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The recruiting case for adding Houston to the Big 12

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Welcome to The Crootletter (sign up to get this in your inbox!). I'm Bud Elliott, SB Nation's National Recruiting Analyst, and in this space I'll be sharing news, rumors and musings on the world of college football recruiting as well as the occasional gambling column.

The Big 12 is off to an awful start to the 2016 football season. Preseason favorites Oklahoma and TCU have already suffered upset losses in the non-conference slate. The league is just 5-7 vs. FBS schools. Seven of 10 schools have at least one loss through two weeks, the worst mark among the Power 5 leagues. Yikes.

Times are tough in the Midlands. It’s clear that the league, which has not won a national title in a decade, needs to produce elite teams more consistently. It does not need to add more depth of very good teams, which leads to more losses for its contenders.

Yet, there is much buzz centered around potential Big 12 expansion, with one obvious candidate being Houston, the school that took down the Sooners and is currently No. 6 in the AP Poll, trying to crash the Playoff party.

One stated reason for the Big 12 expanding has been to increase its chances of getting to the Playoff. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly has already covered why expanding and adding a championship game probably hurts a league’s chances more than it helps. As SB Nation’s recruiting guru, I look at things through the recruiting lens.

Texas is a loaded state for high school recruits. Schools in the city limits of Houston have produced about six or seven four- or five-star recruits annually over the last few years, plus about 20 more three-stars. Harris County produces even more. It’s a hotbed for elite talent.

Houston’s own recruiting would improve in the Big 12.

This seems pretty obvious. Houston has recently been the best recruiter in the Group of 5, due to location, playing style, a dynamic young coaching staff, and a commitment to upgrading facilities.

But playing in a Power 5 league is important to many top recruits and a current barrier to some considering the Cougars. It’s likely the Cougars can go from signing four blue-chip prospects in four years to signing a handful per year, if they get in the Big 12.

How would adding Houston impact recruiting at Texas and Oklahoma, though?

On the one hand, it’s pretty easy to see the success that the SEC has had in Texas, after adding Texas A&M in 2012. But I’m not so sure it would have the same effect on the Big 12, because the conference already recruits the area so heavily, whereas much of the SEC did not. I do not believe that bringing Houston into the fold would fully counter the conference-wide recruiting effects of Texas A&M’s exit.

Houston would probably win a small handful of recruiting battles against the Longhorns and Sooners if it joined the league. That would slightly weaken the rosters at the long-term top of the conference.

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But adding Houston would definitely hurt recruiting at the league’s second-tier programs.

As Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said to the Tulsa World, UH is bad news for some programs.

“The concern is, and where that comment is coming from, is if your northern schools put a southern school, and another school in Texas, in the same league, that essentially is going to pull recruits from all of us,” Gundy said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

“Anyone that’s not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league,” he reiterated.

“Your Texas high schools and Texas high school coaches, they’re tight,” Gundy said. “That’s a tight-knit group down there. They’re always good to accommodate us, but a percentage of them would just as soon a kid go to a Texas school before they’d leave and go to any school outside the state of Texas.”

Gundy’s comments are shockingly candid. A Big 12 Houston could absolutely win recruiting battles against the likes of TCU, Texas Tech, Baylor, and Oklahoma State a lot more often than it could against Texas or Oklahoma.

Adding Houston would increase the overall talent level in the league. But it could also widen the talent gap between Texas/Oklahoma and the rest of the conference. (Yes, I realize how silly this sounds, considering Houston just soundly defeated Oklahoma, but I am considering this on a longer timeline).

The Big 12’s talent issue could make Houston worth it, though.

There’s not an easy solution for getting more talent into the conference. Texas is loaded with talent, Oklahoma has some, and the states of Kansas, Iowa, and West Virginia produce almost no elite recruits.

West of the league’s geographic footprint: desert and mountains that don’t produce elite talent. The Pac-12’s talent-rich California does not seem to be a consistent option for most schools. Despite Houston’s likely limited impact, it’s probably the top recruiting option.

Otherwise, it is absolutely the best option, considering how much the city is growing and the potential to add a conference championship game to a 12-team race, which might draw actual interest from fans regionally.

The Big 12 needs Texas to play to its recruiting level and Oklahoma to continue its recruiting surge.

The solution to the Big 12’s lack of elite teams problem is not expansion, but rather for the team that recruits at an elite level to play to its talent level. That would be Texas and, if it continues to recruit well, Oklahoma. Like most leagues not named the SEC, the Big 12 needs its top few programs to carry it nationally, as other Big 12 members have more defined resource ceilings.

All national title winners since the dawn of the BCS era have signed more four- and five-star recruits in the previous four recruiting classes.

Texas has done that, hitting the 50-percent mark. The Longhorns have gone through growing pains (20 losses in the last five seasons) and staff changes under Charlie Strong, but Texas does seem to finally be on the right track. If it is, more of the state’s elite recruits will follow. The program is capable of having the best roster in college football.

When Houston knocked off Oklahoma, it was looked at nationally as a national title contender going down. Indeed, the Sooners won the Big 12 and made the Playoff in 2015 and returned much of their roster in 2016. But only 36 percent of Oklahoma’s signees in the last four classes have been four- and five-stars, good for second in the Big 12. That does not meet the threshold for the national title. The Sooners have been recruiting better in recent years after taking a dip with the 2013 and 2014 classes. If Oklahoma continues its recent hot streak in recruiting, it should have a roster resembling national title winners of recent years.

No other school in the Big 12 is even close to recruiting at a traditional title level. Oklahoma State, TCU and Baylor are all around 14 percent and trending in different directions. If the Big XII does not expand, it seems likely that the bulk of the top players who would have gone to free-falling Baylor will end up at Texas, Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State. Houston could take the place of and perhaps recruit even better than Baylor did, keeping teams like TCU and Oklahoma State down more than it would damage Texas and Oklahoma.

Adding Houston wouldn’t fix that, but if it makes the league more talented overall and dilutes the talent on the teams most likely to give Texas or Oklahoma a Playoff-disqualifying loss, it’s a good move from a big-picture recruiting perspective.

Houston and who else, though?

If the Big 12 takes Houston, recruiting is probably not going to be the biggest factor for the other expansion team. But it’s worth looking at candidates like Cincinnati and USF, who make sense from the perspective of adding a more regional partner for West Virginia. The Mountaineers probably didn’t figure they would spend five seasons in their new league without a drive-able road game for their fans. Assuming they don’t tank badly upon joining the new league as teams often do, Cincinnati or South Florida would likely experience some recruiting bump by virtue of joining the Power 5.

But would it help the other teams in the league?

Ohio and especially Florida are states with elite talent, though I don’t know about the idea that recruits who are not wanted by programs like Ohio State, Florida, and Florida State would pick up and head to top Big 12 programs instead of choosing offers from closer SEC schools. Geography matters in recruiting so much more than most want to admit, and the rough geographic center of the Big 12 (Oklahoma) is more than a 12-hour drive from Cincinnati or Tampa. The logistical and financial hardship of playing so far away from home is a challenge in signing recruits from other regions.