by Rob Joyce
The conference carousel is at it again. Just a few years removed from a complete overhaul around college athletics, the Big 12 is looking to potentially expand once more, thus starting another domino effect. There are currently 10 teams in the Big 12, compared to 14 teams in the Big Ten, 16 in the ACC and a dozen in the Pac-12, and their lack of a conference championship game in football is largely suspected to be the reason why the conference was left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff two years ago.
So as the Big 12 looks to add more teams, fans around Connecticut have naturally been pining for UConn, who was left out of the first round of changes and are now in a non-Power 5 conference in the American Athletic Conference. Here are the resumes of potential expansion candidates, and how they compare to the Huskies:
UConn suffered the bad luck of having their worst football years in the FBS era at the same time expansion was occurring, thus making the school an unattractive choice. And despite the spectacular success of the men’s and women’s basketball teams (not to mention field hockey’s national titles, baseball’s recent postseason runs, hockey’s growth, etc.), football is the only real driving force. Bob Diaco bringing the program back to a bowl game this year and having them on the rise is a major advantage this time around.
Then there’s the geographical disadvantage. The nearest Big 12 school is West Virginia, where Milan Puskar Stadium is 500 miles from Rentschler Field. You have to go all the way to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas to find the next closest opponents. Still, between the prestige of the overall athletic program and the reputable academic standing the school features, it’s the most attractive option.
Going by a strictly-football standard, the Cougars would be a lock, as they have the best tradition of any other potential candidate. And the football team can overcome not being within 800 miles of any other school. However, this is one case where other sports play a more significant factor that most other schools. For one, flying 800 miles (or more) six or seven times a year (or more) for every sport at the school can get expensive quickly. And because of the school’s policy of not playing in games on Sundays, the conference would have to re-arrange a lot of schedules. Baseball plays Friday-Sunday conference series, basketball games are scheduled for Sundays occasionally, plus conference tournaments almost always leak into Sundays, etc.
If this is 2013, when UCF blasted Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, this is a different conversation. It’s 2016, and the Knights are coming off an 0-12 season with a bleak future. Though it can’t appear to be any worse, it would seemingly take a lot of time for the program to become remotely competitive in football. One bright side would be a conference member in Florida, which is the hottest recruiting state in the country every year.
The Bearcats would be a perfectly acceptable candidate in football, having been to bowl games in five straight, nine of 10 and 13 of the last 16 years. They are far away from most schools, but West Virginia is farther so the precedent has been set. And they are reportedly getting corporate support from locally-based companies like Macy’s and Kroger. And after years of playing in a too-small Nippert Stadium, they expanded seating capacity to 40,000 last year. That doesn’t exactly compare to the 100,000 Texas holds, but it’s enough for now.
Recency bias can work the way of UH, who is coming off a 13-1 season and a Peach Bowl shellacking of Florida State. Also in Houston’s favor is their location – being in Houston they are in the heart of Big 12 country. Thirdly, Houston is a top-five media market. Though the average fan doesn’t think of Houston Cougar sports with starry eyes, they are a legitimate program that would make a major impact in the Big 12.
The NCAA is no different than any other business – money talks. From an on-field perspective Memphis had its most successful football season ever in 2015, but they’re looking at an uncertain future with the departure of head coach Justin Fuente and low-grade facilities. However, Memphis-based FedEx is in talks to send a few million dollars the Big 12’s way to sponsor championship game. Being in Tennessee, therefore reasonably close to other conference schools, Memphis (and FedEx) is an attractive option.