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Why Cincinnati Should or Shouldn't Join the Big 12

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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.

Related: Ranking the Big 12 Expansion Candidates

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? We’ve already gone over the case for and against BYU and Boise State, but what about American Athletic Conference (AAC) power Cincinnati?

Three Reasons Why Cincinnati Should Join the Big 12

1. They’re the perfect travel partner for West Virginia

There has been plenty of talk in expansion-palooza about the conference finding a travel partner for West Virginia, which is often talked about as being out on an island given its distance from most member schools. Cincinnati is basically on the way from the Big 12’s base in Texas and Oklahoma to West Virginia and a manageable drive away from Morgantown. Plus, both know each other well from their days in the old Big East.

2. New market for the conference

The Bearcats have a strong local fan base that helps fill up the games during football and men’s basketball season. While they don’t quite have the numbers of some others, it’s a very solid base and it helps that Cincinnati has the No. 36 television market in the country. Ohio has mostly been Big Ten country, but adding Cincy to a power conference would certainly help make inroads for Big 12 teams in this part of the country too.

3. Strong overall football program and athletic department

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Cincinnati was a trendy pick to win the AAC last year in football but picked an inopportune time to slide back on expectations. Still, the sport that is driving all this expansion is still pretty solid when taking the macro view given that the Bearcats have captured five conference titles in the past decade and made a bowl game (including two BCS bowls) in all but one year dating back to 2006. Their track record in hiring coaches is impressive with Mark Dantonio, Brian Kelly and Butch Jones predating current veteran head coach Tommy Tuberville. A recent $86 million renovation to Nippert Stadium also is a point in the school’s favor, as is a quality men’s basketball team.

Three Reasons Why Cincinnati Shouldn’t Join the Big 12

1. They’ll still be second fiddle in the region to Ohio State and others

Ohio is highly regarded for the quality and quantity of high school athletes it produces but when it comes to elite players, they typically are not making their way to Cincinnati. The state itself has been rooting solidly for the Buckeyes for ages and Notre Dame, Michigan, and other Big Ten programs are all within driving distance. Even nearby Louisville has a better profile and after the Big 12 missed out on adding the Cardinals a few years ago, some may feel that adding Cincinnati is just trying to make up for that.

2. The academics are not as strong as others and there is no president

The school has certainly stepped things up on the academic front and boasts an impressive endowment that would be in the top third of the Big 12. Despite such progress, Cincinnati still lags behind other candidates like BYU and UConn in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. Complicating matters is the fact that school president Santa Ono, who worked hard to get the Bearcats on the Big 12’s radar, recently left for another university and his replacement isn’t likely to start until 2017. That means the key leader in pitching the Big 12 appears to be athletic director Mike Bohn, who awkwardly helped lead Colorado out of the league a few years ago.

3. The athletic department is fairly subsidized by the school

In terms of size and athletic budget, Cincinnati would be at the bottom of the Big 12 and that’s to be expected given that they are outside the Power Five. However, while the Bearcats have a solid profile, it does stand out that 44 percent of the athletic budget is subsidized by the school, according to USA Today figures. That percentage is on the high end of potential Big 12 candidates and when you factor in the program getting a decent amount of TV revenue from the AAC, it’s possible the school won’t want as much of a sweetheart deal when it comes to phasing in Big 12 revenue as others.

Final Verdict

Cincinnati has been in contact with the Big 12 about a move to the Power Five for nearly two years now and it hasn’t exactly been a well-kept secret. While the Bearcats have lost one of their biggest champions in former president Santa Ono, they are nevertheless a strong candidate to be nabbed in this round of conference expansion and perhaps the best all-around school for the Big 12 when you consider all of the criteria that the presidents are likely looking at.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Bearcats appear to have the key support of Oklahoma president David Boren — who has largely driven the topic of Big 12 expansion. That is going to count for a lot when it comes time to tally votes and is a big reason why most believe Cincinnati is at the top of the list commissioner Bob Bowlsby is looking over. Being a travel partner for West Virginia (school president Gordon Gee is on the expansion subcommittee and is familiar with the school from his time at Ohio State) is a big, big plus and the university is located closer to Iowa State and the Kansas schools than Memphis, UConn, Houston and BYU.

There’s been a lot of talk about divisions in the Big 12 and if the league decides to bring back a North/South split, it makes a lot of sense to see Cincinnati in the former group. You can never be certain when it comes to something like college realignment but one has to like the Bearcats’ chances of getting an invite no matter if it’s two or four golden tickets being handed out.

— 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.

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)