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What if the Big 12 went away? Now seems like a good time to imagine what that’d look like

The conference just spent months accomplishing nothing more than a short-term financial boost.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Oklahoma v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

137 days ago, the Big 12 appeared to decide against expansion.

And it made sense in its own way. The conference elected to once again hold a title game despite already playing a perfect round robin. It was a money grab half-disguised as a way to give its champion a better shot at the College Football Playoff (good luck with that).

With Texas unlikely to approve of any scenario that involved ditching its Longhorn Network, it didn’t appear a Big 12 Network would have traction. In its absence, there was no need to expand beyond 10 teams. After all, if you can split conference title game proceeds 10 ways instead of 12, that’s more money.

Being that this is the Big 12, there were still some baffling decisions under consideration. Against all rules of logic, the league was leaning toward breaking into divisions. Again, despite playing a perfect round robin.

Divisions and title games were created when conferences began getting too big for perfect round robins, and creating two divisions when everybody plays everybody is pointless. You’re going to get a title game rematch no matter what, and now you could risk your Playoff hopeful in an extra game against your fourth-best team, just because of geography or some other pointless criteria.

Still, this felt like an actual conclusion, at least.

46 days later, the Big 12 decided to look into expansion.

The ACC got a far more favorable new TV deal than expected, the Big 12 decided it could potentially add anybody and make even more money, and overnight, odds of expansion went from zero percent to something far greater.

At some point in the proceeding 90 days ...

Whether Fox and ESPN put their foot down, Texas reminded everybody that it still had no interest in ditching LHN, or the Big 12 truly just couldn’t agree on teams ... we’re back to where we were 92 days ago. Good times.

Meanwhile, if this was simply a ham-fisted attempt at wringing more money out of TV partners, the Big 12 could have maybe talked to said partners privately before publicly getting the hopes of a lot of schools up for no reason.

The Big 12 was never under any obligation to expand, so it’s not like it made a right or wrong call Monday when it “unanimously” elected to remain at 10 members. But imagine being a supporter of one of the supposed finalists when board chairman David Boren said at a press conference Monday that he and his colleagues did not even discuss individual candidates at their meeting. [...]

So what exactly did Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Boren and the other nine presidents accomplish these past few months?

Well, for one, they blew off a whole bunch of earnest people who just wanted to associate with them. They ticked off their TV partners. And they subjected themselves to a new level of mockery.

And, in theory, a lot of schools voted against their long-term self-interest.

In 3,177 days, the Big 12’s media revenue-sharing deal expires.

When it does, the financial penalty for leaving the conference does, too. Conference expansion might have come with a grant-of-rights extension. In theory, that should have given member schools not named Oklahoma or Texas reason to consider expansion even if it meant giving Houston (a potential rival in a recruiting hotbed) major-conference status.

Instead, despite attempted talks of unity (“No one’s looking to walk away”), the countdown to the Big 12’s demise resumes and will continue until the grant of rights is extended. And few expect that to happen.

The landscape of college football could change drastically between now and the end of the 2024-25 academic year (when the grant of rights expires), but it might be worth considering now:

Which Big 12 free agents might be attractive to which conferences?

I discussed this with colleagues on Monday, and here’s the rough list I came up with:

  • ACC: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
  • Big Ten: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas
  • SEC: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, WVU
  • Pac-12: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech

From a pure geography standpoint, it is possible that a school like KSU or WVU could end up in the ACC pile.

Of course, it’s possible Baylor isn’t attractive to Stanford and the other Pac-12 programs because of off-the-field issues and/or its status as a private religious institution (of which there are zero in the Pac-12). And the Big Ten probably wouldn’t be enthusiastic about adding an Iowa State program that is just down the road (relatively speaking) from Iowa. Again, this is just a rough list.

Still, using that as a guide, who will have options, and who will be limited at best?

  • Four options: Oklahoma, Texas
  • Two options: Kansas, Oklahoma State, TCU
  • One option: Baylor, Iowa State, Texas Tech, WVU
  • No options: Kansas State

My recommendation for Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, and West Virginia: be very good at football between now and 2024. That’s your best path to conference survival.

My own guess has changed about three times between Monday night and now.

I assume the Pac-12 will push hard, knowing its only real expansion options are into Big 12 territory. Might it add the four Texas schools while the Big Ten and SEC fight for Oklahoma and Team B? Does basketball create an ACC lifeline for Kansas if it isn’t the Big Ten’s Team B?

By the way, if you’re looking for a way for this to turn into the “four 16-team super-conferences” moment so many have envisioned, the math doesn’t quite work out.

You would basically need something like the following:

  • The ACC makes Notre Dame a full-time member and adds Kansas
  • The Big Ten adds either Iowa State or Kansas State and either Oklahoma or Texas
  • The SEC adds Oklahoma State and West Virginia
  • The Pac-12 to add Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, and either Oklahoma or Texas.

Not likely.

No. 5 among the Power 5

Not only did the Big 12 elect not to make its conference sturdier down the line, it also chose to make its product slightly worse in the short-term, no matter what Fox Sports president Eric Shanks says:

We don’t think expansion in the Big 12 is a good idea for the conference. We think it will be dilutive to the product in the short-term. In the long-term, it’s probably harmful to the future of the conference.

Long-term, maybe. But the Big 12’s already got a little bit of a “dilution” problem. Of the nine remaining undefeated power conference teams, they have the two lowest-ranked: No. 9 Baylor and No. 12 West Virginia. And in the S&P+ rankings, the conference has only two teams ranked better than 24th. Its average S&P+ rating is easily the worst among the Power Five.

Average S&P+ rating by conference

1. SEC (+9.3)
2. ACC (+8.6)
3. Big Ten (+7.3)
4. Pac-12 (+6.6)
5. Big 12 (+6.1)

Among the group of original expansion candidates, Houston or Boise State would currently rank third in the Big 12 in S&P+, USF would rank fourth, and San Diego State or BYU would rank sixth.

There wasn’t a home run candidate, but there were quite a few capable of raising the conference’s current caliber.

I was selfishly rooting for Houston to get the nod, simply because I wanted to see if Tom Herman could pull off what Howard Schnellenberger did at Miami by building a wall around a talent-rich city and creating the State of Houston. The odds weren’t great, but if you want to talk about a new college football out-of-nowhere heavyweight, that was probably your best bet. Houston’s chances of holding onto Herman just diminished drastically.

The domino (non-)effect

Not only did the Big 12 get candidate schools’ hopes up for no reason, it gave others a glimpse at a better future, as well.

If the AAC lost a couple of teams to the Big 12, it would have likely plucked two more from a conference like Conference USA. Then Conference USA would have looked for two new schools, as well. A program like New Mexico State, looking desperately for a home at the FBS level, might’ve found it.

During this contentious election season, this divided nation must come together on one important issue: the next time Boren or Bowlsby open their mouths, we should not listen.