nippert Stadium. There’s the Cincinnati media market to tap into, and the program would provide an eastern partner for West Virginia. On the field, the Bearcats have only one losing season since 2006.

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Cons: Not much. It’s fair to wonder how much of the Cincinnati market the Bearcats could capture, but more exposure and better teams in the Big 12 certainly helps. The Bearcats have made no secret of their interest in the Big 12, but one of the key players in the pitch – former president Santa Ono – departed the school for the University of British Columbia.

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2. BYU

Pros: A national fanbase and arguably the best job not currently in a Power 5 conference. BYU had the highest cumulative attendance of any program outside of Notre Dame and the Power 5 teams in 2015. The Cougars could join as a football-only member, eliminating some of the logistical issues of not playing on Sundays. Success on the gridiron is nothing new to this program and BYU would be competitive right away in the Big 12. The Cougars have only four losing seasons since 1972.

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Cons: If BYU is invited, how much of a logistical challenge would this present the conference for its sports that play on Sundays? If the Big 12 invites BYU as a football-only member, would the league’s No. 12 team be a football-only member as well to prevent 11 basketball programs? Is the Big 12 more interested in expanding east to bridge the gap to West Virginia?

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3. Houston

Pros: The Big 12 doesn’t need to overthink this one: Houston is a program on the rise and more than capable of holding its own in the Big 12. There’s also a new stadium and other improved facilities on the way. The city of Houston is the fourth largest in the United States, which also presents an opportunity to tap into a huge television market. Adding Houston could help the Big 12 strengthen its recruiting area within the city and state of Texas.

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Cons: Houston doesn’t add a new market to the Big 12. Instead, the program simply strengthens an area it already has a good chunk of in the state of Texas.

4. UConn

Pros: Adding UConn could help the Big 12 tap into the valuable media markets in the Northeast. The Huskies would provide a boost to the conference’s basketball product, and head coach Bob Diaco has the football program trending in the right direction. Academics – mentioned as a factor by the Big 12 in expansion – is a strength for UConn.

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Cons: UConn wouldn’t bring much in the way of a new recruiting area for Big 12 teams. While the Huskies are a solid program, they wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of the overall football product.

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5. Memphis

Pros: $$$. With support from FedEx, Memphis has corporate support on its side. The football product is improving, and the Tigers also have the potential for a strong basketball program. Memphis ranks as the No. 48 television market. The state of Tennessee isn’t Ohio, Florida or Texas but still brings a solid recruiting area. Adding Memphis also helps the conference bridge the gap to West Virginia.

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Cons: Justin Fuente helped Memphis take a step forward on the gridiron, but the Tigers have only six winning seasons since 1995. Facility improvements are needed.  

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6. UCF

Pros: UCF adds a new market and is a program with a lot of potential to grow in the coming years. Expanding into Florida with UCF or USF likely provides Big 12 teams with more access to a rich recruiting area. UCF also is among the nation’s largest in terms of overall enrollment. One other potential benefit: this program brings a good media market – No. 19 nationally.

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Cons: UCF averaged only 30,065 fans in 2015, which ranked seventh in the American Athletic Conference. The numbers weren’t much better for the Knights in 2014 either (37,812 per game). How much of the Orlando/Florida media market could UCF or the Big 12 capture with Florida, Florida State and Miami already entrenched?

7. South Florida

Pros: Similar to UCF, South Florida would add a valuable market. Tampa ranks as the No. 13 media market in the nation, and there’s a fertile recruiting area within USF’s backyard. There’s upside with this program, and head coach Willie Taggart has the Bulls moving in the right direction entering 2016. USF posted four consecutive losing seasons from 2011-14 but played in six consecutive bowl games from 2005-10.

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Cons: It may seem like a broken record, but let’s look at UCF’s cons here. How much of the Florida media market could South Florida actually capture? USF averaged only 26,578 fans per game in 2015 and does not have an on-campus stadium. 

8. Boise State

Pros: Could Boise State join as a football-only program? That could help the Big 12 solve its number balance if it invites BYU. The Broncos are the top Group of 5 program, winning at least eight games in every season since 1999. Boise State has finished as high as No. 4 nationally in the Associated Press poll and has three BCS/New Year’s Six Bowl victories. Competing in the Big 12 (and at a high level) wouldn’t be an issue for Boise State.

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Cons: Boise ranks outside of the top 100 television markets. The city would be a great travel destination for fans, but is the conference more focused on expanding east? 

9. Colorado State

Pros: Colorado State is set to open a new 40,000-seat stadium in 2017. Adding Colorado State gets the Big 12 back into Colorado (and potentially the Denver market) after the Buffaloes left for the Pac-12. The Rams have been a consistent winner in the Mountain West, playing in 10 bowl games since 1999 and posting three 10-win seasons in that span.

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Cons: Is expanding west the Big 12’s top priority? All signs seem to suggest a move east. Colorado State has been a consistent winner in the Mountain West, but the Rams haven’t finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press poll since 2000. How much of the Denver market could Colorado State really capture? 

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2016

10. Tulane

Pros: Strong academics. Tulane also has location (New Orleans) on its side. The state of Louisiana is a fertile recruiting area – could the Big 12 tap into that with the addition of Tulane? A new on-campus stadium should help this program grow in the future.

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Cons: Tulane wouldn’t add much to the program’s football product and would be overmatched right away. The Green Wave have only one bowl appearance since 2003 and has not finished in the final Associated Press poll since 1998.