Just when you thought it was all over, the Big 12 has reversed course and pulled schools across the country back into the murky waters of college realignment. After going back and forth for months on the subject, commissioner Bob Bowlsby surprised many in the college athletics world at the league’s media days by saying the Big 12 is essentially opening its doors to new members.
There should be no shortage of schools that want to walk through those doors to join the Power Five club and Bowlsby’s phones are likely to be ringing off the hook over the next six to nine months. While the latest round of musical chairs won’t be quite as involved as in recent years, it nevertheless should make for a fascinating 2016.
But who should get in? Who shouldn’t stand a chance? Football independent BYU is frequently mentioned whenever conference realignment comes up and that is certainly the case once again with the Big 12 on the lookout. There’s a strong case to be made for the Cougars but like everyone else, they are no perfect candidate.
Three Reasons Why BYU Should Join the Big 12
1. The Cougars bring a national (and international) fan base
There’s going to be plenty of talk about market size and what states a team can deliver for a potential conference network but nobody is doubting that BYU is likely carrying around the biggest stick when it comes to the size of its fan base. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the school is owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but even beyond that, there’s a large following of people — in the state of Utah and elsewhere — who are fans of the Cougars. This is a passionate fan base that travels well and the fact that there are generally plenty of alumni in and around Big 12 cities should be seen as a big plus when it comes to potentially adding the school to the league. Plus football attendance and enrollment are both in line with the Big 12 average.
2. BYU is the closest to a “Power Five” program
When Big 12 board chairman and Oklahoma president David Boren was asked about what the conference will be looking for in candidates, the first thing he mentioned was the state of their athletic programs and how competitive they are. BYU ticks off most of the boxes in this category, as the Cougars are usually floating around the top 25 in football polls and have won plenty of big games over the years (not to mention having a national title in the trophy room) in the sport that really counts in all of this. Looking beyond football, the athletic budget is a good size, the university fields a successful men’s basketball team and there are several strong Olympic sports programs too. In short, the bar is set high.
3. BYU is the biggest brand
Let’s face it, the grant of rights that most of the big conferences have mean there are no Texas- or Oklahoma-level schools available for the Big 12 to poach. Heck, given most of the candidates available, there really aren’t a ton of Texas Tech- or Oklahoma State-level candidates either. Among the five to 10 schools the conference is really going to examine closely however, BYU owns the biggest and most recognizable brand.
Three Reasons Why BYU Shouldn’t Join the Big 12
1. Geography does the Cougars no favor
When the Big 12 added West Virginia, anybody with a map could see that the Mountaineers would be out on a geographical island when it came to travel. Going west to Utah doesn’t help things all that much and would stretch the league over a remarkable two-thirds of the country and three time zones. Things are somewhat more manageable in a football-only situation given travel is a bit more limited, but being 1,000 miles from the conference home base is going to be one of the biggest sticking points for some calling for BYU to join the Big 12.
2. The church could mean complications
The Big 12 has not exactly had smooth sailing when it comes to its current private, faith-based school (Baylor), is the conference really gung-ho on adding another? BYU in particular has been difficult to deal with at times when it has been in other leagues and it hasn’t been able to completely shed that reputation. One other topic frequently mentioned is the fact that BYU cannot play on Sundays. That’s not a huge sticking point when it comes to revenue sports like football or men’s hoops but it gets a little trickier when you factor in soccer teams and baseball squads. Finally, the Longhorn Network has caused a number of complications for Big 12 leaders and they would have to deal with another in BYUtv, which isn’t simply a channel devoted to sports.
3. BYU may be hitting its glass ceiling
While the Cougars have had relative and sustained success in various sports over the years, one wonders if the athletic department is butting up against a bit of a glass ceiling. The basketball team has had lofty expectations and great players but has made only one Sweet Sixteen in the past 30 years. Fans who still can remember the 1984 national title in football are approaching the age where they’re no longer considered prime viewers by advertisers. In the Olympic sports, men’s volleyball and women’s cross country account for only four national titles since 2000. Add it all up and it’s more than most but not the overall picture of excellence some Big 12 leaders might be looking for given some of the negatives the school has. One also can’t help but wonder that with a new, first-time head football coach and a very difficult schedule in the near future if things are going to be somewhat rocky for BYU going forward and this is simply as good as things get in Provo.
Big 12 leaders have been fairly vague as to what the biggest thing they are looking for in a new school but whenever they’ve been forced to throw out some criteria, BYU tends to rank highly in most categories. Even the league’s coaches, in an ESPN poll, selected the Cougars as one of the two schools (Houston the other) they would have at the top of their expansion list.
What gets tricky is figuring out how many teams the Big 12 is going to take with all this expansion talk. If it’s just two schools, one could reason that it might make more sense from a geographic standpoint to build a bridge to West Virginia with a Cincinnati and/or Memphis. Perhaps Big 12 presidents simply don’t want to deal with some of the negatives associated with bringing in a BYU. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that the school has a lot going for it and could best be described as the top all-around candidate. The fact that a football-only invite could be on the table also probably helps the Cougars’ cause, especially if four invites are being handed out.
No matter what, it figures to be a nervous time around Provo the next couple of months. BYU should be confident that it has what it takes to join the Big 12 but when it comes to conference realignment, nothing is ever concrete and the ground always seems to be shifting with whatever way the wind is blowing.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.