A few days ago I wrote this article under the assumption that the first move in college football realignment would be Missouri to the Big Ten.
How quickly things change.
With Colorado already in the Pac-10 and Nebraska appearing poised to go to the Big Ten, the Big 12 has a new set of challenges in keeping itself viable as a conference. Assuming everything else stays the same, at least for now, the league will need an impressive pair of teams to replace the dearly departed.
First, let's look at characteristics of a potential Big 12 replacement.
Large Enrollment Numbers
Other than Baylor, which is a private school with enrollment of around 13,000, the smallest schools in the Big 12 are Kansas State and Oklahoma State, each with around 23,000 students. That means a school would need at least 20,000 students for inclusion, unless there are outstanding circumstances, such as being a private or military institution.
Media Market Expansion
The Big 12 as currently constituted controls Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Iowa State does very little for a media market in Iowa, outside of the Ames area. The league will look for schools outside it's current footprint to replace the lost markets provided by Nebraska and Colorado.
It's tough to quantify exactly how many eyeballs those two schools attracted. The population of the two states combined is about 7 million.
Nebraska must pull in plenty of TV's, considering they are at the top of the Big Ten's list, and it's not like they need Nebraska for money.
The best idea of national appeal for a football program may come from bowl appearance ratings. Last year's Holiday Bowl between Nebraska and Arizona got a rating of 4.31 . That was good enough for eighth in non-BCS bowl game ratings.
Such a low rating could be blamed on Arizona, but the game was beaten by Arkansas-East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl (4.38) and North Carolina-Pittsburgh in the Meineke Car Care Bowl (4.56).
Nebraska's rating in the Holiday bowl is lower than other recent Holiday Bowls, but they have performed well in other bowls. Their Gator Bowl in '08 was better than most. The '06 Cotton was below average, but their '05 Alamo was outstanding.
While not exactly king makers, the loss of Nebraska will be a market share that must be made up for. Colorado has a much more limited supply of similar data due to their lack of recent bowl game participation.
The assumption must be made that the Big 12 would hope for at least two things from replacement programs; a program with the potential to pull in a large market to replace Colorado and a program that can provide marquee, national television games to replace Nebraska.
Hawaii and UConn could fit the mold of new programs to join the league. However, their lack of proximity to the rest of the conference makes it unjustifiable to fly the volleyball team from Lubbock to New Haven on a Thursday night.
A solution to the proximity problem for new members: travel partners. If two schools are located close to each other, yet far away from the main body of the conference, the new schools could still make sense.
The volleyball team could fly to one place, play on Thursday, drive to the other, play on Saturday, and fly back. Schools in smaller conferences do this all the time.
The reason Texas is being recruited by the Pac-10 and Big Ten is mostly because of the amount of revenue they would bring to each conference. Texas' academic reputation seals the deal. They are an American Association of Universities member and highly ranked in the US News university rankings. Texas A&M has the same qualities.
Part of the reason other conferences are intriguing to Texas' brass is because they would raise the university's academic profile.
The reverse is also be true. Texas will not allow tier four or be excited about a pair of tier three schools joining the conference. That would diminish their academic profile as much as the Big Ten would enhance it. This is classic guilt by association.
Throughout the entire expansion discussion, on-field performance is rarely discussed, and doesn't seem to matter. (See Colorado to the Pac-10.)
Without a doubt Nebraska was the North's counter-balance to Texas in the South. Nebraska is a large institution with great academics, a great athletic program, and a storied, though slumping, yet on the verge of re-emerging football program.
Performance will matter more to the Big 12 than it does for the Pac-10 or Big Ten when considering which schools to invite.
Arkansas, LSU/Memphis - If the Big 12 is going to expand they might as well swing for the fences. With the reported new TV deal being proposed by Fox Sports, it could be lucrative enough to lure the type of schools the Big 12 would need to maintain its viability moving forward.
LSU is such a natural fit in the SEC, it would be hard to fathom them leaving. However, we could have said the same thing about Nebraska a year ago.
Arkansas and Memphis would make geographic sense in the Big 12 North, where Arkansas would be instantly competitive. Memphis' enrollment is just 15,000, but they would add a good television market.
If the money is right, anything could happen. (I don't see this happening.)
Utah, BYU, Air Force, Colorado State - BYU and Air Force have been most recently mentioned in Big 12 expansion scenarios. Any of the four would fit well into the North. All have respectable, if not good academics.
The question becomes how much do these schools move the dial? BYU and Air Force have the most national appeal and Utah has a great reputation for performance in football and basketball. Colorado State would be the least likely choice, but they have close proximity and a large enrollment.
Two of these would be the easiest to entice into the Big 12, while not the splashiest of moves.
Louisville, Cincinnati - If the Big Ten begins poaching from the Big East, you could see these schools looking for a conference. Louisville and Cincinnati are the closest in proximity to the Big 12 and only about a two hour drive from each other. Both have had varying degrees of success in football, though Louisville has suffered through a couple of rough years recently.
Both are tier three schools, however, and would not improve the academic landscape of the Big 12. While Louisville has significantly upgraded their football and basketball facilities, both are historically basketball schools, which obviously doesn't matter in the new world of college athletics.
Grouping these two in the North with Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri would be quite the basketball gauntlet, but not unfamiliar territory after leaving the Big East.
Pitt, West Virginia - See Louisville, Cincinnati above. The difference is these two are much further outside the Big 12 media sphere and have no real connection to the Big 12.
The football for these two schools is historically better than that of Louisville and Cincinnati. Pitt is a better school than the other three Big East possibilities and would be enticing in that regard.
South Florida, Central Florida - This would require a change in thinking and a lot of market research by the conference. They are two of the top 10 universities in the nation in terms of enrollment, UCF being behind only Arizona State and Ohio State.
The drawback is reputation and performance. The schools themselves are very young; UCF was established in 1963, USF in 1956. Their football programs are even younger. USF began in FCS in 1997 and didn't move to FBS until 2001. UCF began football in 1979, but didn't move to FBS until 2006.
Both have reached bowl games in their short time in the FBS. UCF gave Texas a scare in 2007 before losing 35-32 and USF reached a No. 2 ranking in the AP poll in the same season.
Since the schools are so young, they do not have a great academic reputation or a solid foundation in athletics. However, the combination would make an intriguing addition to the Big 12.
Notre Dame, Anyone They Choose - Talk about swinging for the fences. Notre Dame would be the ultimate steal for the Big 12. They have everything the conference could want except a geographic connection. The selling point for Notre Dame would have to be money and new access for Notre Dame to the Texas recruiting pipeline.
The Big 12 would have to sweeten the deal by allowing Notre Dame to bring its own travel partner. Possibilities could be Boston College, Pittsburgh, or Navy, none of which make for easy travel for the current Big 12 schools.