The Big Ten Conference has announced that they are basically capping their league at twelve members. This is more than a bit anticlimactic for all of the people putting forward the "4 Super-Conferences" theory, but a relief for those of us who kind of like playing teams from the middle of America during the conference seasons of our various sports. With the Big Ten -- and, in all likelihood, the Pac 12, as they're going to have to adjust to their new look for awhile -- out of the conference expansion game, where does that leave the Big 12? What about the Big East?
As the only two BCS conferences with less than 12 members, the Big East and the Big 12 (ironic, right?), may experience some pressure to expand to that seemingly magic number. The pressure on the Big East is far greater, given their recent run of terrible BCS qualifiers, and they've taken a first step toward ameliorating that deficiency (in the short run, anyway) by adding TCU in all sports. Their situation is much more complicated than that of the Big 12, however, given the unwieldy (and nearly unmanageable) nature of the basketball side of their league. Once TCU joins, the basketball side of their conference will be at 17 (!!!) teams, leaving two basic options: (1) Cut one basketball-only school (see ya, DePaul), and convince Villanova to move up to FBS football, leaving them with 16 basketball teams, and 10 football teams; or (2) Cut two basketball-only school (goodbye, DePaul and Seton Hall), convince Villanova and Georgetown (the only other FCS football school in the conference) to move up to FBS football, and add Memphis, UCF or maybe East Carolina in all sports. This would leave them with 16 basketball teams, and 12 football teams.
After the jump, we'll take a look at what the Big 12's options are going forward.
In reality, the Big 12's position is more semantically awkward than it is financially awkward. The way I see it, the main problem the league faces for the next few years is all the jokes about being the league who has less teams than their name. But at some point, this issue will be addressed. What will that look like? First, I don't see the powers-that-Beebe (see what I did there?) doing much on this front until the television contracts get closer to the end (around 2015, I believe). I anticipate the league will get truly serious about expanding back to 12 teams in about 3 or 4 years, depending on the aforementioned expiry of the television contracts. Once that occurs, I think there will be only five or six teams on the "short list" to be added to the conference. Below, I will take a brief look at each team I think might be targeted for expansion, and the reasons why I think these teams make sense. I will look at each as a "two-pack", since that is how they will have to come in to the conference. (Think about it as how the Pac 10 added CU and Utah.)
1. Notre Dame and Memphis: Notre Dame brings a national brand, football tradition, and a decent basketball team most seasons as well. Their national footprint as far as their alumni and fans go can not be overstated. This two-pack would be the ultimate coup, and would -- at least in my opinion -- solidify the conference's future for as long as it will matter to any of us. Memphis brings no football credibility (at least currently), but is in an interesting (read: not tiny) market, and has a solid basketball tradition. Both ND and Memphis would fit nicely in a reconstructed North Division.
2. Arizona and Arizona State: This would be a coup not too far behind landing ND. While the schools are a bit outside the traditional footprint of the Big 12, they'd slide into a reconstituted South Division, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State joining the North. Both teams aren't awful in football, and Arizona has a great basketball tradition. Where this helps the most, though, is in opening the Phoenix market, and in hurting the Pac 12. (And you know that we all want to see Larry Scott experience the proverbial pain of losing two of his original Pac 10 teams to the league he tried to destroy!)
3. BYU and Air Force Academy: I think this is the least-attractive of my three scenarios, but it's not without it's advantages. The two would settle nicely into a reformed North Division, and BYU does have something of a national brand. Air Force opens up the Colorado television market again, as BYU does for Utah (and Mormons everywhere). And wouldn't those Baptists versus Mormons crossover games be fun!
Looking forward, I think that in ten years, we're going to see a Big 12 that is truly "12" again, along with a Big East that is either 10 or 12. Of the two conferences, the most likely to implode (in my view, anyway) is the Big East. They have far more issues to deal with, both logistically (on the basketball and non-revenue generating sports side) and competitively (on the football side) going forward than the Big 12 does. If they actually do implode, then all bets will be off, and there might just end up being a race to see who can get to 16 teams the fastest by absorbing the best of the explosions leftovers between the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, and SEC. One way or the other, the next ten years are going to be exciting times to be a college sports fan!