Preseason media days are a time to fill the normally-stale media cycle surrounding college football. After an offseason of reflection, recruiting, and conjecture, it’s the first time in the new year that fans and media members alike get a chance to start talking about the upcoming year.
For each conference, that means different things. For the SEC, it’s an introduction of a power league with a pedigree built on championship after championship, the home of the defending CFP crown-holders. For the ACC, it’s the strengthening of a power league, a new era beginning the move from the volatile realignment period towards competition with the other southern league.
Sandwiched between the two leagues’ media kickoffs was the Big 12. The Big 12 remains in a precarious position. After fighting for the deregulation of the conference championship game rules, the conference dealt with realignment and expansion discussions.
After initially fighting off those talks, the summer preseason is beginning with the league right in the center of the storm once more. With the ACC set to kick off its own network, the SEC standing as the biggest dog in the yard, and the rising empires in both the Big Ten and Pac-12, the southwest area is getting lost in the shuffle of what once was the biggest, most powerful league in the nation.
Earlier this week, the conference unanimously announced it would review applications and explore the possibility of expansion. That means that despite all of the strengthening of leagues, we wind up right back where we began, trying to figure out who could go, where the league could look, and how it could, once again, destabilize college football.
The Big 12 is built on the footprint of the old Southwest Conference and the Big 8 Conference. When the SWC collapsed in the 1990s, the Big 8 expanded by a factor of four, taking Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor.
In doing so, the footprint of the league drastically changed from a central American demographic stretching Iowa through Kansas down in Oklahoma. It became a league centered around Oklahoma and Texas, and today has just three teams located in the central plains where the Big 8 laid its roots.
If the league wants to expand, it’s likely to do so by a factor of two to keep an even number of teams for clean divisions and scheduling. More than likely, this means one team from the league’s current geographic footprint and one team that allows it to start putting media footholds down on a national level since every other power league either already has or is going to.
To stay in the current geographic footprint, they would have to expand within Texas. Houston is looking more and more like a team headed back to power football. After winning the AAC, they avoided losing Tom Herman in the coaching carousel and are coming off of a New Year’s Six bowl win over Florida State.
Adding Houston doesn’t so much increase the league’s exposure but instead limits another league’s ability to expand into Texas. The SEC moved into the Lone Star State when it grabbed Texas A&M. If another league grabbed Houston, they now have a chance to invade the heart and soul of “Big 12 Country.”
There’s a back story to Houston as well. The University of Texas is trying to open a satellite campus in the city but is facing stiff competition from UH officials. There’s talk that UH would be willing to drop that opposition if the Cougars became one of the expansion targets. It’s an angle drawing support from both the governor and lieutenant governor of the entire state, but the league requires eight of ten votes to accept a team. The six non-Texas members could potentially take a stand against adding another Texas team.
That leads to other targets. West Virginia joined the Big 12 to flat out bolt the Big East, joining a league where it has absolutely no geographic affiliation whatsoever. It’s no secret WVU wants a team closer to home, which leads the league looking east at Cincinnati and Memphis, both of which are metropolitan media markets.
BYU is a popular target and among the leaders to join the Big 12 (along with Houston) since the Cougars come with their own national network and an absolutely huge fan base. But if the league wants to make this a purely driven move about media, Colorado State could provide a link back to Denver, which is right within the geographic footprint the Big 12 used to have.
You’ll notice there’s one team I’m not mentioning here, one with more of local angle. Connecticut is an incredibly intriguing team for realignment because their basketball programs are among the best in the nation. Their women’s program is an attraction unto themselves, and their men’s team is, without question, a powerhouse.
But I go back to something that I’ve mentioned before. While UConn is a very good athletics school, it’s marooned on an island of misfit toys. Football is the driving force for realignment, and the Huskies are clearly surpassed on the gridiron by several of the other options. Simply put, I don’t think UConn is going to be the target, and I could have an article here outlining every reason why. Someone can think they’re negligible, but they exist, which is more than what we can say about Cincinnati or BYU - where the number of negatives aren’t nearly the same.
Why am I bringing this up? I’ve often talked about that UConn game late in the year as a Super Bowl-type game for the Huskies. I’m convinced it’s going to be. If the Huskies are passed over in this round of expansion (and most signs are pointing to yes there), they’re going to have something to prove in November. That’s something to keep an eye on.
UConn has a Napoleonic complex that it belongs in a power conference. They have a chip on their shoulder, whether you believe it should be there or not. They blame much of this on Boston College. If they’re passed over again, that game in Chestnut Hill won’t so much be a game against a local team; for the Huskies, it’s going to be a game against everyone who caused them to be in a position they don’t believe they should be in.