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Opinion | What Big 12 survival may look like

With Texas and Oklahoma officially leaving the conference they headlined, what would survival look like for the Big 12?

WACO, Texas — It's as if a West Texas ranch lost all its cattle.

Texas and Oklahoma are both gone, as if in the middle of the night, leaving the Big 12 Conference they headlined for 25 years for the SEC.

As interesting a move as it may be for either school, sport depending, but one they formally requested Tuesday.

So, we wanted to take a look at what survival might look like for the Big 12 Conference with its eight remaining schools.

There are two options:

  1. The Big 12 expands out of necessity
  2. The eight remaining schools join other conferences

Let's focus on Option 1: expansion.

"The remaining eight institutions will work together in a collaborative manner to thoughtfully and strategically position the Big 12 Conference for continued success, both athletically and academically, long into the future," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Monday in a statement after receiving the schools' departure notification.

If Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State and West Virginia all stay in the Big 12, what schools do they look to for expansion?

The first phone call I'm making, if I'm the conference, is to the University of Nebraska. The Huskers were a founding member of the Big 12 and left during the first bout with realignment for the Big Ten.

Nebraska hasn't been competitive in the Big Ten since 2016, the last time it finished with a winning percentage above .500 in conference play. If Nebraska were to return, and get back to its 1990s and Big 12-level form, it could easily become the bell cow of the conference.

In the Huskers' 15 years as a Big 12 school, they won six Big 12 North Division championships and a pair of conference championships.

In the 10 seasons since, it won one Big Ten Legends Division championship, when it then got smacked in the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game. The problem here becomes the payout.

In the 2020 fiscal year, the Big Ten paid its member schools $54.3 million. That's a massive raise from the Big 12's roughly $35 million.

Nebraska would have to find that worthwhile, which would be a tough sell to regents, administration and fans.

The next call I'm making is to the University of Houston.

The Cougars have a strong athletic department and have shown the ability to compete with Power 5 schools in football as recently as the 2015 season, when Houston upended Florida State in the Peach Bowl.

The Cougars opened a new stadium, TDECU Stadium, in 2014 which holds 40,000. It would be the smallest stadium in the conference, but only by 5,000 seats and, if TCU has proven anything in its Big 12 tenure, it's that stadiums can always be renovated.

In other sports, Houston sports a new arena for a basketball team which just made the Final Four and a baseball team which has recently hosted NCAA Regionals.

Plus, there's the fact that the Big 12 lost its Houston-area footprint when Texas A&M bolted for the SEC in 2012. UH was a late-admission member of the Southwest Conference before its dissolution and frequently plays (or, in the case of 2020, attempts to play) Power 5 schools.

The addition of Houston also maintains market holdings in all four corners of one of the most recruited states in the country in football, something that will be valuable to the entire conference in recruiting.

For the next two schools, the conference is going to need to find its way in to new geographic areas of the country.

Enter BYU and UCF.

BYU offers something that is becoming a commodity in college football, thanks in large part to the Pac 12's non-ideal television contract putting the west coast games after most people have started going to bed on a Saturday night: a West Coast footprint.

BYU has been very active in seeking Power 5 status for the past decade. The hard part for Bowlsby would be selling the other members that working around BYU's inability to play games on Sunday is worth it (and it is). Truly, the Sunday caveat in scheduling only affects "non-revenue sports," because the Big 12 doesn't currently play football or men's basketball on Sundays.

Having a presence and recruiting footprint west of the Rocky Mountains, combined with West Virginia staying (if this plan were to unfold like this) and a potential UCF addition would make the Big 12 a coast-to-coast league.

BYU is a football program with the same number of national championships and Heisman Trophy winners as Oklahoma State, who has a case to be made for remaining Big 12 bell cow.

The Cougars are a national football brand, even if not to the level Oklahoma and Texas had attained prior to their departure for the SEC. The schools' revenue is comparable with current Power 5 schools and is more than any Group of 5 program in the country, including every school in its former conference (the Mountain West).

UCF is the hot commodity in college football right now, enjoying extreme success since 2013, when it finished 12-1 with a 52-42 win over Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Since the start of the 2013 season, UCF has had just two losing seasons and has made three BCS/New Year's 6 bowl games.

The Knights recently hired Gus Malzahn, formerly of Auburn, to replace Josh Heupel as head football coach. Malzahn was highly successful as a head coach in the SEC and is an indicator of where UCF is trying to move toward as an athletic department.

The Knights have been in the spotlight, plenty, in their time in the American Athletic Conference but to no financial benefit for the program.

There is also a benefit to bringing them in that is obvious when you see the school's full name: the University of Central Florida.

If this plan unfolded as laid out in this article, that would give the Big 12 a footprint in three of the six most important states in college football recruiting. It also strengthens your presence in the eastern time zone, keeping West Virginia from being the lone outlier.

The drawback to inviting UCF is its status as a commuter school. But, it's not a UTSA-type commuter school with little-to-no athletic history.

Since joining the American, the Knights have the same number of BCS/NY6 bowl appearances as one of the more vocal schools in the Big 12: Baylor.

The point is the options for the Big 12 are limited. If the conference is going to survive and the eight remaining schools are going to maintain a mostly middle-America power conference, expansion is essential.

Otherwise, we could be looking at a Big 12 that gets sold for parts like the old Southwest Conference was.

We could be looking at Iowa State and Kansas to the Big Ten (they're the lone AAU schools in the remaining eight) while everyone else gets divided among the Pac 12, ACC and American.

But the Big 12 and its members have to figure out a plan, and fast.

Because this is going to have a massive impact on the campuses, in their communities and on the pocketbooks of every single one of their fans.

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